Hong Kong filmmaker Ray Yeung’s new film, Front Cover, is a story about fitting in and identity
A gay Chinese man who spent half his life overseas, Yeung understands what it means to be an outsider
When Ray Yeung is asked – and it happens often – why he “makes gay films”, the filmmaker and lawyer wants to shoot back with: “why do you make straight films?” But he’ll bite his tongue – his films do the talking.
Based in Hong Kong, Yeung’s films have not only drew attention to the marginalisation of both overseas Chinese and the gay community, but also drew explicit parallels between characters coming to terms with their ethnic identities and their sexual ones, and show the ways in which marginalisation can lead to denial and self-loathing.
His second feature, Front Cover, premiered at the Seattle International Film Festival in the summer and opens the Hong Kong Lesbian and Gay Film Festival on September 19 at Festival Walk (Yeung is also the chairman of the latter), playing again on September 21 at AMC Pacific Place. The film concerns a gay Chinese-American stylist, Ryan (played by Jake Choi), who rejects his Chinese identity but is asked to style a patriotic mainland Chinese actor, Ning (James Chen), who only wants to work with a Chinese stylist, and who turns out to be gay but closeted. Sparks fly between them, but when a mainland magazine threatens to out Ning, Ryan has to choose whether to save the actor’s career by denying their relationship.
Educated in the UK from the age of 14, Yeung lived there for more than a decade before moving to New York to study at Columbia University. He returned to Hong Kong earlier this year after obtaining a master’s degree in filmmaking.
“The story is very much about fitting in,” he says. “We can all identify with pretending to be someone we are not, in order to fit in. My personal experience, being one of very few Chinese people at boarding school, was that in order to fit in I had to be as British as possible. What I’m trying to say is that everyone puts up a front – sometimes you just have to pretend. And everyone has a secret.”
Yeung knows a bit about trying to be something you’re not: while in the UK he studied for a law degree and spent two years working as a solicitor (he’s also worked as a freelance director of TV commercials).
“Of course, I didn’t like it. I only did it because my parents wanted me to do it. I didn’t want to be a lawyer; I just wanted to be fabulous. And I found that I didn’t believe in the system – the law was just a tool to be used by rich people.”
He released his first feature, Cut Sleeve Boys, in 2006. A raucous comedy about the lives of two gay Chinese-British men, it delivers plenty of guffaws, and also examines class insecurity through the same prism as the prejudices suffered by gay people and by ethnic minorities.
He spent the next few years making short films, experimenting with genres other than comedy. He estimates each one, despite only lasting about 10 minutes each, took roughly half as much effort as his features.
“I wanted to do something more grounded, with a bit more character development,” he says; the result is Front Cover, a title that’s a three-way pun on Ryan’s job, personal identity conflicts and the masks people put on. With less knockabout humour than Cut Sleeve Boys, it’s a rather tender, touching tale about coming to terms with oneself, which avoids an implausible happy ending in favour of a nuanced notion of personal development.
The film is full of scenes in which Ryan, facing stereotypical assumptions from others, rejects his own Chinese identity. He takes it as a compliment when Ning tells him he doesn’t look Chinese, and is visibly revolted by Ning and his friends’ eating habits. Ning is a more subtle character than you might expect: his nationalism isn’t particularly bellicose (American actor Chen doesn’t overdo the mainland stereotype), and comes across as far more reasonable than Ryan’s violent preference for all things American.
Usually culture-clash films have protagonists that look different from each other, that are visually identifiable as coming from different cultural backgrounds. Front Cover’s neat trick is to present a culture clash between two Chinese that covers their relationships not just to their ethnicity, but also to their sexuality. Culture clashes come from all angles in the film: Ryan’s Cantonese-speaking parents, for example, struggle to communicate with Putonghua-speaking Ning except in English.
“People ask the reason why I always deal with culture clashes,” says Yeung. “It’s not just because I’ve lived overseas for so long. I grew up in a British colony, like a guest in my own home, and so the concept of identity, and of being Chinese, is something I like to explore. Because I’ve always felt like an outsider, I’m really interested in ethnic minorities, and in not being part of the dominant culture.”
In addition to the festivals in Seattle and Hong Kong, Front Cover is in competition at the forthcoming Chicago International Film Festival and part of the official selection at the Hawaii International Film Festival. It has also secured distribution deals in both Hong Kong and North America, with the possibility of a cinema release.
After that, his next goal – now that he’s based in Hong Kong – is to make his first Chinese-language film, at least partly set here. “Film can be segregated here,” he says. “There’s an audience that only watches Western movies, and I’d like to bridge that divide. I’ve made two films about being Asian in the West, and the culture clashes that result from that, and I’d like to make one about growing up in Hong Kong.”
However, he says the filmmaking is actually the easy part – the hard parts come before and after that – and it’s about money. “Like any [new] filmmaker in the world, it’s hard to get money, and you never know where the money is coming from,” he says. “But the hardest bit is when the film’s done and you’re trying to sell it. You take it around to distributors and festivals, and some like it and some don’t, and it’s no longer just about you, but about this thing you’ve created. It’s like you have a kid you love and you’re pushing it out into the world.”
For more information and tickets to the Front Cover screenings, visit hklgff.hk