What’s Up @ Frameline?
Frameline, the shining star of the LGBT film festival circuit, turns 37 this year. It’s business as usual as the festival ushers in an impressive array of documentaries chronicling both the fun and vibrancy of gay culture, as well as the difficult struggles we still face; narratives; and clusters of clever shorts, such as "Between Ring & Pendant," a collection of Asian and Pacific Islander shorts.
Because I gravitate towards foreign films, I take note of such offerings. This year’s World Cinema section is especially strong, with touching stories traveling both from the usual places (France, Germany) and less expected locales (Nepal, Poland). Lovers of Asian Cinema will be thrilled by the section, "Queer Asian Cinema," which features affirming documentaries from China and Morocco, both a suspenseful drama and a comedy from South Korea, and a Taiwanese romantic comedy, among other treats. Because I also have an affinity for queer writers, I made two exceptions to my focus on world cinema so that I could see comedic features based on the work of SF heroine Michelle Tea and best-selling sensation David Sedaris.
C.O.G., based on a popular Sedaris essay, follows the travails of an uppity Yale student as he goes to Oregon to pick apples for the summer. Fresh from winning the Best New American Film award at the Seattle Film Festival, this film is something of a crowd pleaser because of its charming protagonist and its singular misadventures. Sedaris fans will recognize his self-deprecating humor and the way he grapples with the awkwardness of privilege. Samuel, who takes on a pseudonym and rejects contact with his parents, so as to have a new identity for the summer, flounders in the naïve notion that he can will himself to be working class for the summer. Is it an admirable attempt to relate across class divisions or just an arrogant ploy for adventure? Will the challenges and idiosyncrasies of the characters he befriends and offends along the way impact him in the end?
It’s All So Quiet
The Dutch drama, It’s All So Quiet also deals with a man in a rural setting not quite relating to those around him. In this case, middle-aged Helmer chooses not to engage with his garrulous neighbors while he cares for his ailing father on a farm. The bear-like milkman attempts to be personable, and a female neighbor is equally perky in her attempts to befriend the reticent protagonist. He’s not having it, and it takes awhile to get a sense of why he is so withdrawn. This is a patient and rewarding drama that reveals in small increments through the bucolic banalities that make up Helmer’s existence: helping his father to the window, feeding the cows, hiring help. A bit of intrigue seeps in when he hires and handsome young farmer who also wants to know him a bit more intimately.
In the Name Of
Rural Poland is the challenging terrain in In the Name Of, which competed in Berlinale this year. This drama, which follows a Catholic priest’s struggle to resist temptation while overseeing wayward and (of course) libidinous teenage boys. This is emphatically not a typical melodrama about the psychological conflict of the gay religious person torn between being sexually honest and being faithful to God. And thank God for that. This film is leagues more interesting and potentially resonant for the irreligious. It is about bonds personal missions in the midst of the rivalries, pettiness, and hooliganism recognizable across cultures.
Young and Wild
Troublemaking and religiosity also constitute the dramatic intrigue of Chilean Young and Wild. But here, protagonist Daniela, is the fiery troublemaker. She lives in an Evangelist household, so when fornicating gets her expelled from her religious academy just prior to graduating, it is no small deal to her mother. Incensed, her mother vows to keep her locked up and out of the devil’s way. However, popular blogger Daniela, sex-crazed and not lacking ingenuity, is not to be deterred. She WILL have her pillow talk, and she WILL have her naked fun... with a devout boy and a seductive girl or two. She’s a bit mercurial, sometimes making moves to embrace piousness, other times reveling in blasphemy; but this only makes her a more fun character to follow. This is the film to go to for some poppy, highly au courant fun.
SSoongava: Dance of the Orchids
The first Nepali feature to take on lesbian love, Soongava: Dance of the Orchids, chronicles the complexities that arise for two middle class students as their affection for each other blossoms into a force that will not relent in the face of marriage arrangements and a disapproving society. Kiran and Diya, a tradition Nepali dancer, are bold in their love and perhaps a bit overly-optimistic (or dismissive) about how the revelation will be received by their intimates. Cracks begin to appear in their comfortable existence as the word gets out about their affair, and moving into their own apartment away from family won’t be enough to keep the nefarious forces at bay.
In San Francisco, a completely different sort of lesbian drama is playing out - or ’dramas’, I should say, as Valencia is an episodic film in which chapters of Michelle Tea’s are brought to life by different directors and a different cast. The consistency here is that we are exposed to the radical bohemian lesbians of the Mission District, through the lens of boozin’ and cruisin’ badass Michelle. From riot grrls to art nerds, this is a colorful world that those familiar with the Mission will instantly recognize. With a punk spirit that reflects Michelle’s attitude, the film takes viewers through the laughable and cringe-inducing ups and downs of bed-hopping and employment flopping in the hipster oasis.
Israel, the self-proclaimed gay Mecca of the Middle East may be an oasis of sorts for out gays, but two films this year show that all is not hunky dory in the Jewish state. Melting Away is a rare Israeli film to feature a transgender character. Young Assaf runs away from home when his parents react harshly to his sexuality. Years later, when his mother, understandably conflicted about the way she treated her son, hires a private investigator to seek him out, Assaf now Anna, a woman performing sultry, melancholic tunes in a gay bar. Though their son is easy to track down, closing the emotional gulf, as Assaf’s father is on his death bed, will be much tougher.
Out in the Dark
Life is at least as tricky for Nimr, one half of the couple at the center of Out in the Dark. Like the real life Palestinian gay subjects featured in the documentary "City of Borders," Nimr risks jumping the fence dividing Palestine and Israel to go to a gay bar. He bravely continues a risky existence when he falls in love with an Israeli lawyer and begins studying Psychology in Tel Aviv. The committed couple become embroiled in a suspenseful series of conflicts as they try to find a solution both for Nimr, whom is welcome in neither Ramallah nor Tel Aviv, and for them, as a couple. His plight is not helped by the fact that his brother is involved with terrorist activity and the Israeli authorities have it in for him. This is a heartfelt, well-acted drama that elicits sympathy for both lovers while paying tribute to the resilience required of gay refugees.
A persistent and privileged protagonist is also at the center of South Korean White Night, a sexy and brazen drama that unfolds over one intense night in Seoul. Director Lee Song Hee-il explored sexual connection across class divisions in his milestone gay film, "No Regret;" while his new film has quite a different narrative, this conflict is again part of the equation. Flight attendant Won-gyu returns to his hometown after two years in Germany. But this is no leisurely visit; painful memories and unresolved enmities emerge as he navigates Seoul’s maze of streets with an attractive blue collar guy who doesn’t take kindly to his manipulation - but is intrigued enough to stick around for the ride. Will this be Won-gyu’s final night in Korea, as he claims?