Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Go Go G-Boys! (Taiwan, 2006)

Director: Jong-Jong Yu.

Principal cast: Tae Sattawat, Yu Fa Yang, Tang Jan Gang.

Asian films are generally difficult for me to review since I’m not very familiar with Asian culture. In this case I’m also slightly puzzled. Had this film been made in the West, I probably wouldn’t even review it as I would just file it under „Crap”. However, this film seems to be very popular among gay youngsters in Asia and I can also definitely see why. To begin with, it’s a comedy. If you’re Asian and want to see anything gay-related which is also produced in Asia, in most cases you’ll have to settle for a drama. And Asian dramas are not a laughing matter, although in some cases you would think they were. Secondly, this film openly displays very camp and often barely dressed twinks who occasionally sing, dance or simply parade around in swimming trunks. I don’t think any of the Asian countries have produced many „eye candy” films targeting the male gay audience. And for that alone „Go Go G-Boys!” must be given some credit. I find it very encouraging for the whole region that such films are produced at all. I must also admit that this film gives a rare insight (if only roughly) into the Taiwanese gay subculture of today. And that’s always worth something.

The plot (if we can call it that) evolves around a gay beauty contest called simply G-Boy (yes, in English) and its contestants (whom even the blindest people wouldn’t confuse with straight blokes). While most of them are gay, two join for other reasons. A-Hong’s life is in jeopardy because his girlfriend has worked up a significant debt with the local mob which they strangely enough demand from him, so he joins hoping to win the prize – 10 million Taiwanese dollars (roughly 200,000 EUR). His best mate A-Shin (who is gay) camps him up and also joins the competition. Needless to say, A-Shin has been madly in love with A-Hong since their childhood together and is willing to do anything to help his friend. The other „fake” is Jay, an undercover cop whose worldview seems to have been inspired mostly by action films and anime cartoons and who happens to look very much like the other twinks who’ve joined the competition. Call it a coincidence! Jay volunteers after anonymous death threats are sent to the contest hoping to mimick some of his favourite action heros. However, most of the action in this film is reserved for the relationship between A-Shin and A-Hong who eventually discover their true love – each other. We don’t even get to know who wins the contest in the end. I guess the point is that true love is the winner.

„Go Go G-Boys!” must be following in the footsteps of some sort of Chinese slapstick comedy genre. It is filled with situation comedy elements which are funny enough if you completely disregard the acting (or rather the lack thereof) and if you try to imagine what it must be like being gay in Taiwan (although it must be a lot better than in mainland China, it seems). For example, in one scene the father of one of the contestants arrives from the country with two chickens, which is obviously a great embarrassment to his son, and eventually finds him in bed with another guy. Earlier in the film he was trying to convince his son to start thinking about marriage, now he ends up teaching this other guy (whom he’s no doubt already seeing as his soon-to-be inlaw) how to make a stew with chicken legs. Funny enough, if you think about it!

This film seems to be targeting an audience whom Joey from „Boy Culture” (see my previous review) would call „stage 1 fags” and who according to him „are not slutty hoping to find this perfect boyfriend who’s also not slutty” for about a year after they come out. And although there isn’t anything wrong with that as such, this film has a total soap opera ending to it which I’m not sure even the most romantically inclined among us would find more plausible than most story lines from „Santa Barbara”. But who knows? Maybe this is the sort of ending that is appreciated by the film’s audience in Taiwan and other parts of Asia.

The Taiwanese gay subculture presented in the film seems very effeminite. Everybody looks like a doll and just a personification of campness. Yet, there are numerous references to "Brokeback Mountain" (isn’t Ang Lee from Taiwan originally?) and "The Lord of the Rings". At one point both even collide in a dream. I believe it has always been easier to accept homosexuality in these cultures if the homosexual man behaves and dresses like a woman. Lady boys in Thailand and hijras in India have been traditionally tolerated largely because of this aspect. It seems a lot more difficult to accept a man who behaves and dresses according to the traditional understanding of what men are supposed to be like being gay. I believe this must also be the case in Taiwan. It’s easier to make a camp comedy with exaggeratedly camp, doll-resembling guys than a comedy with ordinary blokes from around the corner. I also believe that campness in itself is perceived as funny. The same way as Mr. Humphries was funny to most people who watched „Are You Being Served?” back in the 1970s. It seems that „Brokeback Mountain” has been sneaked through the back door in this film just to underscore that. And although there is nothing wrong with camp boys in camp comedies (I must admit I quite enjoy them myself), the problem is that it doesn’t do much other than lending a hand to the survival of the cliches about gay men.

"Go Go G-Boys" can be recommended to those of you who would enjoy watching barely dressed Chinese twinks kissing and singing in a camp comedy. It won't rock your world but it will be like having a nice dessert at the end of your meal. To the others I can only say - don't bother!

