Saturday, July 7, 2007

The Power of Normalization in Queer Asian Cinema

Ang Lee and Nagisa Oshima are very different directors in terms of style, themes and content, but they share an interesting overlap as heterosexual East Asian directors who have tackled homosexual issues in contemporary films. I’ll be focusing specifically on “Wedding Banquet” (1993) and “Taboo” (2000), respectively. The Asian connection is perhaps more tenuous than it seems, with Ang Lee heralding from Taiwan and setting his film in modern New York and Oshima coming from Japan and setting his film in the late Tokugawa period (1860’s). However, commonalities can be seen in the decision to approach queer material in societies where repression, tradition or convention mark such topics as marginalized or minority, if not fully taboo. In the case of “Taboo”, the violation of societal norms lies more within the context of modern Japanese sensibilities than the historical setting of the samurai tradition. I intend to explore the ways these two films deal with queer topics and will analyze their use of normalization as a means of accommodating both gay and straight audiences.

Both directors traditionally take extraordinarily different (almost opposite) approaches to film. Ang Lee focuses on uplifting stories of domestic life, filmed with mainstream audiences in mind and realism, clarity and continuity as guideposts. Nagisa Oshima seeks out controversial issues and provocative material and shoots them with art-house (often experimental) techniques and overtly political agendas. The approach to “The Wedding Banquet” is, thus, fairly easy to predict, centering on character-driven family dynamics, domestic quotidian moments and a general humanist philosophy where a compromise can be found between tradition and modernity.

Oshima, on the other hand, could reasonably be expected to take a more aggressive position (for instance, showing outrage at their unjust treatment or shooting sexually explicit scenes) given his history with films like “Night and Fog in Japan” and In the Realm of the Senses. Nothing could be further from “Taboo”, which treats male-male relationships with cool reserve and aesthetic dispassion at the core of a plot where several (largely apolitical) themes and ruminations are entertained.

Typical negative responses to these films accuse Ang Lee of softly pandering to both sides and Nagisa Oshima of selling out (or at least selling short) his transgressive reputation. These complaints often target two areas: the absence of sexually explicit content and the failure to address the specific hardships and stigmatization of the individual homosexual within the larger heteronormative majority. Gao Wai-Tung, the gay protagonist of “The Wedding Banquet”, appears to have a strong personal relationship and an implied community of support, despite his conflict with his tradition-bound parents. In “Taboo”, the viewer is given every reason to believe that homosexuality is a respected and permissible persuasion. In neither film are the gay characters situated as victims, or even outsiders.

Is such a depiction progressive or overly cautious? The answer is, of course, not simple or singular. Japan and Taiwan both have histories that grant them experience as outsiders (in the sense that the Western world, and Hollywood in particular, have often situated them as an exotic “other” summed up in the term “Orientalism”). They also have instances of national trauma that have led to victim mentalities (the atomic bombs in Japan, oppressive foreign occupation and the Febuaury 28th incident for Taiwan). While none of the issues I have just mentioned seem to have a direct relationship to queer theory, I would like to suggest that contemporary East Asian directors are especially endowed with an awareness of the long term ramifications of reiterating and internalizing an outsider/victim position.

While it is certainly important to remember the past, it is reasonable that such directors would find it more effective to evolve a cultural landscape of sexual normalization where homosexuality is not treated as controversial, alienating or oppositional, but as fundamentally akin to and almost interchangeable with heterosexuality. By handling the material subtly, by refusing to shock mainstream moderates and by playing up humanist similarity over sexual difference, both directors achieve a wider audience: disseminating their opinions more expansively and avoiding the niche labels of “gay film” or “queer cinema” that would eliminate most heteronormative conservative viewers. Their approach also evades the problem of backlash that might drive moderates to feel more distant or different from the gay community.

So while these films are not necessarily progressive in terms of envelope-pushing, they are likely to affect more audience members than the avant-garde or controversial forefront. The “agenda,” in the Marxist sense, is more effective purely for being disguised; integrated into a conventional narrative and structure that does not call undue attention to itself. “Taboo” and “The Wedding Banquet” are progressive in the sense of tipping the scale back towards statistically equivalent cultural representation for minority communities.

This model leads to further questions as to the intended audience and modes of reception for such films. As I’ve suggested, I think both films are intended for a mainstream audience (perhaps less so for “Taboo”) and would have to reach both heterosexual and homosexual viewers to have the gradual normalization affect I mentioned earlier. As for the question of whether gay viewers will resonate especially with the material, I can only speculate.

“Taboo” does not seem to call forth audience identification or sympathy, although the androgynous beauty and poetic fatality of the central character, Kano, (already aesthetically discernable to heterosexual audiences) could only be strengthened by a sexual response/desire. A heterosexual equivalent might be the archetype of the femme fatale in film noirs. Since Oshima is heterosexual, one can (naively) presume that he is not focused on sexual spectatorial pleasure. “Taboo”’s visual perfectionism, however, would seem to invite us to indulge fully in the seductive cinematography and well-crafted imagery, so why not also the young male cast?

In “The Wedding Banquet”, the gay protagonists may or may not strike gay viewers as attractive, but they are far more likely than “Taboo” to elicit sympathy and identification. The audience is encouraged through realism, light comedy and character development to accept and relate to the characters. The leads also possess such positive traits as kindness and work-ethic that are values universally accepted by mainstream society. Normalization, here, seems to diminish and tame the possibility of sexual desire in the spectator in the way that has a long tradition in American romantic comedies: conspicuously attractive leads pursue romance, but are never shown nude or engaging in explicit sex.

Ultimately, both films succeed at furthering an enlightened sexual agenda, although neither breaks new ground in queer cinema or satisfies all possible viewer positions. The goal of pleasing the far-left, middle and conservative demographics simultaneously is near impossible, but reasonable critics are likely to understand that there is room on the cinematic and political spectrum for gay-themed films of all varieties. “Taboo” and “The Wedding Banquet” would seem to fill a notable gap in the middle-of-the-road, an area that appears to have an expanding market. Ang Lee’s "Brokeback Mountain" (2005) would seem to prove this shift and verify that his formula works at gaining widespread attention and acceptance for gay-themed romances.


Mad Dog said...

What's your opinion on the portrayal of homosexuals in that time honored tradition of the chick flick? I swear to god, every time I happen upon one, there's always the gay best friend stereotype. It was most ludicrously used, IMO, in "Must Love Dogs" where the main female protagonist has a frumpy gay friend who lives some kind of happy fantasy life where he is dating, like, an underwear model (or someone who could pass for one). I said to myself, "Who could look at that and take it seriously?"

FilmWalrus said...

Yeah, I know what you mean. And because the characters are likable and on the side of the protagonist, it's somehow an excuse not to develop the character or portray them without cliches.