Projecting Contemporary Feminisms patricia white

Projecting Contemporary Feminisms
patricia white
Duke University Press Durham and London 2015
© 2015 Duke University Press
All rights reserved
Printed in the United States of America on acid-free paper ‘
Typeset in Whitman by Copperline Book Services, Inc.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
White, Patricia, 1964–
Women’s cinema, world cinema : projecting
contemporary feminisms / Patricia White.
pages cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
isbn 978-0-8223-5791-9 (hardcover : alk. paper)
isbn 978-0-8223-5805-3 (pbk. : alk. paper)
isbn 978-0-8223-7601-9 (e-book)
1. Women motion picture producers and directors.
2. Feminism and motion pictures.
3. Motion pictures and women.
i. Title.
pn1995.9.w6w49 2015
791.43082—dc23 2014031330
Cover art: Women without Men (Shirin Neshat, 2009),
feature film still. Copyright Shirin Neshat. Courtesy
Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.
For my students
Acknowledgments vii
introduction 1
1 to each her own cinema. World Cinema and the Woman Cineaste 29
Jane Campion’s Cannes Connections 30
Lucrecia Martel’s Vertiginous Authorship 44
Samira Makhmalbaf’s Sororal Cinema 56
2 framing feminisms. Women’s Cinema as Art Cinema 68
Deepa Mehta’s Elemental Feminism 76
Iranian Diasporan Women Directors and Cultural Capital 88
3 feminist film in the age of the chick flick. Global Flows
of Women’s Cinema 104
Engendering New Korean Cinema in Jeong Jae-eun’s Take Care of My Cat 108
Nadine Labaki’s Celebrity 120
4 network narratives. Asian Women Directors 132
Two-Timing the System in Nia Dinata’s Love for Share 136
Zero Chou and the Spaces of Chinese Lesbian Film 142
5 is the whole world watching? Fictions of Women’s Human Rights 169
Sabiha Sumar’s Democratic Cinema 175
Jasmila Žbani´c’s Grbavica and Balkan Cinema’s Incommensurable Gazes 181
Claudia Llosa’s Trans/national Address 187
Afterword 199
Notes 203 Bibliography 235 Filmography 247 Index 251
Asian Women Directors
If any shift has rebalanced the world cinema equation since the 1980s,
it is the rise in influence, both cultural and economic, of Asian cinema.
This movement encompasses reenergized national cinemas like South Korea’s and distinctly transnational phenomena, like coproductions among
Chinese-language industries, or the acclaim received by Taiwan art cinema
in international festivals.1
Asian auteurs have cachet worldwide, their films
garnering top prizes at exclusive European festivals even as festivals located
in Asia have grown in global influence.2
These phenomena are much more
than trends.
Gender questions crisscross both critical and popular interest in this wide
cultural field. Rey Chow’s trenchant analysis of Chinese fifth-generation
films looks at the “primitive passions” associated with images of feudal or
rural femininity. Gender bending, encountered in wuxia, the transmedia
storytelling of manga and anime, and the ways opera and other theatrical
traditions have been adapted to the screen, has been the subject of robust
scholarly and fan attention. National media industries and their transnational reception are shaped by the power of women’s genres such as television dramas, as well as by that of female writers, producers, and audiences.
Nevertheless, in most instances, the credit and opportunities for women
directors lag behind those of the male auteurs who are honored internationally and invested in domestically. Fifth-generation Chinese directors
Peng Xiaolian and Ning Ying are nowhere near as well known or funded
network narratives 133
as comrades Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige. While cinema cognoscenti
might mention Kawase Naomi among Japanese directors to watch after
her Cannes Grand Prize, the contributions of her contemporaries are just
becoming known. In all of these contexts, individual directors’ successes
arise in the context of a wider shift in access for women in film.
Perhaps only in Hong Kong is a woman director—Ann Hui On-Wah—
among the most prominent and respected film practitioners. Hui has made
nearly thirty critically acclaimed and popular feature films and has won
top honors at the Hong Kong Film Awards, a corpus unequaled elsewhere.