Here you can watch the film's trailer

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Boy Culture (USA, 2006)

Director: Q. Allan Brocka.
Principal cast: Derek Magyar, Patrick Bauchau, Darryl Stephens, Jonathon Trent.

Everybody needs role models. The choices people make and the lifestyles they have are more often than not influenced by these role models. A role model can be a showbiz star and it can be that cute couple whom you know and who’ve been together for what seems ages and still look glam and all lovey-dovey. But it’s also an individual process. Everybody finds (or often fails to find) his or her own role model(s). When it comes to gay men, these role models often seem to be of the more flamboyant and promiscuous variety. The kind that doesn’t automatically inspire you to have a quiet and monogamous life. Why is it so? Are gay men more afraid of commitments than their straight counterparts or are gay men a different breed with different values and needs?

Q. Allan Brocka’s so far second long feature film „Boy Culture” isn’t aspiring to be moralistic as such. The whole story is presented as a „confession” of a professional hustler who, for the reasons of „anonymity”, goes by the name „X”. Although he has been hustling since his teenage years, he has never had sex with anyone for free. In his own words, he is saving himself for that „special one” and finds more pleasure in masturbation than his work. Emotionally frigid, at least to the outside world, he goes about his life with the same sense of meaning and direction as a lift – in service when required but not much purpose or fun otherwise. It might also be symbolic that he has to use one to come up to his new client Gregory, one he is referred to after one of his other regulars „stops breathing for all the wrong reasons”. Gregory, played by the veteran Belgian/French actor Patrick Bauchau, is an old recluse living in his penthouse apartment high above everything and everybody with only memories to share (and apparently, his substantial savings). Unlike X’s other customers who may have very specific but still rather undemanding demands, Patrick wants X to want him before they make love. Their one hour long (paid) encounters are on the surface nothing more than conversations between a 25-year-old rent boy who knows his Oscar Wilde and a 79-year-old queer who’s got no one else to talk to. However, they soon take the shape of confessions, not unlike X’s own to the film’s audience, which subsequently help to unlock both of them.

In his private life, X shares an apartment (which has a small roof garden) with Andrew, a black guy around X’s age and Joey, an 18-year-old twink who has managed to convince X to let him stay rent-free, just by being „young and fabulous”. But while X doesn’t care much about Joey fooling around and having back-up plans for constantly changing boyfriends, the story is different when it comes to Andrew. As of recently, he has started bringing home „tricks”, thus triggering a strong reaction in our „Ice Queen”. In his confession to the audience, X doesn’t conceal the fact that he is attracted to Andrew and that Andrew is „boyfriend material”. However, he doesn’t do anything about it, and when confronted directly by Andrew while tending to the plants on his roof terrace, he cannot but exclaim „absolutely not” in capital letters. And what would be the point of their relationship? Would X give up his hustling? Will Andrew stop sleeping around? According to X, anyone can fulfill Andrew and why would he be so special? Our „moralistic whore” then makes things even worse by proclaiming that Andrew has now turned into „a very ugly faggot who would probably suck anything with a cock”. Tensions rise and the whole situation gets even more complicated when Joey pledges his love to X while being on drugs after a sex party involving Andrew and a third part (a cameo appearance by Jesse Archer from „A Four Letter Word” and „Slutty Summer”). The outlook is bleak for the three of them but change is on its way and the old guy helps to unlock the garden of Eden.

High moral grounds are not difficult to have in principle. And it’s probably even easier when you are physically high above the ground, like Gregory in his penthouse apartment or X on his roof terrace overlooking the whole of Seattle. Does Gregory live up to his own preachings? Is X afraid of being paid in feelings rather than cool cash? No matter what the answers are to these questions, one thing is focal to the film’s own moral ground. One shouldn’t be afraid to change oneself for the things that matter. One should be able to compromise with oneself and those around one or one can end up old, alone and miserable. Carpe diem – seize the opportunity and don’t be afraid of it.

When the romance between X and Andrew seems irreversably gone, Joey reproaches Andrew for being a bad role model which also sets this whole film in a perspective. In many ways „Boy Culture” is intended as a behavioural role model. It presents the audience with what it sees as a problem and offers a solution which it believes to be the right one. One to follow, just like you follow a role model. But herein also lies the film’s weakness. It offers a recipe and our protagonists follow it, so the grande finale ends up being fairly Hollywoody which is a trap the film’s creators laid out for themselves from the very beginning by aspiring to create a „role model” film. Therefore, the film couldn’t have had a different ending. Who knows, maybe they wrote the script on top of the Space Needle in Seattle?

