My Dear Friend (好友, Yang Pingdao, 2018)

“What’s right or wrong doesn’t matter anymore. Being at peace is what matters.” an old man insists, attempting to help his troubled companion regain a sense of himself at the end of his life. A magical realist fable, Yang Pingdao’s My Dear Friend (好友, Hǎoyǒu) quite literally sends its elderly heroes back into the past as if they had become unstuck in time but also bears witness to the inexorability of fate as events seem only to repeat themselves from one generation to the next. 

The film begins, however, with a literal intrusion of the present into the past as city girl Jingjing (Gabby So) drives her red saloon car, more suited to a morning commute than a trek through the mountains, into a rural village, rudely barging into the home of elderly couple A-Fang (Jiang Hong) and Shuimu (Luk Suk-Yuen AKA Robert Loh) in search of their grandson Yiming. Jingjing claims that she is pregnant and Yiming is the father, but now he’s ghosted her so she’s come to make him assume his responsibilities. Unfortunately Yiming isn’t there, but rather than scandalised or ashamed as one might have assumed them to be, A-Fang in particular and her husband seem to be both relieved and excited to the extent they don’t really want Jingjing to leave which might explain why her car won’t start the next morning. 

While staying with the elderly couple, Jingjing hears that absent fathers run in the family. Shuiming’s father disappeared suddenly without warning or explanation leaving his mother to raise him alone, while his son also abandoned Yiming to run off with an impoverished bar hostess who had four children of her own. Yiming’s mother remarried, leaving the boy with his grandparents. Jingjing asks why Shuimu didn’t leave and he doesn’t answer her, but following him around she may have stumbled on the answer in his 60-year, apparently secret friendship with a man of the same age who appears to be mute and intelligible to Shuimu alone. Zhongsheng (Lu Haoquan), as the man is called, is a man without a past apparently having no memory before the age of ten. Once her car is fixed, Shuimu asks Jingjing to drive them to another village 300km away where Zhongshen thinks he may be from, obsessed with a rumour about a child who survived a massacre by “four psychos” after falling into the river. 

Things that drift loom large. Shuimu muses on a giant fish head apparently washed down by the voiding of the dam the head then linking back to a strange pipeline that reminds them of a giant whale only without its mouth as if something had been uncapped or opened to the elements. Travelling through mist and fog, the trio stop their car in what seems to be the meeting of a wedding and a funeral as a procession passes by them made of men and women from another time, wearing donkey jackets and silently carrying umbrellas, seemingly filled with solemnity. Shuimu and Zhongsheng encounter younger versions of themselves, a version of their story replaying itself as the boys become men who might equally be Yiming and his friend in this strange place where past and present co-exist. 

Yet Shuimu is perhaps looking for the truth of himself as much as his friend, Zhongsheng’s name apparently originally his only his mother changed it on the advice of a fengshui master worried he lacked water (水 shui) and wood (木 mu) though Shuimu liked the other name better. He also gives Zhongsheng his own birthday, making of him another self, in a sense a secret shadow self unable to speak though Shuimu is always able to interpret his thoughts perfectly. He sees a similarity in Jingjing and A-Fang, one which she also sees, a little jealous of the younger woman’s freedom lamenting the simplicity of her wedding and harshness of her life since. Both sharp tongued they’ve become prickly in the unreliability of men, each searching A-Fang like Zhongsheng’s mother calling out at night for her wandering husband only hers always comes back. Don’t become like me, she tells Jingjing, pledging to drag Yiming back and give her the proper wedding she never had. 

Zhongsheng complains A-Fang haunts him like a phantom, yet everyone here is already a ghost literally haunted by historical trauma and parental failure. Shuimu and Zhongsheng search for truth and identity, but find themselves in a place they no longer recognise which in turns claims not to know them. Perhaps truth isn’t so important, Shuimu claims, as peace, deciding the entire earth is a grave, make your offerings where you will. Aided by the rolling mists, Long Miaoyuan’s ethereal photography adds to the sense of mythic grandeur in this long sad story of enduring male friendship and perpetual orphanhood carried away in the grand ever flowing river of life and death.

My Dear Friend Curzon Hoxton on 18th September as part of this year’s Queer East.

Original trailer (Simplified Chinese / English subtitles)

Number 1 (男儿王, Ong Kuo Sin, 2020)

“What I don’t understand is your so-called rules and traditions. Just what good does it do?” a newcomer ironically asks of a veteran drag artist, having perhaps shed but not yet quite acknowledged his original prejudice towards those different from himself. Ong Kuo Sin’s cheerful drag dramedy Number 1 (男儿王, Nán’ér Wàng) examines attitudes to the LGBTQ+ community in the comparatively conservative nation of Singapore where sexual activity between men remains illegal even if the law is not heavily enforced, while subtly undermining oppressive group think as to what constitutes a “successful”, “normal” life. 

