Queer films at Philly’s Asian American Film Festival

The Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival unspools Nov. 7-17 at venues around the city. This year’s program spotlights two queer features, a shorts program that reflects Asian and Asian American LGBTQ life and three films by out gay and queer directors.

The festival’s centerpiece screening, “Song Lang,” (Nov. 9, 7:30 p.m., at the Lightbox Film Center) is writer/director Leon Le’s handsomely mounted Vietnamese drama set in 1980s Saigon. Dung “Thunderbolt” (Lien Binh Phat) is a debt collector who meets cai luong (traditional folk opera) star Lihn Phung (Isaac) when the performer stops Dung from burning the theatre’s costumes because of non-payment. Maybe because his father was a cai luong musician, Dung develops a fondness for Phung, whom he rescues from a bar fight one night. Taking the singer home, the two men bond over video games, a meal and rooftop chats. Their romance is subtle, full of unspoken desire, but it does prompt Phung to sing from his heart. This slow but gorgeous period drama features exquisite costumes and performance scenes as the film reaches its operatic climax.

“Queer Asian Voices: Intimacy and Isolation” (Nov. 16 at 12:10 p.m., at the Asian Arts Initiative) features seven strong LGBT short films.

The program opens with “Rosemary,” by Navi Matulaian, about Besu Yumin, a two-spirit aboriginal Taiwanese drag queen who transforms himself into Rose Mary. As Besu is seen putting on a wig and makeup, glitter and dresses, she becomes, “the girl who has been sleeping inside me.” This short, inspirational video emphasizes the liberation and freedom Besu finds as Rose Mary.

“Bed & Breakfast,” by writer/director Anna Mikami, depicts an awkward encounter between Lena (Mikami) and her boyfriend Charlie (John Ting) and lesbian couple Sam (Lya Yanne) and Terri (Hannah Sloat) at a bed and breakfast. This delicate short builds tension as Lena and Sam hope their secret past connection does not get discovered by their lovers.

“Safe Among Stars,” by Jess X Snow, has lesbian Jia (Poppy Lio) delving into a fantasy world to cope with trauma as well as the pressure her traditional mother (Leah Cai) projects on to her. This short is visually dynamic, with scenes of Jia teleporting, before climaxing in an emotional moment.

“Unspoken” is Patrick G. Lee’s excellent documentary about six LGBT Asian Americans talking about coming out and helping their traditional parents process this queer reality. The stories are heartfelt and emotional. Emi Grate, a Burmese drag queen, expresses her thoughts on gender identity and honoring her ethnicity. Sen, a trans femme, describes passing. Other interviewees discuss parents denying who they are. “Unspoken” poignantly illustrates the power and importance of queer Asian community building and the efforts of these individuals to find validation, respect, dignity, acceptance and self-worth.

“Halwa,” co-written and directed by Nirav Bhakta and Gayatri Bajpai, is a compassionate drama about Sunjata’s (Vee Kumari) reconnection with Premila (Sonal Shah) — a woman Sunjata had loved decades ago when the two were younger women. Sunjata reaches out through social media to recapture the feeling of true love while in an abusive relationship with the man (Asit Kumar Vyas) she married.

“Engaged,” written and directed by Dave Scala, has Darren (Daniel K. Isaac) unable to find the right moment to propose to his boyfriend, Elliot (Ryan Jamaal Swain). As he endures a series of humiliations, he suddenly realizes what (or who) is getting in his way. “Engaged” is a bright, irresistible, feel-great romantic comedy.

Rounding out the program is “Care For You” by OHYUNG. This four-minute music video has Hye Yun and drag performer Wo Chan kissing, cooking, dancing and canoodling over the title track. It’s a stylish, romantic short featuring fabulous costumes.

Director Graham Kolbeins’ fast-paced, magazine-style documentary, “Queer Japan,” (Nov. 16 at 1:50 p.m. at the Asian Arts Initiative) introduces out and proud LGBTQ Japanese folks, to illustrate the community’s vibrancy of diversity. Kolbeins interviews Viviene Sato, a drag queen and artist, Tomato, a trans activist, gay erotic artist Gengoroh Tagame (who is also the author of the comic series, “My Brother’s Husband,”) as well as Aya, a trans politician, among others. These subjects candidly discuss sexuality, discrimination, the importance of queer spaces and identity issues. Aya, in particular, describes the difficulties and frustrations she experienced when changing her gender her ID. 

“Queer Japan” also features a segment on the clubs in Shinjuku Ni-chome, Toyko’s gay district, where bar owners like Chiga started “Gold Finger,” a women-only party, and a party called “Grammy Tokyo” was created for members of the trans community. There is also an in-depth look at Department H, a party for fetishists, such as MaChite, a bisexual who likes being in costume.

While a lengthy sequence showcases the Tokyo Pride Parade, Kolbeins also travels to Osaka, Kyoto and Okinawa. He meets with members of the queer Deaf community as well as HIV activists who are working on awareness campaigns and promoting queer visibility. What emerges is a well-rounded portrait that shows the dignity and inroads being made by a minority community in Japan.

“Queer Japan” is preceded by the fantastic short, “In This Family,” about Marcus, a Filipino teen who is outed by a teacher. Director Drama Del Rosario chronicles the impact this has on Marcus’ family. In an eloquent narrative, Marcus reveals how his entire family came through the process of his coming out.

Three other films featured in the festival are by openly queer directors. Lina Brocka’s 1975 drama, “Manila in the Claws of Light,” has a young man from the provinces searching for his girlfriend in Manila and finding it tough-going in a city filled with marginalized (poor and gay) people. “Ten Years Thailand” is an anthology film that invites four filmmakers — including the out gay director Apichatpong Weerasethakul — to imagine their country a decade from now. And “Empty by Design,” by queer Filipinx director Andrea A. Walter looks at issues of home and belonging as Eric (Osric Chau) and Samantha (Rhian Ramos) return to Manila looking for a connection. 

For tickets, visit www.phillyasianfilmfest.org/2019/.