Within the vast canon of East Asian and East Asian American filmmaking, only a small number of films catch the attention of the Western entertainment industry. But among those, so few address queerness that that genre—queer Asian filmmaking—is scant at best. Folks in diasporic communities wanting to find East Asian characters who aren't represented as villains and sidekicks or queer narratives that aren't laced with outdated stereotypes are often out of luck.
Which makes the arrival of two groundbreaking works that do just that this year—veteran Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook's The Handmaiden and Korean American filmmaker Andrew Ahn's debut feature Spa Night—feel like a revelation.
Though both Park and Ahn are Korean in heritage, their films couldn't be more different. The Handmaiden, a lush adaptation of Sarah Waters's Victorian era-set novel Fingersmith, is a historical drama in three acts. Set in Japanese-occupied Korea in the early 20th century, it follows a love story (of sorts) between an heiress and her new maid, one that unfolds with both subtlety and outright perversity.
It's a complicated narrative, flushed throughout with the manifold plot twists and color saturation that are Park's signature. Spa Night, for its part, is a more straightforward story, but one that's no less intense. Set in Los Angeles's sprawling Koreatown, it follows a Korean immigrant family straining under the pressure of assimilation while their second-generation son explores his sexuality in Korean spas.
Whereas The Handmaiden focuses on how sexuality can be weaponized, Spa Night explores how it can be sheltered and closeted. And given that East Asian cultures are historically (and still) obsessed with notions of family and honor, it only follows that those obsessions would trickle over into their cultural products. Park's other films take this obsession to stomach-churning extremes, suffused as they are with violence and brutality, but The Handmaiden eschews outright gore for other horrors.
In this way, it's reminiscent of Chinese filmmaker Chen Kai Ge's Farewell My Concubine, which came out in 1993 but takes place in the same cultural moment as The Handmaiden. As in The Handmaiden, Farewell My Concubine is based on the notion of found family—in this case, two orphaned boys who grow up in the same Chinese opera training camp and find stardom in their professional union—but unlike The Handmaiden, the queerness of one of Farewell My Concubine's characters is left an unspoken secret until the film's very end, and is used to ruin him until he's driven to suicide. It's a harsh (and familiar) interpretation of queerness, but if anything, it's historically accurate. To this day, openly addressing sexuality is still considered socially inappropriate in most East Asian countries. While China has what is probably the largest queer population in the world (with the Chinese-founded gay chat app Blued hosting 15 million users to Grindr's global user base of 5 million), attitudes about same-sex relationships, let alone Westernized queer culture, are still evolving both in terms of social awareness and legal recognition. To that point, no East Asian country or territory has yet to legalize same-sex marriage, though Taiwan is poised to become the first.
As was the case with other territorial conquests of Judeo-Christian/Western colonization, countries like China, Japan, and Korea once had societies that, if not outright accepting of homosexual relationships, didn't persecute them. State-enforced repression of queer people is a relatively new phenomenon that's bled over into social and cultural attitudes toward queerness. And in the face of a family-oriented culture like China's, where until recently only one child was allowed per married couple, or Japan, with its birth-rate crisis, pressure on queer folks has been compounded: Not just to repress their sexuality at large, but to continue the family line through heterosexual unions.
Intra-family tensions are, as in Spa Night, at the root of the Korean film Two Weddings and a Funeral and the Chinese-American film Saving Face—_films that address even less-discussed aspects of queer Asian culture, like marriage and honor. The former, released in 2012 by out filmmaker Kim Jho Kwang-soo, follows the plight of a gay man and a lesbian woman who marry each other to please their families (a seemingly rising occurrence in the region), and while that arrangement is played for laughs, the film doesn't shy away from the discrimination that drives queer people into these sham unions in the first place. The lead character of 2004's_Saving Face, by Chinese-American filmmaker Alice Wu, struggles to come out to her family even as she falls for the woman of her dreams because of the Chinese notion of "face," which describes both your own and your family's social standing.
That queer East Asian folks now have any films that explore their lived experiences is a relatively new phenomenon; all of these films were made in the past few decades, and while there are many (though oftentimes censored) same-sex and queer representations in East Asian media at large, such as the popularity of Japanese yaoi and yuri works, cinema, with its moment-in-time quality, can serve as a benchmark for society at-large. There are still too few of them, but these films, across decades and continents, at least give voice to a conversation that social stigma all too often renders silent.
Film festivals centering queer Asian and Asian-American stories and creators are on the rise; it was on such a circuit that Spa Night first received notice, and now one-off screenings for the film are sold out. And even Hollywood's most famous East Asian face has received a canonical queer rereading: While Mulan has been meme'd to examine if Shang was actually Disney's first gay character, the version of Mulan that aired on the 2013 ABC series Once Upon a Time is bisexual. As for her upcoming live-action reboot? Perhaps she will join this small but growing canon of films that boldly explore what it means to be queer and Asian.
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