Hong Kong’s gender-benders are the stuff of legend; director Patrick Chan adds two key works to the canon in these 1996 bookend satires of fame, pop music, and forbidden kisses.
If art has its roots in anxiety, nerve-wracked Hong Kong should be first in the field. Since 1984, when Britain agreed to return the colony to China on July 1 of this year, Hong Kong cinema particularly has been permeated by the anxieties surrounding this potentially cataclysmic changeover. Most observers cite John Woo’s Hard-Boiled and The Killer, veritable orgies of masculine violence and despair, as among the more extreme responses to an uncertain tomorrow. But lurid images of male paranoia and self-destruction are only one product of a cinema that fears for its future.
Equally extreme but surely easier on the mind and eyes are the substantial number of gender-bender movies produced in Hong Kong over the last 13 years. Cross-dressing and homosexuality manifest in just about every genre, but seem to find the warmest haven in historical fantasies of Old China and more modern sex comedies with farcical overtones. Two of the best of these fall into the latter category, and they’re must-see items in this year’s San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival.
As in the west, such themes often find eager audiences both gay and straight, and director Peter Chan established a highly successful series in 1996 with He’s a Woman, She’s a Man. Rose (Carina Lau) is a pop superstar in love with her wayward producer, Sam Koo (Leslie Cheung). Chi-Wing, or Wing (Anita Yuen), is a desperate female fan of both who disguises herself as a boy for an audition with Sam, who falls in love with him/her. Director Chan spins off multiple layers of drag/camp like so much chiffon as Wing’s increasingly indecipherable gender confounds everyone around her. Rose tries to seduce her, then decides Wing is gay and that they can be “sisters” instead. Wing and Sam engage in an elaborate ritual of hesitation and engagement.
In some ways, He’s a Woman, She’s a Man is the story of a heterosexual man coming to terms with homosexuality. The film assigns a seasoned gay character to help Sam along in his progress. This is “Auntie” (Eric Tsang), a mincing queen who rails against his friend’s naiveté and refusal to follow his impulses. Eventually Sam resolves to love Wing regardless of gender: “Whether you are a boy or girl — it doesn’t matter. I only know that I love you.” In the midst of the sometimes chaotic comedy are surprisingly poignant scenes of Sam sitting alone at the piano, pining for something he wants but can’t have: another “man,” Wing.
Students of Hong Kong cinema see a further, complicating dimension in the fact that actor Leslie Cheung, cast as a sexually confused man, is gay in real life. This adds an often irresistible irony — for example, in the scene where he’s so turned on by almost kissing Wing that he leaps on Rose for a sweaty sex session; or early on when he asks Wing, a woman who’s dressed as a man, whether “he” is gay. The transgressive gay male kiss is breathtakingly rendered when, after many near-misses, Sam Koo finally connects with Wing. Of course, as omniscient viewers following every plot twist, we know this is a man kissing a woman, but the film generates so much nervous tension around the event that it plays equally as two men kissing.
In the follow-up, Who’s the Woman, Who’s the Man? (also 1996), Wing’s descent into the complexities of gender takes a new turn. Through her work with Sam Koo, Wing has become a famous singer. She’s still pretending to be a man for her public, but lives as a woman with Sam. But Wing continues to cause him problems because of her inability to contain who she really is behind the trappings of drag. During an awards ceremony, dressed and perceived as a man, she suddenly “outs” him when she screams from the stage, “Sam — I love you!”
Meanwhile, an equally androgynous character appears, the reclusive star Fan Fan (Anita Mui). To Sam’s chagrin, she replaces him as the object of Wing’s love. The popularity of both Wing and Fan Fan shows the film’s amused view of the practical rewards of being free of gender restraints — Wing is feverishly worshipped as having “brought androgyny to HK pop,” as the subtitles say. Her audience loves her “feminine male pop icon status!” Wing, standing in for the women in the audience, explores the pleasures of male privilege when she takes the glamorous Fan-Fan on a “heterosexual” date.
Who’s the Woman offers a lesbian mirror image of the previous film’s transgressive “male” kiss. This scene is another dizzying drag/camp creation that operates on many levels. During the shooting of a remake of Gone with the Wind, Fan Fan, a woman, plays Rhett Butler, complete with moustache; and Wing, a woman pretending to be a man who’s now dressed in female drag, portrays Scarlett. Their extended, graphic kiss is long, hot, and above all thoroughly lesbian — this time we see clearly through the layers of drag to two actresses, Anita Yuen and Anita Mui, in a passionate liplock.
Director Chan fleshes out the very gay world of these films with not only a galaxy of queer characters, but also endless subplots that play off the general sexual confusion. Two painters working on Sam’s apartment are inspired to come out of their closet by what they believe is his willingness to buck social trends and live with the “man” he loves: Wing. Wing’s best friend Fish (Jordan Chan), a hunky butch guy, dresses like a woman in a desperate attempt to attract Fan Fan’s gorgeous dyke buddy, who merely laughs at him. When Wing asks the dyke what it’s like “for a girl to like a girl,” the response is typically deadpan-absurd. As rendered by the fractured subtitles: “First, they cut their hair short. Wear men’s clothes. Pretend to be a man. Then, followed by hiccups!”