First comes law, then comes martial.
It is the late 1980s and Catholic high school student Chang Jia-han is meeting with his school priest, Father Oliver for counseling. Jia-han, also known as A-han, is in trouble for having gotten into a fight with another student. He still has some blood on his face. Father Oliver asks A-han why he got into a fight for love. A-han cannot give an answer. With a dash of sarcasm and cynicism, A-han agrees to move forward with Father Oliver’s counseling, and starts his story.
On the 15th of July, 1987, 38 years of martial law finally ended in Taiwan. But have things changed for the youth? Well…
A-han meets Wang Po Te in swimming class. Father Oliver (he is the swimming instructor as well?) has the class test their lung capacity by going underwater. As all of the students seem to have closed their eyes during while underwater, A-han takes the opportunity to steals some glances at Po Te. Po Te, or Birdy, stays underwater for longer than anyone, and A-han has to check that he did not drown. Two minutes and four seconds.
It is almost bedtime, but dormitory check happens first. As the “school martial law” has not been lifted, the housemaster goes looking through the sleeping areas of A-han and his three roommates in search of school rule violations. He neither notices that Birdy has been behind him acting like a shadow the entire time nor notices that Birdy has stayed in the room after he leaves. A-han and his roommates castigate Birdy for being there, mostly because he might jeopardize their attempt to sneak out for the night.
The four of them do eventually manage to sneak out, only to encounter Birdy returning from his own excursion to get food.
A-han and his three roommates go to a cemetery to meet four girls from…I don’t know. The boys had brought their band instruments to serenade the girls with a substandard rendition of Amazing Grace.
Perhaps they play other pieces. I am not sure, because the movie abruptly cuts to the eight of them pairing off to have sex in the cemetery. Apparently, being stuck in an all-boys school has lead to some pent-up horniness in at least one of A-han’s roommates. Not A-han, though. The girl whom he is with seems willing, but he is…not really interested. She even reaches down there to check. Not happening. He apologizes.
Speaking of band instruments, A-han is at band club where Father Oliver (again?) is telling the boys to treat their instruments like their lovers, extolling the beauty of young love. One of the boys asks Father Oliver how he would know about love having never been in love. When Father Oliver slyly implies that he has, about half of the class crowd around him asking for stories. Did you kiss? Was she from Montreal as well? A-han and Birdy are part of the group that remained seated, and they flash each other amused looks, silently agreeing that this was ridiculous.
A-han arrives at the dorm to see a bunch of boys being punished for something or other. Most of the boys are forced to stand in front of the hallway wall while holding objects over their head. The housemaster has been whipping Birdy for having gone outside to get supper. He says that he knows that others have done similarly, but I guess that it is Birdy getting the brunt of it. Birdy takes the beating, but maintains a grin. Is he enjoying it, is that him acting tough, or is that just his form of rebellion?
A-han goes to the bathroom where Birdy is washing up in a shower stall. A-han gives him something to help tend to his bruise and tells him to hide newspapers in his pockets next time. Suddenly, A-han hears a group of boys arrive and he runs to hide in Birdy’s shower stall. It turns out A-han’s three roommates have dragged a fourth boy into the bathroom, accusing him of having tattled to the housemaster. Their insults and accusations quickly turn homophobic, claiming this assault as revenge for him having peeked at one of them in the shower.
Birdy tries to intervene before they do something particularly vile to the boy, but A-han stops him. In the process, A-han shuts the stall door loudly, revealing the presence of someone else to the bullies. They demand that whoever is in there come out, so A-han does, claiming that he took a shower because he was sick. Horn, the apparent ringleader of his roommates, invites him to take part in the assault. Seeing that A-han is reluctant, Horn assures him that the guy will do worse if not punished, like forcing them all to be gay as well. It seems that the other three have successfully pressured A-han into joining in when Birdie appears, helping the victim up and walking out of the bathroom with him. Horn is puzzled. How long was he in there? And, wasn’t that the same stall that A-han was in? A-han denies it…and I guess that that is that.
A-han is napping in his bunk when Birdy sneaks in. A-han is terrified that his roommates will hear, but Birdy doesn’t care. Neither did he care when he emerged from the shower stall. In any case, he stole some nuts (or…fruits) from Dirty Head’s (is that the housemaster?) office and shares them with A-han. They crack them open, and in the silence, the cracks sound like heartbeats to A-han. I don’t hear it, but maybe that was his actual heart beating that he was hearing.
Birdy sneaks outside and A-han follows. Birdy finds Dirty Head’s car with a window cracked open, so he urinates into the car.
