Through the years
As the curtain rises on this year's lesbian and gay film festival, its director talks to Clarence Tsui about changing attitudes
With the age of consent between gay adults now standing effectively at 16 - the same as in Britain, the Netherlands and most states in the US where homosexuality is legal - Hong Kong might seem in its sexuality-related statutes to be among the more progressive places in the world.
It's no longer uncommon these days, in addition, to see homoerotic imagery on billboards around town, whether as marketing devices or endorsing same-sex relationships; even the government's TV spots about condom use feature same-sex couples alongside their heterosexual counterparts.
And then there's the annual Hong Kong Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, now in its 18th year. Having outgrown its roots at the Hong Kong Arts Centre, HKLGFF is now one of the most anticipated events on the cinephile's calendar.
The reality for gay people, however, is not this simple - as Vicci Ho Wing-yiu, the festival's director for the past two years, testifies. While gay people are no longer viewed through a prism today as they were even a decade ago, when films and television programmes unabashedly presented the stereotypical effeminate man and macho woman, a bubbling stream of homophobic antagonism remains.
'People are definitely still harbouring doubts about gay culture,' she says. 'While I'm certain that there are private companies that have no problems with sponsoring us - quite a few do - there are some companies that don't even bother responding to our calls. In fact, I've met executives who told me that they couldn't deal with us because they are worried that they might anger some of their big, Christian clients if their names are somewhat linked to us.'
Ho also points to the moral outrage generated in January by the Broadcasting Authority's censure of an RTHK documentary about lesbian couples, a decision widely championed by Hong Kong's religious right and heavily criticised not only by gay rights activists but also by journalists, media commentators and even politicians.
'And all this while the mainland [authorities] chose not to interfere with a gay television show being shown online in China,' says Ho. 'Sometimes I think that things are much more liberal up there on the mainland than here in Hong Kong.'
The raised eyebrows and implicit repression from mainstream society aren't the only problems Ho and her team have to contend with in trying to make HKLGFF work. Discontent is also brewing on the other side of the fence: while the moral right continues to brand gay culture as deviant and frivolous, Ho has heard from a number of young, gay cinema-goers that the festival is veering too far from the pleasure principle with its documentaries and showcases for serious filmmakers, such as last year's poorly-received Tilda Swinton retrospective.
'It's the more bourgeois films, the boy-meets-boy fare, that can generate the most revenue these days,' says Ho.
'The generation who grew up in the 1970s and 80s saw for themselves how the gay community was at outright war for their rights - that isn't there any more now.
'For example, when I told people that there's an Aids retrospective at this year's festival, some responses were along the lines, 'Hold on, that's so heavy going'. It's as if Aids doesn't matter to them any more. Well, in a way such a change in attitude could be seen as a good thing; it means that the gay community can now enjoy life as someone more than just a gay person. On the other hand, it's not as if the problems have disappeared and things for gay people are now OK.'
Even then, Ho admits that the festival has to reconcile its mission to provide hard-edged, engaging, activist fare with the pull of physical beauty: most of the programme's photographs, for example, feature hulky men and attractive women.
In fact, the Aids retrospective is far from the most solemn section for 2007. Designed to coincide with World Aids Day on December 1, the series - sponsored by Red Ribbon Centre, the Health Department's Aids resource and research institute - comprises five very accessible feature films, including Jacques Nolot's Before I Forget (about a 58-year-old, HIV-positive rent-boy-turned-writer) and Andre Techine's The Witnesses (about the effect of a man's HIV-positive diagnosis on his circle of friends in France, 1984). There's also Parting Glances, the well-known portrayal of New York and Aids in the mid-1980s which was Steve Buscemi's big-screen debut; Gregg Araki's Totally F***ed Up, revealing nihilistic American gay teenagers whose hopes are smothered by Ronald Reagan's conservatism; and, finally, Zero Patience, a musical that mixes surreal black humour about gay culture with reflections on the catastrophic consequences of Aids.
The bottom line she's sticking with, Ho says, is that she will not preside over a festival thriving only on pretty-boy (and girl) flicks. As a contrast to the films which open the festival tonight - Bangkok Love Story, a love story between an assassin and his quarry, and Japanese teenage coming-out drama First Love - the festival will close with Books of James, a documentary from Hong Kong-born filmmaker Ho Tam, on James Wentzy, whose photographs and videowork in New York from the mid-1970s to the early 90s (he was diagnosed with Aids in 1990) chronicle the tribulations of a gay man through that ill-fated decade.
This year's main programme is divided into sections by age, from teenage doubts and fears in the Youth section to the twentysomething films that explore the lives of gay people as they come to terms with the real world. One of the most interesting films in this section is Israeli entry The Bubble, which looks at how geopolitics has an impact on the relationship between a Palestinian man and the Israeli soldier he meets at a border checkpoint. Finally, there's the Family section, examining how gay people come to terms with issues such as marriage, adoption of children and generational schisms.
While all the films are intended to cater for gay audiences, Ho says it's also her aim to expand the audience base to cinema-goers beyond the gay community.
But a paradox emerges from her aspirations for such a crossover: the festival might lose its unique edge as a converging point for Hong Kong's gay community if straight people attend the festival in droves.
'The community here is not that concentrated and the festival actually provides the opportunity for people to be watching films with fellow gay people - it's an experience that could shape a collective spirit,' she says.
Hong Kong Lesbian & Gay Film Festival begins today and runs until Dec 2. For programme details,
go to hklgff.hk