5 must-watch Chinese LGBTQ films for Pride Month

Society & Culture

LGBTQ film in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and even China goes back nearly three decades. In honor of Pride Month, here are five must-see Chinese films that have helped pioneer LGBTQ cinema.

Illustration by Alex Santafé

In recent years, we’ve seen a number of great LGBTQ-themed films and filmmakers emerge from Chinese-language cinema. I’ve covered quite a few of these movies here on SupChina, such as the elderly romance Twilight’s Kiss and the work of activist Fan Popo, but it would be a mistake to think LGBTQ film on this side of the world is a new development. LGBTQ film in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and even China goes back nearly three decades, with 1993 in particular being a landmark year with the sympathetic portrayal of gay characters in Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet and Chén Kǎigē’s 陈凯歌 Farewell My Concubine. In honor of Pride Month, here are five more must-see Chinese films that have helped pioneer LGBTQ cinema.

1. East Palace, West Palace

东宫西宫 (dōnggōng xīgōng) (1996), dir. Zhāng Yuán 张元

During the 1990s, director Zhang Yuan was one of the most controversial bad boys of the Chinese indie scene. In early features like the underground rock-centered Beijing Bastards 北京杂种 (Běijīng zázhǒng) (1993), Zhang blended documentary and fiction to portray marginalized communities in China. With East Palace, West Palace, based on a story by cult writer Wáng Xiǎobō 王小波, Zhang cast his camera on the secret lives and trysts of gay men in Beijing.

The movie’s anti-hero, a writer named A-Lan, frequents the public bathrooms that were commonly used for cruising in Jingshan Park north of the Forbidden City. One night, A-Lan is caught by a macho cop named Xiao Shi. A-Lan kisses him, and a shocked Xiao Shi lets him go, the beginning of a sensual cat-and-mouse game between the two. Eventually, Xiao Shi arrests A-Lan, and interrogates him to reveal his life story over the course of a night. Although apparently straight, Xiao Shi is intrigued by A-Lan’s experiences of masochism and repression, a feeling that leads him to doubt his own sexuality.

Due to its explicit homosexual themes, Zhang had to sneak East Palace, West Palace out of China and finish it in France. When Chinese authorities learned that the movie would play at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival, they were so enraged that they took away Zhang Yuan’s passport and forced Zhāng Yìmóu 张艺谋 (who had nothing to do with the other Zhang) out of the competition. By modern standards, East Palace, West Palace isn’t nearly as sensational, but it remains an intense psychological drama about the abuses of authority and the pain of keeping an identity hidden.

2. Happy Together

春光乍泄 (chūnguāng zhà xiè) (1997), dir. Wong Kar-wai (王家卫 Wáng Jiāwèi)

East Palace, West Palace wasn’t the only LGBTQ-themed film from the Chinese-language realm to play at the Cannes Film Festival in 1997. Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together, a romance about an on-and-off gay couple stranded in Argentina, was met with wide acclaim and gifted Wong the festival’s Best Director Award. Unlike Zhang’s film, where the leads were played by straight men, Wong also notably cast the bisexual Leslie Cheung as one of his castaway lovers.

Atmospheric, gloomy, and visually stunning with its scenes of a black-and-white Buenos Aires, Happy Together opens on a flurry of passports and then a sex scene between Hong Kong couple Ho Po-Wing (Cheung) and Lai Yiu-Fai (Tony Leung Chiu-wai 梁朝伟 [Liáng Cháowěi]). In love with a lamp they own that depicts the Iguazu Falls, Po-Wing and Yiu-Fai take a disastrous vacation in Argentina. They part ways, and since they don’t have any money, Po-Wing turns to prostitution while Yiu-Fai finds a job working for a tango bar. When the men run into each other again, their romance is repeatedly rekindled and burned out as they try to figure out their feelings for one another.