Apparently, A-han gets caught causing trouble and his mother has to visit. Oh no, it is just a bait and switch. He is in trouble, but only because his grades are terrible. The school claims that they are not giving up on him, but he will get bumped from science studies to liberal arts…which is where Birdy is. For some reason, they bring up that the school will have to start accepting girls next semester to comply with government policy. I guess that they feel like that could threaten his grades. You know…with him wanting to chase the girls around.
It is the 14th of January, 1988, and the national flag is ordered to be flown half-mast for one month. Chiang Ching-kuo, eldest son of Chiang Kai-shek and president of Taiwan for nearly ten years, died the afternoon before. After the final exam, students are allowed to take an official leave to pay homage in Taipei. The school takes a minute of silence, closing their eyes and bowing their heads in mourning. A-han and Birdy take that moment to share a look. Birdy mouths that they should go and A-han agrees.
The pair take a train to Taipei and a taxi to the…place of public mourning. They put on their uniforms and get other materials as they join the crowd. Birdy starts…crying…I guess, it is pretty performative, but who knows how genuine any of these mourners are. A-han joins in. They pray for President Chiang to attain…Nirvana? Become a god? Covering their bases, I guess. Or Birdy is just goofing around.
And with that, it is off to see the city. Cassette tapes. Street magicians. Protest banners. A man wearing a dress with condoms attached to it holding a placard saying that marriage is a human right and homosexuality is not a disease. A-han and Birdy find him amusing…the Taipei cops, not so much. They recognize the man as Chi Chia-wei and arrest him for protesting. Confused and disturbed, Birdy tries to intervene, but A-han stops him. One of the cops points his finger at Birdy, still struggling to break free from A-han’s grip.
Somewhere in some…restaurant club, they eat their meal. Birdy still worries about Chi, wondering whether the cops have hurt him. Birdy then thinks about his own mortality, asking what A-han would do if he were to die, but A-han does not want to think of such things. Some time later, Birdy dozes off and A-han leans in for a kiss, but he is interrupted by a staff member who oh so helpfully offers to clean up their room.
The two walk through one of those indoor mall halls. Birdy talks about how Earth’s population exceeded 5 billion at the end of 1987. God probably did not expect this many people to come from Adam and Eve. Does the world really need that many? Birdy says that sometimes feels like he is one of those unneeded people, and his father certainly does not help to dissuade him of that. A-han has probably not seen Birdy so serious…or sad. Once again, not wanting to think of such things, A-han tries to snap him out of it with a rather dark joke. They agree to not have babies in the future…of course, they cannot. Is that…acknowledgement?
A-han is back home with his family and his older brother Chia-ming has brought his girlfriend Hsiao-ling. His father is saying grace before dinner, praying that A-han will get good grades in his final year before university. With that out of the way, A-han asks Chia-ming what seems to me to be a few innocuous questions. But Chia-ming rebuffs him. Their father cannot help but yell at A-han for being a disgrace compared to his brother. A-han, so shy in front of his classmates, talks back, which just makes his father angrier. His mother tries, to no avail, to get him and his father to stop arguing in front of Hsiao-ling.
A-han’s mother finds him sulking outside. She gently asks him to come inside. She alludes to part of the argument where A-han complained about his father sending money to the Mainland while not buying him a scooter that would free up time for studying. She says that his father merely wants to show his family and his hometown that he is doing well, and that A-han would do the same thing once he gets a job. Instead of arguing that HE is part of his father’s family, A-han asks his mother why she married him. Well, A-han would not exist otherwise. A-han interprets this as meaning that she does not love his father. That it was just for the purpose of having babies. What does A-han know about love, she retorts. It turns to love over time. His mother tells him to focus on his studies, promising to buy him a scooter tomorrow using her own savings, as long as he wears his helmet. The messenger is gentler, but the message is the same.
Well, A-han gets his scooter and invites Birdy for a ride through the night. And neither are wearing helmets. They go see a movie and Birdy…steals a couple of movie posters from the cinema. They sneak into a…part of the cinema that I guess is for storing films and screening privately. They goof around a bit and. Birdy asks whether A-han thinks that movies make things seem more fun than in real life. A-han responds that he had never thought about making movies, it being too difficult. He does promise to write the theme music for Birdy’s movie. Oops. A worker catches them in here and threatens to call the police. The two manage to continue their conversation while trying to get away from the guy.
Oh…A-han dreams that Birdy gets in bed with him. He wakes up before anything more happens, but he still has to…uh…discretely clean his underwear.