Yes, also gay men can make a commitment and change their ways to have a lasting relationship, but in many ways it will be a more conscious choice and a choice that one has arrived at in one’s own time to a higher degree than in the straight world. There is seldom any pressure from one’s family to marry another man and there is no biological clock ticking with regard to children. Neither do gay men face the prospect of marrying someone at 18, having five kids and regretting that for the rest of their lives. But also on the other hand, when the going gets tough it is often the children who help straight couples get through their reconcilable differences. With gay men it’s mostly cats or dogs who, however, don’t tend to last as long as most children. I believe that in the end it will always be the conscious effort to commit and remaining true to that commitment which will matter the most for gay and straight couples alike. And yes, one has to be able to change oneself, adapt to different conditions, compromise while keeping one’s own integrity. It’s a difficult and demanding process which takes a lot of effort and is very individual. The story in „Boy Culture” is all about that and very believable until the final part which in my opinion is a bit of a fairy-tale ending – „and they lived happily ever after...”

„Boy Culture” is a thought-provoking film with beautiful actors who also know how to act convincingly. It’s humorous and it’s sexy. Despite its self-induced flaws, I will claim that it’s of one of the best gay-themed films to come out of the US in the recent years.

Here you can watch the film's trailer

Sunday, 4 November 2007

Vier Minuten (Four Minutes, Germany, 2006)

Director: Chris Kraus.
Principal cast: Monica Bleibtreu, Hannah Herzsprung, Sven Pippig.

The German filmmaker Chris Kraus’ second feature film „Vier Minuten” is the latest proof that the German cinematography is capable of creating box office successes outside of the German-speaking countries. Just after one week at cinemas in Italy, it was the second most watched film slightly lagging behind something as predictable as „Spiderman 3”. The film has also won numerous awards at international film festivals including the Audience Best Feature Award at this year’s San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival and The Best Feature Film Award at the Oslo Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. The film rights for theatrical release have been bought by over 30 countries including Australia and Japan. Back home, at the German Film Awards, the film received this year’s LOLA for the best feature film and the two main leads were awarded LOLAs as the best actresses in leading roles. And deservingly so. „Vier Minuten” is a riveting portrayal of an unlikely friendship between two opposites – an 80 year old Frau Krüger, quintessentially Prussian in her humble appearance and rigid views, and a 20 year old prison inmate Jenny von Loeben, a destructive sociopath convicted of a brutal murder.

The elderly lady’s character is based on a real person from the director’s childhood boarding school, a person who has never ceased to fascinate him. Just like the real life Frau Krüger, our protagonist perceives the world through music and can best express her emotions in teaching it to her students. Young Jenny, on the countrary, has too many emotions which she can’t control. She is unruly and destructive, despised by the prison wards and her fellow inmates alike. The story begins to unfold when Frau Krüger arrives in the prison with her precious piano on a mission to give piano lessons to those willing to learn. An interesting premise and not entirely unlikely in modern Europe where new approaches to rehabilitating criminals are getting more and more popular. Despite the prison ward Mütze’s best attempt to recruit those willing at a church service inside the prison, only four people sign up. The piano is brought to the prison’s library and the individual lessons can begin. The last one to be brought in is Jenny. However, Frau Krüger blankly refuses to teach her because of her messy hands. Jenny goes amok, attacks Mütze, beats him up severely and then engages in a frenzied orgy of piano playing. As Frau Krüger is quitely walking away from all this violence, she is, nevertheless, stunned by what she hears from the library, a masterfully played piece of what she despicably calls „negro music”. Jenny ends up in isolation where she is visited by Frau Krüger who admits that she doesn’t like Jenny or rather her personality one little bit but would like to give her piano lessons. Frau Krüger wants her to win the contest for those under 21! And she is only to play classical music. Reluctantly, Jenny accepts the strict rules imposed by this old lady from another era and they both begin a bumpy and not quite self-evident odyssey of music and violence.

In the meantime, another story unfolds in flashbacks, a story of love and betrayal. In her youth Frau Krüger was in love with a woman who later was imprisoned and executed by the Nazis for being a Communist collaborator. There was, of course, very little she could have done to save her lover's life once she was caught, but the images of their passionate love, the brutal death and her own distancing herself from her beloved are still haunting her. It seems that she hasn’t been able to love another woman since and remained a lonely spinster with music and her memories as her only companions. In Jenny she sees somebody who throws away her talent while her dead love was never given any chance to develop hers. It is therefore imperative for the old lady to get Jenny to that contest. The film culminates in an unforgettable and explosive scene which renders justice to its title.

"Vier Minuten" is a powerful film about lost possibilities and the triumph of will with all the odds against one. Frau Krüger's ascetic world and rigid ways collapse as a result of her time together with Jenny. She opens up to a more colourful and emotional world. Jenny struggles with her emotions through music and eventually finds her humbler self. The four minutes are over, the music is still playing on.

Here you can watch the film's trailer (in German)