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Asian Queens

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THE LAST SONG

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Pisan Akarasainee

With Somying Daorai, Bin Bunluerit, and Chalit Feangarom.

ANGUISHED LOVE

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Pisan Akarasainee

With Somying Daorai, Bin Bunluerit, and Chalit Feangarom.

MACHO DANCER

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Lino Brocka

With Allan Paule, Daniel Fernando, and Jaclyn Jose.

"We all wear masks," says Somying, the elegant transvestite hero(ine) of The Last Song, one of the offerings in the 1990 Chicago Lesbian and Gay International Film Festival. In several films being shown as part of the festival's "Focus on Asian Cinema," most of the characters wear masks: men dress as women, hustlers feign fondness for their customers, police officers hide behind their uniforms while running criminal operations, and gay men and lesbians try to convince themselves they're straight. The films themselves wear masks too--these sexy, violent, emotionally extravagant melodramas, made to titillate their mass-market audiences with "shocking" looks at the urban homosexual underworld, subversively criticize the hypocrisies of societies that simultaneously ostracize and exploit, glamorize and ghettoize people drawn to homosexuality by their nature or their economic conditions.

From Thailand come The Last Song (1986) and its sequel, Anguished Love (1987), directed and written by Pisan Akarasainee. This soap-opera saga tells of a hunky young hick, nicely named Boontherm Long Stem, who leaves his rural home to seek his fortune in the big city. The city-country dichotomy is expressed right at the film's beginning, when shots of a female impersonator, Somying, lip- synching disco tunes in a nightclub are intercut with scenes of Boontherm plowing his farm. It doesn't take long before Boontherm is plowing other fields: he's picked up by Somying and enlisted into the glittery, upscale world of Somying's home turf, the Tiffany Club. Boontherm is dazzled by his new companions, whose sophistication is a far cry from his own family life ("Mom's dead," he explains, "and Dad's a monk"). Somying is entranced by Boontherm's naive simplicity (his vulgar taste for sticky rice and fish sauce is a running joke), his brick-shit- house physique, and perhaps more than anything the envy he arouses in Somying's friends, a gaggle of some of the tackiest queens God ever put in a drag bar. With Somying's tutelage and financing, Boontherm becomes a singing star in the Tiffany Club's gala revues, floating around in a silver lame jumpsuit in front of the mostly female audiences who express their adoration by bringing him flowers and even their children to kiss.

But heartbreak is in the offing. Unnerved by Somying's emotional and sexual demands and his own erotic ambivalence, Boontherm finds himself attracted to Orn, a pretty, young rich girl who just happens to be the girlfriend of Somying's lesbian pop- singer pal Praew; when Praew is driven to a suicide attempt by Orn's infidelity, Somying saves her. Faced with the faithlessness of his own "husband," Somying takes to the Tiffany stage for one last song, ritually cutting off his long hair and stripping off his gown before blowing his brains out in front of his adoring fans.

Actually, the English-language title flashed at the beginning of the film is not The Last Song but The Unfinished Song, which, whether correct or not, is perhaps more apt. For though Somying's voice is stilled in the sequel, Anguished Love, his presence is very much alive in the minds of his drag- queen friends--who seethe (and mince and simper and grimace) with vengeful anger at Boontherm--and in the heart of Boontherm himself. By the time Anguished Love picks up the story, Boontherm and Orn's once-lyrical romance and marriage has become a sort of Siamese Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, with Orn complaining about Boontherm's inattention and Boontherm wrestling with guilt about his dead lover and with his lingering homosexual longings. (Of course, Orn has a few homosexual longings of her own to wrestle with, much to the chagrin of her rich, domineering mother.)

When Boontherm sees a comely young man who bears an uncanny resemblance to the dead Somying, he's immediately attracted to him; the attraction continues even after Boontherm discovers the young man is in fact Somying's twin brother. What Boontherm doesn't know is that the brother has been enlisted by the Tiffany Club crew to seduce and then kill him. But the plot goes awry when the brother falls in love with Boontherm--a love that defies not only the drag queens' vengeful purposes but the rigid butch-femme role-playing that dominates their world. "I am just a gay," says the brother (in the often hilariously bad English translation that dominates both these films' subtitles). "King or queen?" asks Boontherm. "Can be both," says the brother demurely. Responds an excited Boontherm: "Me too." At last, a boyfriend he can go jogging with! But heartbreak is again in the offing.

