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Cinema: Gay Teens In Taiwan

A rosy hued documentary gets a mixed reception in the Lion City


“Documentary filmmakers are very political,” declares Taiwan director Mickey Chen. He is also gay and proud. Hence Boys for Beauty, his cinematic celebration of homosexual youth, which, he says, performed creditably at box offices in the island last year. And if the documentary is any sort of indicator, 33-year-old Chen stands at the more accommodating end of the political spectrum.

Boys focuses primarily on the lives of three teenagers – a drag dancer, a straight-A scholar from an elite institution and a student from an average school. Chen had ruthlessly whittled the “leads” from a shortlisted series of interviews with 12 boys and their families. Those choices, however, came under some fire at a special screening of his film organized in Singapore last month in conjunction with his visit. “Why is it that you depict only effeminate gays?” demands one member of the predominantly male audience. The boyish Chen quips: “Because I believe in the power of sissyhood.”

A more serious criticism, though, is that his documentary fails to address the problems that gay teenagers encounter, and Chen replies in kind. “I am very protective when it comes to gay society. I only showed those accepted by their families because I wanted to present positive images of homosexuals,” he explains. It’s not that he doesn’t want to “deal with darkness,” he says, but that he’s careful in his representation of the teenagers. Chen fears that any depiction of the uglier side of homosexual life may be taken out of context and used against the youngsters.

All the same, his documentary is unapologetically intrusive. The camera’s unblinking eye captures the teenagers’ changing moods, their petty squabbles over love lives and their worries over matters ranging from weight problems to sexual encounters. But what comes across as a seamless chronicle was painstakingly spliced together from hundreds of hours of footage. Toting a fuss-free digital camera, Chen had followed gay teenagers around Taipei for a year. “At first, I spent hours and hours just chatting and talking nonsense with them.” The time was well spent, for the trust that Chen earned is evident in his film. His subjects appear relaxed and their frank answers to probing questions provide an insight into their different psyches.

One boy declares: “Being gay is very high class. I have never found anything wrong with it.” An assertive stance. But confusion and low self-esteem are more familiar feelings among many gay teenagers. “I dare not tell anyone. I thought being gay was equal to having AIDS. That I’m not a good son,” says one. Adds another: “I’m like Mulan [in reverse] – a boy dressed in girls’ clothes.”

Bin’s father is one of the most memorable interviewees. While he repeatedly declares that he is proud of his drag-dancer son, “Papa Bin” cannot comprehend the teenager’s sexual preference. “It doesn’t make sense. But he is my son, so I must try and understand him,” he says, though he hopes the boy will “come to his senses” eventually. Indeed, Bin’s father is a supportive dad and even drives him to his gigs. At the gay bars where the boy performs, Papa Bin is often complimented by other teenagers craving acceptance from their families. But the father still feels guilty for “not knowing how it happened.” He adds: “How could [society, friends and relatives] blame me for not giving [Bin] a normal orientation? Luckily he didn’t blame us.”

The most dramatic, and tragic, case that Chen came across did not even make it into the raw cuts: a father who discovered his son was homosexual when he found the youngster asleep with a gay magazine in his hand. Shocked and furious, he tore up the publication, set it alight and then held the flames to the boy. The family agreed to be interviewed on camera, but Chen says his conscience would not allow him to spotlight a parent who momentarily let his anger get the better of him. “The father acted not from his heart but from the pressures of society,” he says. “I’ve no right to play God [and judge]. I don’t have the right to burn Chinese society.” Instead, the director presents portraits of well-adjusted teens who enjoy some degree of acceptance, even support from loving parents.

In any case, the New York-trained filmmaker reckons attitudes are softening in Taiwan. Not only was Boys financed by a $12,000 grant from the United Daily News, one of the island’s leading newspapers, the authorities even entered his documentary at a foreign film festival. What’s more, Chen adds, the government recently approved ground-breaking funds to promote the rights of gays and other minorities.

Chen’s rosy pictures, however, may be what trouble Singapore officials most. Gay activists, who sought permission for a screening through the arts organization The Substation, could only show the film to a restricted adult audience. A 1992 censors’ panel decreed in 1992 that while gays should not be persecuted, it could not allow works that glorify homosexuality or agitate for its acceptance. That stance, observes T. Sasitharan, Substation’s artistic director, stems more from officials’ desire “to protect the conventional family.” And lest anyone forget, a series of formal debates and officially supported activities in recent years help hammer home the message: Singapore must nurture “strong families.”

But activists like Alex Au question the definition of this basic social unit. It’s time, he argues, to re-examine the assumption that “family values” can only be built in a heterosexual setting. “Pigheaded” pressure on gay sons and daughters only creates barriers to communication. Rather than strengthen the family, Au says, insisting on conformity only tends to fracture them.

Similarly, Au feels denying Singapore teens the chance to view films such as Boys is more damaging: “By cutting off information about their own sexuality, gay teenagers are left with negative self-images and feelings of isolation.” He concedes that Singapore isn’t a wholy homophobic society, but says many people still adopt “Jurassic” attitudes. Equality for the gay community is “still very far away.”