I’ll give Asian Queer Shorts this: The formal, narrative, and geographic diversity found within the five featured short subjects effectively challenge the idea of a monolithic “gay Asian” experience. The shorts—produced in Indonesia, Philippines, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and the United States, respectively—range from elliptical, color-drenched reverie to campy, meet-cute romantic comedy, and explore familial disharmony and first-time love, pre-coital intellectual debate and postcolonial internalized self-hatred. Some acknowledge the linkages between their characters’ sexual orientation and their national or ethnic heritage, while most take one (or both) largely for granted in the pursuit of other thematic interests. The collection’s comically threadbare DVD cover—featuring a pensive, shirtless young man being embraced by another bare-chested gent and a tagline labeling the films as “sexy”—not only places Asian Queer Shorts in the dubious tradition of art-house fare sold on the condescending mystique of “foreign” eroticism, but underlines one of the only firm commonalities between all five shorts. At some point in each of them, two dudes get it on.
Unfortunately, there’s another factor uniting the works in Asian Queer Shorts: They’re all not that good. Some of the most prominent flaws can be seen across multiple works, especially a nagging sense of aesthetic familiarity. In the spirit of individuated personal expression over large-scale generalities, however, it’s best to deal with these pieces on their own specifically flawed terms.
The best of the bunch come early, with Lucky Kuswandi’s Still and Mark Reyes’s Last Full Show. Kuswandi refracts this wordless story of a disconnected gay teenager (Jason Woo) wondering through the streets of a beach town after running away from home through a prism of dreamy disconnection, replete with slow-motion journeys through neon-drenched hotel corridors and shadowy back alleys. It’s not without moments of appealingly moody ambivalence, particularly when Kuswandi juxtaposes urban carnality with the quiet peace of the ocean, but the only way Still doesn’t feel derivative is if you’ve never heard of a guy named Wong Kar-wai. Last Full Show tells of a hook-up-turned-brief-fling between a rich young kid (Francis Villanueva) and the older, poorer man (Sugus Legaspi) who picks him up at a cruisy local movie theater. Reyes’s low-key direction highlights the charms of this slight and predictable film, effectively balancing the younger man’s intense rush of romantic connection with the elder’s surprised delight in his new and unorthodox relationship. That these charms largely dissipate from memory as soon as the closing credits roll speaks to the film’s limited ambitions, even within the slice-of-life niche it seeks to fill.
From here, Asian Queer Shorts begins its slow nosedive. Kevin Choi’s black-and-white Dissolution of Bodies opens and closes with gorgeously shot moments of erotic connection, with an abstracted final image of a hand writhing in sensual abandon that lingers in the mind. Choi’s corporeal focus, however, is as fleeting as it is intriguing. Mostly, the two men (Leon Le and Kenneth Lee) at the center of the film—strangers whose one-night stand may or may not become something more—talk and talk and talk, name-dropping Georges Bataille and woodenly spouting gaseous emissions (“Sex is a transaction. It’s temporal,” “Everything is a construct”) as they lounge in bed. Clocking in at a theoretically scant 13 minutes, Dissolution of Bodies feels like a date with that hot but tedious guy from your undergraduate philosophy seminar: a little action at the end not nearly justifying the interminable nonsense that prefaced it.
A Crimson Mark comes in at the same running time, and suffers from a similar issue of chatter bogging down the proceedings. Hyun-Jin Park’s short about an affair between a chancellor (Oh Dae-suk) and a clerk (Lee Dong-gyu) during the Chosun Dynasty in Korea devotes large chunks of its brief running time to chronicling the debates between rival political advisors over the authority of the child King’s stepmother. Perhaps a better grasp of Korean history would have illuminated for me the connections between this historical moment and the men’s affair. As it stands, they feel tedious and distract from the central seduction, which Park films with a nice sense for stillness and silence. (That being said, somebody buy Park a new tripod; the camera suddenly lurches down at the end of almost every shot in Crimson Mark for reasons I’m assuming are not artistic.)
The collection ends with Raymond Yeung’s Yellow Fever, a sporadically charming but mostly off-putting portrayal of Monty (Adrian Pang), a British man of Asian descent who struggles with his own sense of self-worth when he finds himself pursued by his new Chinese neighbor (Gerald Chew). Pitched in the key of sitcom, the film’s broad-as-a-barn satire and often shrill performances tinge even the most heartfelt moments with the whiff of condescension. Most regrettably, Yeung doesn’t seem that interested in dealing with ethnic self-hatred in any meaningful way. This is unfortunate, as Yellow Fever is the only film here that explicitly brings up the intersection of ethnic and sexual identities implied in the collection’s title. While I appreciated that Asian Queer Shorts reminded me of the range of work under the umbrella of “queer Asian” filmmaking, the selections almost invariably deal with issues represented by many other queer filmmakers: social alienation, secrecy and repression, sexual exploration and awakening. That Yellow Fever should attempt to deal with the specific connections between two identities, only to retreat to facile answers and a cutesy ending, underscores the range of muddled artistic decisions and missed opportunities within this uneven collection.
The quality varies from short to short. Dissolution of Bodies’s black-and-white cinematography is scalpel-sharp and luscious, and the saturated neon reds and somber shadows in Still look fabulous. But digital grain overtakes many of the images in A Crimson Mark and Yellow Fever. Sound quality remains solid throughout, with the shorts’ varying soundtracks all coming through with clarity.
Nada, save for some ads for other releases from Frameline Distribution.
A very mixed bag of shorts, in which even the strongest offerings come riddled with flaws.