Back in the…uh…present, A-han asks Father Oliver whether he has desires. Father Oliver responds by listing the seven sins, and saying that God wants people to avoid the sources of sin, especially lust. But what about love, asks A-han. Is it not perfectly fine as long as he still believes in God? Father Oliver accuses A-han of misunderstanding God. But A-han snaps back, saying that God has not been answering him; that Father Oliver will never understand love like this.
Back to the past. A-han’s mother comes into his room while he is sleeping and discretely moves his fan…and then notices that Birdy is in the bed with him. Their positioning is pretty suggestive, but not enough that there is no area for deniability that she can deem plausible. She does not say anything, but puts on an uncomfortable smile as she quietly leaves.
It is the new semester and the school has put up fences here and there becaaaaause GIRLS! And the lifting of hairstyle restrictions. But mostly GIRLS! The person on the loudspeaker warns the boys to stay away from the girls and the girls’ classrooms. He also tells girls to immediately report any harassment to the Instructor at the…Student Affairs Office…not the best name for that office. Father Oliver does not seem to like the fences anymore than the boys do, but I guess that he was overruled.
A-han reunites with his dormmates, who start flirting with the girls on the other side of the fence. He gets bored of this and turns around to see Birdy. He teases Birdy for having cut his hair when every other boy grew his out. The dormmates notice A-han talking with “that weirdo” and steer him back to them. They may suspect Birdy of being gay, but have no idea about A-han, not even when he skips over to Birdy. He declares that, since the two of them are in the same class now, it makes sense for him to go with Birdy and not with them.
It is band club and the school instructor interrupts the warmup to…say that the boys and girls should practice separately. Even though most of the kids are ready to start. Surely, this could have been worked out before the semester started and not right now. The instructor argues that boys in puberty are very horny, and putting them together with girls would threaten their grades. Father Oliver protests the instructor’s attempts to undermine his authority over the club. One of the girls has had enough and stands up to the instructor for being so mean and making them sound dirty. Then Birdy joins in, asking if the world will be split into two after they graduate. The instructor vows to remember both students. Throwing down the gauntlet, Birdy gives his real name, class, and grade. The girl, Wu Juo-fei, does the same. Father Oliver gently suggests that the instructor leaves.
At lunch, A-han suggests that Birdy stay away from the girls in case he gets in trouble with the school. Birdy says that A-han sounds just like the instructor, and walks away.
A-han notices the boy whom his dormmates had assaulted last semester. He has recent injuries. A-han catches up to him and asks whether his dormmates were the culprits. Nope; completely different attackers. A-han asks him when he started liking boys and whether he had ever consulted a doctor or tried getting a girlfriend. His classmate responds by trying to kiss him, and A-han resists rather…uh…forcefully. The boy says that he knew since he was young and will never change.
A-han is instructing boys in some sort of marching routine when he overhears his dormmates chasing Birdy. A-han tries to get them to leave Birdy alone. Birdy jumps off of a building rather dangerously, landing in the girl’s section of the outdoors. A-han tries to scold Horn, but Horn demands that A-han stop hanging out with Birdy, lest people think that he is also gay. A-han dismisses Horn, calling after Birdy, but Birdy just strolls off without looking at him, still in the girl’s section.
As with last week, this movie is semi-autobiographic, based loosely on director Liu Kuang-Hui’s first love. I hear that it is 80% true. I am not sure what is real and what is made up, but I know that Liu played the flute as opposed to the trumpet. He also may not have lashed out at the school priest in real life, but he probably wishes that he had. I also know that there was (and still is) a gay-rights pioneer named Chi Chia-wei, though I have no idea whether Liu encountered him as a youth. Before this movie, Liu appears to have been primarily a director for TV shows that were over-the-top and detached from reality, and I am not sure how much LGBTQ+ content that they had, but I would imagine not much, and nothing like this anyways.
I am not entirely sure how much this movie made, but it was the first LGBTQ+ film to exceed the NT$100 million mark and the highest-grossing Taiwanese film of 2020. Now, granted, $100 million is about 3.61 million USD, but the point still stands.
Anyone coming into this movie hoping for steamy sex or sweeping romance will leave disappointed. I would not say that there is NO sex or romance, but those are deliberately pushed to the side for the most part. And, yes, after that rather callously casual heterosexual sex…sequence early on in the movie, it may seem like a cheat. And perhaps it is. The focus is more on the external forces denying the love between A-han and Birdy, along with the internal struggle within each of them. Young A-han does take his Catholic teachings to heart and tries to abide by them. He wants to be a good person, but struggles to reconcile what he is told is right and what he feels deep down is actually right. He is not a complete pushover, though. A-han talks back to Father Oliver and even his actual father when accused of being a bad person. Still, he does constantly worry whether they are right; that he is bad. So he represses his feelings.