The strength of Hui’s record is due to historical and industrial factors as
well as talent. At the center of the Hong Kong New Wave that emerged in
1979, she gained firm footing in the industry—she has made tv films, genre
films, and independent films; her status affords her the opportunity to work
on personal projects and anchor them with star power. Her extraordinary
success should not be taken as an exception, however. Hui’s fluency with
the commercial industry and audience tastes and her commitment to a
personal vision are shared by other women directors in East Asia whose
career contexts have been impacted by feminism.
I invoke a broad range of practices and topics in gender and Asian cinema,
to stress both the transnational nature of the phenomena (one example suggests another) and the specificity of each development (each example asks for
explication). These centripetal and centrifugal forces are apparent in Lingzhen Wang’s benchmark anthology Chinese Women’s Cinema: Transnational
Contexts, with its range of approaches to the work of women directors in
China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the diaspora: “It is in and through a diverse
cinematic engagement with historical forces, whether of the market, politics,
or patriarchal traditions at national, transnational, or diasporan levels, that
Chinese women filmmakers, as historical and authorial subjects, have exhibited their agency,” Wang writes in an introduction that interrogates Western
feminist film theory though transnational feminism and Chinese intellectual
traditions and politics.
Indeed, neither catalogs of women’s contributions to
national cinemas nor auteurist studies alone can account for the creativity
and impact of Asian women’s filmmaking today.
These regional, gendered dynamics in world film culture generate what
I will call network narratives. A programming venue like the annual competition of short films by Asian women directors at the International
Women’s Film Festival in Seoul shows a polycentric burgeoning of talent
as well as linked political and aesthetic agendas. Regional trends and links
among filmmakers, films, scholars, and viewers cross national and linguis-
134 chapter four
tic boundaries. The network as a spatial model with which to approach
Asian women directors is meant to map local and national nodes as well as
regional and global flows.
The terminology of networks is common to feminist politics and theory,
such as Donna Haraway’s “Manifesto for Cyborgs”; to Foucauldian and related forms of social theory, including Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory,
which has helped unlock film festival studies; and of course to technosociety itself. I use the term to draw out multiple resonances, including a
narrational one. David Bordwell introduces the concept of network narratives in The Way Hollywood Tells It to describe a narrative form (favored by
filmmakers like Robert Altman and John Sayles) that features an ensemble
cast and uses attenuated links between characters and story events to structure its episodes. Networks can be spatial or share an “event frame,” or they
may follow the popular culture version of scientific network theory: “six
degrees of separation.”4
Bordwell questions throughout his book the novelty of storytelling techniques in blockbuster-era Hollywood and concludes that narrative form
remains intelligible within its style of “intensified continuity”: “Whatever
new shapes degrees-of-separation plots take, most remain coherent and
comprehensible, thanks to the principles of causality, temporal sequence
and duration, character wants and needs, and motivic harmony that have
characterized mainstream storytelling (not just in cinema) for at least a
century” (100).
My attempt to expand the denotative field of network narratives is not
occasioned by a desire to be more precise, descriptive, or inclusive than
Bordwell—who could be? Instead, it comes from discomfort with the
sense that in such network narratives as Crash (Haggis, 2004) and Babel
(González Iñárritu, 2006) the links among characters (the “converging
fates device”) present the social totality in a way that reinscribes social
inequity and overdetermines closure. In contrast, I want to suggest that
network narratives function as open structures in women’s film texts and
that these in turn link to the feminist and related cultural networks that
sustain a growing number of women film practitioners.
Women’s film festivals are the most obvious example of a transnational
feminist film network. In Seoul, as we saw in chapter 3, the women’s film
festival has remained oriented to the country’s culture of cinemania and at
the same time committed to academic feminist inquiry, activist and community agendas, and queer visibility. Another important dimension of the
network narratives 135
festival’s work as it grew became cultivating its constituency within Asia,
as well as its connection to sister organizations, as longtime director Lee
Hyae-Kyung notes in the first newsletter of the Network of Asian Women’s Film Festivals, established in 2011.5
Informal ties among allies thus
strengthen into institutional ones. Whether they are internationally known
cineastes or national figures who cross over between industrial and independent fields, the Asian women who make film their métier are impacted
by each other and imbedded in connecting histories of film and feminism.
