Queer cinema makes mark on Berlin

Asian, Latin American gay cinema set standards

BERLIN – Considering that Berlin is one of Europe’s oldest gay capitals, it’s no wonder queer cinema has left its indelible mark on the Berlin Intl. Film Festival.

As a window to international gay and lesbian cinema, the Berlinale’s Panorama sidebar serves as a leading trendsetter, and in recent years it has become a vital platform for filmmakers from Asia and South America, who have edged out U.S. and European filmmakers to win the fest’s Teddy Award in the queer feature category the past three years in a row.

“The Panorama,” says director Wieland Speck, “generates festival careers for every film it screens, since thousands of fest programmers from around the world come to Berlin to find titles for their own festivals. We are the preselectors for the world.”

The Panorama scored a coup last year with Taiwanese drama “Spider Lilies,” a haunting love story about two young women, which won helmer Zero Chou last year’s Teddy and went on to become a hot international seller.

Pic, repped by Taiwan’s Three Dots Entertainment, sold quickly to Thailand, Singapore and Korea and then played at majors festivals around the world.

Speck was quick to nab Chou’s second lesbian-themed film, “Drifting Flowers,” for this year’s Panorama.

Despite Ang Lee’s modern classic “Brokeback Mountain” and the strong followings of fest favorites such as John Cameron Mitchell and Gregg Araki, Hollywood remains ever cautious — if not downright closeted — when it comes to queer subject matter, more and more programmers are coming to Berlin for provocative and original films from distant shores, such as Santiago Otheguy’s Argentine drama “La Leon” and Leesong Hee-il’s South Korean hit “No Regret,” both of which screened in Panorama last year.

Queer cinema in Asia, more so than in other parts of the world, is undergoing astonishing development and generating cinematic works that are dazzling fest programmers around the globe.

For John Badalu, the director of the Q! Film Festival in Jakarta, the blossoming of Asian queer cinema is attributable to a number of factors.

“There are lots of filmmakers pushing the boundaries,” Badalu says. “Issues that have long been taboo are now being addressed, and young gay and lesbian filmmakers are eager to tell their stories in their own cultures.”

As a result, films from Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Thailand and Singapore have been taking centerstage at queer fests around the globe, and Asian showcases are becoming the norm.

Last year’s London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival presented its strongest-ever showing of new films by East Asian directors, including “No Regret,” about a young student forced into prostitution and the wealthy young man who becomes obsessed with him; Royston Tan’s Singaporean drama “4:30”; and Tsai Ming-liang’s Malaysian drama “I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone.”

“All across the board, from Taiwan to Singapore, we are seeing boldly imaginative, unpredictable and engaging works,” says Brian Robinson, senior programmer at the London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, adding that these filmmakers are taking risks and boldly leading the exploration of human sexuality in new directions.

The London fest also screened Filipino helmer Auraeus Solito’s last two films, “Tuli,” about a girl who shocks her village when she begins a romance with another girl, and the Teddy-winning “The Blossoming of Maximo Olivero,” about the relationship between an effeminate 12-year-old boy and a hunky policeman, as well as fellow Filipino filmmaker Jowee Morel’s “Pink Butterflies,” about the steamy relationship between two closeted men.

Asia’s new wave of gay and lesbian films, says Robinson, has captivated fest programmers and auds alike because the films are more interesting than the “cookie-cutter coming-out stories and formulaic romantic comedies and dramas” coming out of the U.S.

The Lesbisch Schwule Filmtage, a popular gay and lesbian fest in Hamburg, devoted a section to Taiwan in October, and the Asian Hot Shots Berlin fest in January included a Queer Asia section in its lineup.

While many filmmakers and distribs shy away from queer festivals for fear of being branded, Robinson argues that the cinematic exploration of human sexuality has plenty of potential to draw auds.

“There is great fluidity in human sexuality. There is a huge variety of sexual possibilities. There’s more of a market than people realize.”

Interest among Asian auds for homegrown product is also growing as local films become more relevant, Badalu says.

That can be seen in South Korea, where auds went gaga over the 2005 costumer “King and the Clown,” about a 16th-century king who falls for his male court jester, making it one of the country’s highest-grossing films ever with $85 million, although the film wasn’t exactly marketed as a gay film. Moviegoers also turned out in droves for “No Regrets.”

In other parts of the world, gay-themed pics may have a tougher time, although the opportunity to shine in the Panorama spotlight could make all the difference.

An examination of isolation, longing and repressed sexual tension set in the watery Parana Delta of northern Argentina, “La Leon” is not exactly an easy sell, says director Otheguy.

“A lot of fragile films like this one never see release, and that’s the worse thing that can happen to a filmmaker. The Panorama gave us the unique opportunity to present the film to buyers and critics from around the world and to a large number of festival programmers. The fact that ‘La Leon’ now has a well-known international distributor (MK2) as well as a local one (791 Cine), that it was released commercially in a number of European countries and that it was selected for a number of festivals is due in large part to the Panorama.”

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