44-year-old Chow Chee Beng (Mark Lee Kok Huang) is a successful general manager at a construction firm where he’s worked for the last 17 years which is the entirety of his working life. It comes as quite a shock to him therefore when he’s unceremoniously let go, passed a letter of termination seconds after entertaining everyone with a song at the office New Year party. Given his experience, he perhaps feels that getting another job won’t be too difficult, but as various employers tell him he’s either “too old” or “too expensive” for the competitive Singapore job market. Faced with the prospect of telling his wife they’ll have to sell their luxury detached home because he can’t make the mortgage payments, Chee Beng is forced to accept the last resort offer from his recruitment advisor which happens to be as an AGM at local drag bar Number 1. 

Like many men of his age, Chee Beng has a rather conservative mindset and had been living a very conventional life of suburban, middle-class success. His wife Marie (Gina Tan) even complains to her sister-in-law that their new swimming pool is a little on the small side and she’s thinking of swapping it for a bigger one. Yet as his performance stint at the company party implies, he is perhaps holding a part of himself back thinking that his love of singing is frivolous or even a little taboo given his wife’s mild embarrassment. The drag bar is therefore firmly outside his comfort zone. Not only does he lack experience managing an entertainment venue, but finds it difficult to overcome his sense of discomfort with those living lives so different from his own. When one of the drag artists turns out to be a deserter from the army and is carted off by the military police, Chee Beng finds himself press-ganged into performing and discovers that he is something of a natural though he doesn’t understand why they have to lip-sync to pre-recorded tracks rather than singing live. 

Chee Beng’s point seems to hint at a concern about the ability to completely embody the performance and fully express himself, yet he’s also a straight man wading into a predominantly LGBTQ+ community he knows nothing about and insisting on having his own way. That brings him into an additional conflict with former number one Pearly (Kiwebaby Chang) who dragged him on stage in the first place because with only four performers she wouldn’t be able to stand in the middle. Pearly might feel that lip-syncing completes her performance because she lacks the ability to sing in a feminine register, yet Chee Beng ironically accuses her of mandating a no singing rule in order to mask her own weakness while simultaneously attempting to mandate live singing in order showcase his strength as a performer. 

But even if he’s come to feel at home in the drag community, Chee Beng continues to keep his new life a secret from his socially conservative wife. When a video of him singing at the club goes viral, Chee Beng’s wife and sister-in-law react by taking the children’s phones away as if seeing it is in some way harmful. Later on seeing a poster for the Queens she irritatedly tells Chee Beng they should be banned by the government for giving children “wrong ideas”. Meanwhile their son Mason is conflicted in being a boy asked to play the part of Mulan in the school play, claiming he dislikes the character of Mulan because she “lies” about who she is while his father can only sympathise offering the justification that sometimes people have to lie in order to protect those they love. When Chee Beng’s identity is exposed, little Mason begins receiving vile hate mail online and all his friends stop playing with him. Yet he doesn’t see anything wrong in “wearing a dress” and can’t understand why everyone, including his mother, seems so upset. Marie complains that Chee Beng’s new life is “confusing” for Mason, but he doesn’t seem confused at all because he hasn’t yet had time to absorb the “wrong ideas” from the conservative world around him. 

That conservative world has been a very dark place for some of the Queens, Pearly revealing that she believes her coming out drove her parents in Taiwan into an early grave, while bar owner Fa’s brother took his own life, and the gang experience homophobic harassment from a man who turns out to be the high school bully who made one of their live’s a misery. Nevertheless, the sudden and otherwise unexplained reversal in the attitudes of some seems more than a little contrived for an otherwise uncomplicated happy ending despite Chee Beng’s defiant message that he wants his son to grow up “different” in that he learns early on not to be prejudiced against those different from himself and goes on to be happy with whoever he is rather than blindly following the rules of social conformity. Drag is for everyone, and becoming a member of the supportive drag queen community even helping out fundraising for a local LGBTQ+ friendly nursing home, Chee Beng begins to see a different way life that opens his eyes to the constraints of the way he lived before swapping the trappings of extreme consumerism for personal fulfilment and compassion for others. 

Number 1 screens at London’s Genesis Cinema on 18th September as part of this year’s Queer East.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Queer East Film Festival Reveals Full 2021 Programme

Queer East returns for 2021 exclusively in cinemas from 15th to 26th September with another handpicked selection of recent and classic East Asian LGBTQ+ movies. Opening with Hajime Tsuda’s Daughters, the festival will feature a 10-film focus on Japanese queer cinema from the 1980s to the present day, as well as a special focus on Taiwan closing with moving family drama Dear Tenant.

Wednesday 15 September

Genesis Cinema

Opening Film: Daughters (UK Premiere) | Dir Hajime Tsuda | Japan | 2020 | 104 min

Two young women find themselves reassessing their ideas of womanhood and maternity in the wake of an unexpected pregnancy in Hajime Tsuda’s refreshingly positive new family drama. Review.

Thursday 16 September

Curzon Soho: Lan Yu (20th Anniversary) | Dir Stanley Kwan | Hong Kong, China | 2001 | 86 min

Recent restoration of Stanley Kwan’s Mainland drama in which a businessman, Han-dong, falls in love with college student Lan Yu against the backdrop of the Tiananmen Square protests.