Birdy is…an impulsive troublemaker, doing what he wants in the moment; to hell with social mores. That could stem from his rejection of a society that would reject him, or it could just be teenage rebellion. Or it could be because accepting the terrible reality of his life would mean giving in to misery. Perhaps because of this attitude, or because this is seen through A-han’s eyes, Birdy seems even less willing to try to come to terms with his own sexuality, as that would require stopping to think about something seriously. While A-han represses himself, Birdy fools himself. This becomes doubly so when the school starts admitting girls, but tries to prevent boys and girls from interacting with each other. A-han’s shy nervousness may mask boiling anger, but Birdy’s gleeful brashness covers for a deep sadness. Exposing his vulnerabilities, even to someone he cares about, must be terrifying. It could be that he is putting the otherwise shy A-han in the position to make the first move because he himself cannot bring himself to do so.
So, while they can casually treat their feelings for each other as a given, they stop short of actually saying it out loud and acting upon their desires. Sometimes, just when it seems as if they are going to. They know. They know. But they cannot.
Or can they?
This movie came at an…interesting time. Taiwan is said to be the most progressive country (JOHN CENA) in East Asia in terms of LGBTQ+ rights now. And, while it still has a long way to go, it took a long time to get where it was. It is argued that Taoism and Buddhism have a more ambivalent take on homosexuality and homosexual sex acts than Abrahamic religions do. So, while it was taboo and there were no legal protections from persecution, but there were supposedly no legal punishments either, outside of the prohibition of same-sex marriage. Of course, even if there were no legal punishments, I am sure that there were ways for authorities to find reasons to punish.
As the movie shows, Taiwanese people in the 1980s knew fully well the existence of homosexuals, even if many would rather not think about it. It was not until the 1990s, though, that a major push for Gay Rights really started. The executive branch first proposed legal recognition of same-sex marriage in 2003, but received a lot of opposition. But 2003 was also year when the first formal Taiwan Pride parade was held in Taipei, with 20,000 people attending. A series of anti-discrimination laws followed.
While marriage equality was still a major controversy, support seems to have been consistently over 50% at least as far back as 2006, though the biggest opposition came from Christians. The political struggle continued through the decade until a same-sex marriage bill was passed in 2019. By then, participation Taiwan Pride had between 170,000 and 200,000 participants. Activists like the aforementioned Chi Chia-wei were instrumental to this victory, but the presidential victory of Tsia Ing-wen and her LGBTQ+ supportive Democratic Party surely helped.
There have been other rulings protecting gay rights in other areas of society. But there are also still work to do, such as adoption rights and marriage rights for foreigners from places where same-sex marriage is illegal. Legal protections for trans right lag behind a bit, though there is some. And, even though it was stated both beforehand and afterwards that it would not affect same-sex marriage laws, a 2018 referendum seemed to show that voters preferred to keep marriage between a man and a woman and prohibiting LGBTQ+ education in schools. I am not sure what the discrepancy was between that referendum and those years of surveys, but reality is difficult.
I cannot say when Liu Kuang-Hui first wanted to make this movie, but production began in the shadow of that 2018 referendum. Yes, a marriage equality bill had been ordered in 2017 and was going to be put into effect in 2019 regardless, but Liu knew firsthand that there can be huge gaps between what the law says and what society actually does. After all, wasn’t the lifting of Martial Law supposed to bring about freedom?
With this movie taking place 30 years in the past, it could be easy for Taiwanese audiences in the throes of self-congratulations to view the movie in terms of how far their society has come, while embracing the various touchstones of their cultural history. With the focus being more on the angst and repression than on the love or sexuality, there is an argument that this is more misery porn to let straight people cry than a movie for gay people. And…well…highest grossing LGBTQ+ Taiwanese movie. Yay?
It could be taken that way, but I am guessing that that was not Liu’s intention at all. From what I gather, his views the recent victories for gay rights as bittersweet. Sure, they are great, but it would have saved him a lot of grief had they had happened before he was born, before he felt himself torn between his culture and his true self, before he was tormented by outside forces and internal strife. Far from the over-the-top silliness of his shows, this movie is intensely personal. These recent victories are great, but a lot of them came too late for him to really enjoy them. The movie ends with a…somewhat…unexpected sequence that shows that life may have moved on, but people are still haunted by what was and what could have been.
The film can be sad and deliberately frustrating at times. But if you are in the mood for it, then you may like it quite a bit.
WTF ASIA 165: Bedevilled (South Korea: 2010, approx. 115-117 minutes)
WTF ASIA 166: Beyond the Clouds (India: 2017, approx. 120 minutes)