At the time of its release, Wong seemed ambivalent about whether Happy Together should be seen as a gay film. He remarked, “It’s more like a story about human relationships and somehow the two characters involved are both men.” Regardless of his original intentions, as Wong himself recognized, Happy Together would be one of the first Hong Kong movies to treat its LGBTQ characters respectfully, and not as punchlines.

3. Men and Women

男男女女 (nán nán nǚ nǚ) (1999), dir. Liú Bīngjiàn 刘冰鉴

The Beijing-based filmmaker Cui Zi’en is a man of many hats. He’s a professor, an LGBTQ activist, a novelist, the founder of the Beijing Queer Film Festival, and a screenwriter and director whose films are usually offbeat and low-budget. Cui’s first work as a screenwriter, the comedy-drama Men and Women, was released two years after China officially decriminalized homosexuality.

Men and Women makes use of long takes and a leisurely pace to depict the day-to-day affairs of Xiao Bo, a country migrant who’s come to live and work in Beijing. Xiao’s friend, a married woman named Qing Jie, sets him up with a room, job, and even a possible girlfriend. Xiao isn’t attracted to women, however, and pursues a relationship with another young man. Before he leaves for good, Xiao’s sexuality shakes up his host’s marriage and results in an unexpected self-discovery.

While its lack of polish could turn away some viewers, Cui and Liu’s movie is confidently affirmative and more open than its Chinese predecessors. Cui also has an amusingly crude cameo as the host of Public Toilet Horizon, a satirical take on China Central Television’s popular news show Oriental Horizon (东方时空 dōngfāng shíkōng).

4. Lan Yu

蓝宇 (Lán Yǔ) (2001), dir. Stanley Kwan (关锦鹏 Guān Jǐnpéng)

In 1998, a gay novel called Beijing Comrades (北京故事 Běijīng gùshì) anonymously appeared on the internet. While its author is unknown to this day (they might have been a woman), Beijing Comrades left a huge impression among queer readers in mainland China. Its graphic sex scenes and sociopolitical criticism gathered the book a cult following, and its adaptation Lan Yu by Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan has further ensured its fame.

Set sometime in the late 1980s, Lan Yu is an architecture student in need of some quick cash. He meets up with a middle-aged businessman named Chen Handong, and the two have an encounter that turns into a closeted relationship. Lan Yu is in mad love with him, but Chen is afraid to fully commit. He’s a playboy at heart, and his marriage and reputation would fall apart if anybody were to find out about Lan Yu.

Amazingly, Kwan shot this movie featuring full frontal nudity and a depiction of the Tiananmen Square tragedy on location in Beijing, without authorization from the government. These issues guaranteed that the movie would never be released nationwide, although it became a favorite in the underground film scene, and was showered with praise in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

5. Blue Gate Crossing

蓝色大门 (lán sè dàmén) (2002), dir. Yee Chih-yen (易智言 yì zhì yán)

With recent box office successes like Your Name Engraved Herein (刻在你心底的名字 kè zài nǐ xīndǐ de míngzì), Taiwan has had a small renaissance of LGBTQ-themed films since the late 2000s. These stories have largely focused on gay men, but one of the most heartfelt is the coming-of-age lesbian drama Blue Gate Crossing. In its basic premise, the movie is an echo of director Yee Chih-yen’s debut Lonely Hearts Club (寂寞芳心俱乐部 jìmò fāngxīn jùlèbù) (1996), which is about an accountant who discovers her new crush at work is gay.

For his second feature, Yee flipped the genders and swapped the setting from an office to a high school. Lin Yueh-chen wants to date an athlete on the swim team, but she’s too shy to talk to him. Her bolder friend, Meng Ke-rou, agrees to help set her up. The plan backfires into a love triangle, however, when the boy asks Ke-rou out instead. Although she’s confused about her sexuality, Ke-rou goes along with the relationship, realizing in the middle of it that she’s actually in love with Yueh-chen.

Blue Gate Crossing is the shortest movie on this list, yet it manages to say a lot about adulthood, loneliness, and love. Its characters are charming and funny, and while it unfolds in little moments, it’s a bittersweet experience that sticks with you.