Saturday 18 September

Curzon Hoxton: My Dear Friend (UK Premiere) | Dir Yang Ping-Dao | China | 2018 | 106 min

A young woman travels from the city to look for her missing boyfriend in his rural hometown but finds only his grandparents and agrees to help a family friend who’s lost all memories of his childhood regain his identity.

Genesis Cinema: Number 1 (UK Premiere) | Dir Ong Kuo-Sin | Singapore | 2020 | 98 min

Musical comedy in which a married father is made redundant from his regular office job and ends up running a drag bar. Persuaded to take to the stage himself, he proves a natural but is desperate to conceal his new line of work from his family.

Sunday 19 September

Curzon Soho: Days | Dir Tsai Ming-Liang | Taiwan, France | 2020 | 127 min

Tsai Ming-liang meditates on time and loneliness as an older man in pain and a young migrant worker find temporary relief in momentary connection. Review.

Catford Mews: Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence | Dir Nagisa Oshima | Japan, UK | 1983 | 123 min

Landmark second world war drama from Nagisa Oshima in which a British prisoner of war (David Bowie) becomes locked in a psychological battle with the authoritarian Japanese officer in charge of the camp (Ryuichi Sakamoto).

Monday 20 September

Curzon Hoxton: Close-Knit | Dir Naoko Ogigami | Japan | 2017 | 127 min

Warmhearted quirky drama from Naoko Ogigami in which a little girl neglected by her mother moves in with her uncle and his transgender girlfriend. Review.

Tuesday 21 September

Genesis Cinema: Hush! (35mm, 20th Anniversary) | Dir Ryosuke Hashiguchi | Japan | 2001 | 135 min

Landmark queer drama from Ryosuke Hashiguchi in which a gay couple with differing views on settling down find themselves agreeing to help a chaotic young woman conceive a child. Review.

The Lexi Cinema: Secrets of 1979 (UK Premiere) | Dir Zero Chou | Taiwan | 2021 | 86 min

Set during Taiwan’s martial law period, Zero Chou’s latest sees two women fall in love while working on a banana plantation only for their relationship to be threatened by their resistance to the military regime.

Wednesday 22 September

Bertha DocHouse: Queer Japan | Dir Graham Kolbeins | US, Japan | 2019 | 100 min

Graham Kolbeins’ documentary exploring LGBTQ+ life in contemporary Japan including contributions from mangaka Gengoroh Tagame (My Brother’s Husband), drag queen Vivienne Sato, and Aya Kamikawa who recounts her path to becoming the first transgender elected official in Japan.

The Prince Charles Cinema: Madame X (10th Anniversary)| Dir Lucky Kuswandi | Indonesia | 2011 | 100 min

When a homophobic and oppressive political party threaten the nation, hairdresser Adam must embrace his destiny by learning traditional dance to become legendary trans superhero Madam X!

Thursday 23 September

The Horse Hospital: Shinjuku Boys | Dir Kim Longinotto, Jano Williams | UK, Japan | 1995 | 54 min

1995 documentary short focussing on the lives of three transmen working as hosts in an “Onabe” host bar.

The Lexi Cinema: Ghost in the Shell | Dir Mamoru Oshii | Japan | 1995 | 82 min

1995 landmark anime adapted from the manga by Masamune Shirow in which cybernetic enhancements have become the norm but have also left humanity vulnerable to brain hacking.

24th September

Horse Hospital: The End of the Track | Dir Mou Tun-Fei | Taiwan | 1970 | 90 min

A teenage boy finds himself knocked off course after his best friend suddenly dies in Mou Tun-Fei’s subversive social drama. Review.

Genesis Cinema: Gohatto (35mm) | Dir Nagisa Oshima | Japan | 1999 | 100 min

A beautiful boy proves a disruptive presence within the all male environment of the Shinsengumi in the final film from Nagisa Oshima starring Takeshi Kitano, Tadanobu Asano, and Ryuhei Matsuda.

Genesis Cinema: Miss Andy (UK Premiere) | Dir Teddy Chin | Taiwan, Malaysia | 2020 | 108 min

A collection of marginalised people form a fragile family but find their bonds tested by desperation and despair in Teddy Chin’s melancholy drama. Review.

Sunday 26 September

Curzon Hoxton: Moonlit Winter (UK Premiere) | Dir Lim Daehyung | South Korea | 2019 | 106 min

Two middle-aged women embark on a path towards becoming more themselves after a letter never intended to be sent brokers a reconciliation in Lim Dae-hyung’s beautifully subtle drama. Review.

Genesis Cinema

Closing Film: Dear Tenant (UK Premiere) | Dir Cheng Yu-Chieh | Taiwan | 2020 | 112 min

A grief-stricken man lovingly takes care of his late partner’s family but finds himself continually othered in Cheng Yu-chieh’s melancholy familial drama. Review.

Queer East runs 15th to 26th September at venues across Central London with plans to tour to other cities throughout the UK later in the year. Full details for all the films as well as ticketing links can be found on the official website, while you can also keep up with all the latest news by following Queer East on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and YouTube.