Art gave me the language to say who I am.
Growing up Chinese American and recently accepting my own queerness, I did not often see people who looked like me in the media I consumed, and I was an avid consumer.
However, that does not mean that these characters did not exist. Queer Asian cinema grew in prominence after the 1990s, with major successes from iconic directors like Ang Lee and Wong Kar-wai. Even though Asian representation in cinema, specifically Western cinema, is often interrupted by yearlong gaps, queer Asians have always existed and will continue to do so. As my queerness and Asianness are far from mutually exclusive, it has been eye-opening to realize that there are people who understand parts of me out there, creating stories that I can take with me throughout my life.
Lately, I have been finding comfort in movies centering on these stories — from those rooted in history like “Your Name Engraved Herein” to recent releases like “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” These movies have become my personal favorites and only scrape the surface of what it’s like to be queer and Asian — specifically, in my experience, queer and Chinese American.
“Your Name Engraved Herein”: A Tragedy and Reminder
Taking place in 1987 in Taiwan, after the lifting of martial law, “Your Name Engraved Herein” has a melancholy heart. Director Patrick Liu tells the story of Chang Jia-han and his friend Birdy as they navigate the homophobia and restrictions of the time period.
Watching the two boys fall in love and then drift apart beneath the pressures of a religion that claims homosexuality is sinful and a family that does not understand, this movie leaves a bittersweet taste in my mouth. I watch it now, knowing that since 2018, Taiwan has enacted equal marriage laws, and I’ve also found my own community.
The director describes this similar, disorienting feeling himself in an interview with TIME, as an aching realization that, for some generations, the legalization of same-sex marriage came too late.
At the same time, “Your Name Engraved Herein” is not all hopeless. The two eventually meet again in Canada by chance, now grown up with more years between them than spent together. We see a younger version of them strolling through the streets together, lively with hope, singing the last song they’d listened to together before parting for good. “If I have another chance,” they promise, “I will surely love again.”
“Your Name Engraved Herein” is an important reminder that the place I inhabit now was not always inherent. But it also leaves me with a sense of light, that perhaps it doesn’t have to be too late to share that place with the generations before us.
“The Half of It”: Friendship in the Unlikeliest Places
“The Half of It” is a comedy-drama about Ellie Chu, a young Chinese American lesbian, attempting to help the jock Paul Munsky write a love letter to their crush, Aster Flores. Albeit a silly premise, it has a way of catching up to you at the very end, reducing me to very loud and embarrassing sobs at home.
Originally written as a tribute to a good friend director Alice Wu lost, “The Half of It” has a theme of friendship, sprouting from the unlikeliest of places (really, straight white guys), running beautifully throughout the movie. But while Ellie’s queerness is not necessarily the main focus, it is still a constant undercurrent.
In a way, her queerness is like my own. We share struggles in silence and language and being stifled. So I was rooting for her all the way to the very end — when she kisses Aster and leaves with a smile when she decides to leave town for college and gets on the train with bags upon bags of her dad’s handmade dumplings.
“Dear Ex”: Endlessly Colorful
I came across “Dear Ex” on a random day, thinking it was so vibrant I just had to watch it. Being another Taiwanese comedy-drama released in 2018, it centers around Liu San-Lien, her son Song Cheng-xi, and Jay, who is Song’s late father’s lover and, in an unpleasant surprise to the family, insurance beneficiary.
Though I watched it by chance, it stuck with me even now. Though loss is an undercurrent of the story, it’s really about the tenacity needed to chase our passions, the hardships of keeping a family together, and how sometimes we do horrible things to one another but can still come out of it okay.
Though there is a coming out scene between Jay and his mom that makes me cry even now, coming out is not the movie’s main focus.
“We’re dealing with other stuff. It can’t just be like, you came out and then happily ever after, right?” said Northwestern University Asian American Studies professor Raymond San Diego. “There’s a whole bunch of other things that can happen as well. The more of that, I think, is cool.”
Director Mag Hsu echoes this sentiment that Warner Brothers, who distributed “Dear Ex,” did not consider the movie to be solely about being gay. Though its release auspiciously coincided with calls for legalizing gay marriage in Taiwan, Hsu hopes that “Dear Ex” can be enjoyed by all.
It certainly touched me to watch this teenage boy shove himself into Jay’s life in the ultimate act of rebellion against his mother. That really is the heart of this story, after all.
“Everything Everywhere All at Once”: A Movie About Everything
A multidimensional being in the form of Evelyn Wang’s daughter, Joy, begins to wreak havoc in her attempts to find some variant of her mother who will finally understand her. Evelyn, swamped down by taxes, failing laundromats, and mundane adult stressors, must find a way to save her daughter.
Directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, this movie felt like a letter personally written to me. Out of everything else on this list, I saw myself the most here. I saw myself in Joy, saw my mom in Evelyn, and saw my family for everything strained and loving that it was all at once, on the big screen. They have the rice cooker that sings the same song I grew up hearing and speak the same Chinglish I do.
Moreover, they live like me.
Like actor Stephanie Hsu has said in an interview with Them, Joy’s queerness cannot be separated from the story. The only reason Joy/Jobu do what they do is because all they want is a mom who understands and accepts them. Even so, it’s not an easy journey.
Joy’s grief and rage at this seemingly uncrossable divide between generations is something I find myself growing more intimate with as I get older too. It ached to see her struggle to define herself in her grandfather’s mother tongue — lacking the proper language even to define who she is. It also hurt to see Evelyn’s half-hearted acceptance-but-not-really of Joy’s queerness at first because that’s how I sometimes imagine my own parents reacting if they ever found out.
So it meant everything to see Evelyn be the one to bridge the rift at the very end. She took the first step toward healing a very raw wound — with planets colliding and rocks tumbling off cliffs.
I don’t know if I will ever come out to my family, and that’s okay. Still, sitting in that theater after more than two hours of riding such an inexplicable, irreverent journey, I wanted to call my mom anyway and just talk to her.
Representation is an Ongoing Process
Of course, caveats should be placed. These are only movies I have watched that made me feel seen, but our community’s experiences are far more nebulous than my individual one.
Perhaps some complaints with some queer Asian cinema might be that they alienate certain audiences or that they just don’t accurately capture our own experiences.
But what really is being queer and Asian?
“It’s never going to be what it’s supposed to be representing. That is why it’s a representation,” San Diego said. “It is not an actual thing. It is just a representation. And no representation is ever complete or perfect or whole, even sometimes when it’s of ourselves.”
Still, we might not yet have the story we really want told. Still, there are parts of the queer Asian experience that remain unexplored or unknown — San Diego mentioned the trans Asian experience or the horror genre as untapped veins. But maybe we can take parts of art where we do see ourselves wherever we go.
“One of the things I do respect about a lot of these filmmakers who make stuff on their own is that they’re taking a chance to tell a story that they think matters, at least to them, and hopefully will matter to other people,” San Diego said. “That part, I think, is what can be so great — is taking the chance.”
So perhaps, to answer my own question, being queer and Asian means a lot of things. It means there will be hardships and there will be misunderstandings. It means being something I would not want to give up.
It means, mostly, taking that chance.
“Your Name Engraved Herein,” “Dear Ex,” and “The Half of It” can all be watched on Netflix. “Everything Everywhere All at Once” is available for streaming on platforms like Amazon Prime.
Cover photo: A24
Last modified: August 10, 2022