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Asian auds warm to gay pix

'Mirror' 'Phoenix,' 'Formula' break screen taboos

Public opinion on gay topics ranges from outrage to indifference throughout Asia. But in some countries, pics with gay subjects are finding strong auds despite lingering stigmas.

  • In India, homosexuality is banned under the Indian penal code, but a few filmmakers are taking on riskier fare.

  • In Taiwan and Hong Kong, auds are open to gay-themed films — especially when leavened with healthy doses of humor.

  • And in Japan, it’s a non-issue, as sexual orientation is not a controversial topic; it’s merely a plot point in the occasional pic with gay or lesbian characters.

Banned in Bollywood

Indian gay cinema has begun to emerge slowly from the almirah or closet — but so far mainly at film fests.

Last October, lesbian groups from around the world surprisingly descended on Mumbai for a three-day fest of films that highlighted the issues and problems gays and lesbians face globally.

One of the Indian-made movies shown at the fest, “The Pink Mirror,” features a 40-minute slice of life of Indian drag queens, which, according to director Sridhar Rangayan, has infuriated the censors in New Delhi.

“They said it was full of obscenities and vulgarities,” says Rangayan. Rangayan is challenging the ruling but believes it may take several years before his film is vetted for general release in India.

Encouragingly for filmmakers like Rangayan, however, lesbianism is now being tackled in Bollywood, the gigantic mainstream Hindi-language film industry.

Producer Harry Baweja announced last year he is working on a movie, “Girl Friend,” which departs from the usual two-women-in-love-with-one-man scenario of Bollywood flicks to portray a triangle in which a woman who is involved in a relationship with an obsessive girlfriend falls in love with a man.

“It’s happening in everyday life,” Baweja says, when asked if Indian audiences are ready for such a bold movie. “This is a part, an aspect of our lives, the world we live in. So it’s time it came into the open.”

In less conservative Hong Kong, filmgoers welcomed 1997’s “Happy Together” and 1998’s “Hold You Tight.”

“Happy Together,” a tortured story about two male lovers who travel to Argentina, grossed HK$8.6 million ($1.1 million) at the B.O., thanks to stars including Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu-wai.

But when a pic stars relative newcomers, such as “Lan Yu,” directed by “Hold You Tight’s” Stanley Kwan, the result is clear from B.O figures: In 2001, the controversial film about two lovers set against the backdrop of China’s Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 only grossed $167,000.

“We don’t see a lot of gay-lesbian films because they don’t interest Hong Kong people,” claims Woody Tsung, chief exec of the Hong Kong Motion Picture Industry Assn., adding that “in a way, Hong Kong is still quite conservative.”

But it isn’t a result of discrimination or censorship: “I don’t think the Hong Kong audience would particularly reject” gay-themed films, says film critic Shu Kei. But unless it has an element of comedy, film companies don’t think it has mass market appeal.

While neither a pure comedy nor a gay film, this year’s “Enter the Phoenix” is about a gay man who is reluctant to follow in the footsteps of his gangster father. Released in April, it made $1.35 million as of May 2.

“It’s technically not exactly a taboo to deal with homosexuality in Hong Kong cinema,” says Shu Kei. But it’s part of Chinese culture not to talk about homosexuality, Tsung adds; and in the end, whether gay-themed films make it to theaters is “purely a commercial decision.”

Taiwan hit

As in Hong Kong, Taiwanese audiences prefer to see gay subject matter treated in a comedic way. And this year’s surprise hit “Formula 17” is no exception.

This year’s runaway local hit doesn’t feature a single straight — or, for that matter, female — character. In the romantic comedy “Formula 17,” an all-male cast plays a group of gay men looking for love. Pic has minted $170,000 since its April 2 bow on just four screens.

Another recent bright spot on Taiwan’s otherwise dreary domestic slate, 2002’s coming-of-age drama “Blue Gate Crossing,” centers on a lesbian relationship. Pic grossed $150,000, a figure considered the benchmark of success for a Taiwanese production.

These B.O. faves seem to indicate a growing willingness on the part of Taiwanese moviegoers to embrace pics with gay or lesbian themes.

However, as one exhib is quick to point out, “Neither movie is actually a gay flick: They’re both crowd-pleasers that just happen to have gay characters.”

Local pics featuring gay characters and themes that don’t play out along conventional lines tank at the multiplex. To cite just one example in a long list, “Goodbye, Dragon Inn” — this year’s Golden Horse Award winner for Taiwanese pic — has yet to receive a wide release. Story is about a man who spends a day in a movie theater known as a gay pickup spot.

“We didn’t set out to make a gay film,” admits “Formula 17” producer Michelle Yeh. “We wanted to make a romantic comedy, one that would pull in a broad audience — especially younger people who don’t watch Taiwanese films.”

Although the Taiwanese government still routinely censors pics it deems too risque, “Formula 17” was released uncut. Yeh adds that in comparison to Western audiences, Taiwanese moviegoers aren’t as receptive to overtly sexual material, be it hetero- or homosexual.

Thus, in international markets, posters for “Formula 17” depict the two male leads shirtless and in a swimming pool, hands placed tenderly on one another. Local posters, in Yeh’s words, present a “cuter image” of the actors that emphasizes pic’s playfulness over its sexual orientation.

(Bryan Pearson in New Delhi, Vicki Rothrock in Hong Kong and Nelson Wu in Taipei contributed to this story.)

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