Visually, these films are erratic but often fascinating, as Akarasainee veers between intense close-ups (the talking-head shots of the acne-scarred, heavily made-up drag queens venting their spleens are iconic moments of cinematic camp) and sweeping scenic vistas whose grandeur passes ironic comment on the petty self-destructiveness of the characters. The cast, led by cabaret star Somying Daorai, also contrast stylized facial expression and broad physical gesture to suggest the influences of both ritual Thai theater and Hollywood-influenced soap opera.

The opera is literally soapy in Macho Dancer, a 1988 film directed by prominent Philippine filmmaker Lino Brocka from a screenplay by Ricardo Lee and Amado La Cuesta. Set in and around a "macho dancer" bar in the "tourist belt" of Manila, the film features lengthy sequences depicting naked youths engaging in a "shower dance," in which they pour pitchers of sudsy water over each other's bare bodies and then slither all over each other in front of an audience of American, European, and Japanese oglers. The visual motif of partners holding each other under flowing water is echoed throughout the film: in the tearful embrace the film's two heroes, Pol and Noel, give each other at a key dramatic moment; later in the heated love-making scene in which Pol loses his heterosexual virginity to Bambi, a pretty young prostitute, after she has washed the wounds he's received in a fight with a crooked cop; and finally at the film's climax, when Pol holds a murdered friend's body in a torrential rainstorm.

Like The Last Song's Boontherm, Pol is a country kid come to the city to make his fortune. Having discovered he can earn money by allowing American soldiers to sexually service him, Pol thinks he's ready for big-time hustling in the sex pits of Manila. A hometown friend takes him to Mama Charlie's, where naked young men perform onstage as erotically explicit go-go boys and offstage as prostitutes. Pretty, pouty-lipped Pol is soon befriended by Noel, a muscular lad with eager eyes and a ready smile. Though Noel's psychic mask is a pose of noncommitment and pansexual appetite, he finds himself falling in love with Pol. But Pol is basically straight; though the two youths have sex onstage in the nightly shower-dance ritual, Pol never opens his pouty lips when he kisses and keeps to his own mat in the dumpy apartment the boys call home. But even after Pol enters into his affair with Bambi, for whom he readily opens his lips, he's a loyal friend when Noel sets out to find his younger sister, who's become enslaved in the prostitution industry run by Kid, a corrupt cop. Heartbreak is in the offing . . .

Except perhaps for Mama Charlie, the pudgy sissy who runs the nightclub at which Pol and Noel dance, the gay people depicted in this film are hardly what Imelda Marcos had in mind during the Philippines' 1985 presidential campaign, when she predicted that her husband Ferdinand would win the gay vote because the fashion designers feared the effect the dowdy Corazon Aquino would have on their industry. Photographed by Joe Tutanes in the high-pitched, expressively composed pictorial style of 1930s American crime dramas, and powerfully played by three young actors (Allan Paule as Pol, Daniel Fernando as Noel, and the superb Jaclyn Jose as Bambi) who know how to suggest inner turmoil through coolly enigmatic behavior, Macho Dancer is a gritty expose of how and why kids from the country become enmeshed in a sex-and-drugs underworld that's supported by official corruption and familial neglect.

Seen in an American festival whose ethnically diverse audience is bonded by a common interest in how gay themes are addressed in a variety of cultures, these films have mixed appeal. Their stories, filled with trash-epic elements such as lust, betrayal, revenge, murder, and suicide, are undeniably lively escapist fare, while the tawdry excesses of their archly mannered characters and the glitzy worlds they inhabit are sheer camp fun. Besides offering intriguing glimpses of the striking similarities and vast differences between Asian and American society, the films also possess considerable sexual appeal. If Thailand and the Philippines are less socially enlightened about homosexuality than the U.S., they're also apparently a good deal less inhibited about showing it in mainstream entertainment; though there's no explicit sex in these films, there's plenty of near nudity and candid same-sex kissing of the sort that would prevent a commercial American film from receiving general release. Yet only rarely does the homoeroticism depicted in these films come across as gay-affirmative; like American films of the 1950s and '60s that many viewers remember all too well, these movies tend to link sex, sin, sleaze, and self-abasement. But in the final analysis, it's the mask of homosexuality--the exploitive and false cliches perpetuated by both the heterosexual establishment and the old- guard homosexual elite who feed on that establishment--that directors Brocka and Akarasainee attack, not homosexuality itself.

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