Thus for me, the term “network” helps position several salient directions
of Asian women’s filmmaking: regionalism; politics; technologies; and experimentation with intertwined narrative forms.
Strikingly, several East Asian women directors have deployed the network narrative format, with multiple stories crisscrossing in time and
space—and to different ends than “the way Hollywood tells it.”6
stories remain open in their temporalities and affects, for their characters
and their audiences, and they suggest both women’s vulnerability as a class
and the multiplicity of their stories. Exemplary of this phenomenon in
Asian women’s cinema is the practice of Indonesian producer-director Nia
Dinata (b. Nurkurniati Aisyah Dewi, 1970). In what follows I relate her film
Berbagi Suami / Love for Share (2006), which uses a networked narrative
structure, to the way she builds networks in her career. A fuller case study
of Taiwan director Zero Chou and the networks in which her work travels
follows. There are intriguing parallels between these two young women’s
careers. Both have shown their work at women’s film festivals in Asia and at
lgbt and mainstream festivals internationally. Both are active, public figures working in commercial but independent formats within national film
industries that have been opened up by political, economic, and industrial
reforms. The emergence of the young, feminist film director as a minor
national celebrity (minor is not meant pejoratively) is itself a network narrative in Asian cinema. I underscore this connectivity but also emphasize
differences in the contexts of their work and its reception. Nia Dinata’s
films are a vital site of post-Suharto progressive Indonesian cinema, directed primarily toward the national audience; Zero Chou’s lesbian feature
films balance their address to transnational queer audiences and domestic
mixed ones.
136 chapter four
Two-Timing the System in Nia Dinata’s Love for Share
Nia Dinata studied filmmaking in the United States and worked in music
video and commercials in Indonesia before founding her own production
company. Her second feature as director, Love for Share, is a gently satirical
film about polygamy in contemporary Indonesia. In my reading, the film
positions director Dinata both as one among a network of women, each
with a story to tell, and as a cultural commentator who pulls the strings.
Dinata’s film showed at international festivals including the Tribeca Film
Festival in 2006 after a successful though controversial domestic release.
How did the simultaneous transnational and national address—or “twotiming” (to invoke a problematic but irresistible metaphor)—imprint the
film? Discursively, the film doesn’t want to be pinned down: two of the
strategies Dinata employs in Love for Share are a three-part network structure that, even as it resolves each story, implies that much is left unsaid, and
a healthy dose of irony (fig. 4.1). Love for Share is bold in attention to the
issue of polygamy and vivid in its glimpses of contemporary Jakarta, a global
city whose population of ten million supports a cosmopolitan cineculture
and ethnic and cultural diversity amid class stratification and clashes between tradition and modernity.7
The first of the film’s three story lines follows Madame Salma, a prosperous married professional woman with a dignified bearing. Yet without undermining the character, the film’s tone satirizes her situation as first wife
to a polygamist whose reputation as a charismatic holy man is exposed as
hypocritical—not once, but multiple times, coinciding with the discovery
of each of his ever-younger wives, all with babies in tow. The second story
line is a classic tale of a country girl in the big city shot in a gritty, claustrophobic super 16 mm format. Siti comes to stay with her uncle to attend
beauty school in the city, disappointed to find that he’s only a driver for
film productions, rather than the important film industry figure he had led
her to believe. But despite his precarious economic status, he already has
two wives and lots of babies; Siti moves into their two-room house, is soon
conscripted as wife number three, and then in a delectable if predictable
twist, falls in love with wife number two (fig. 4.2). At the end of the segment, the two women move out, taking the corresponding kids with them.
In the third tale, Ming, a popular and chic ethnic Chinese waitress with
acting ambitions, marries her boss for the comforts of cosmopolitan living
and satisfying sex, only to recognize that she’s no match for his first wife,
figure 4.1 The network
narrative is reflected in the
poster for Love for Share.
Courtesy Kalyana Shira.
figure 4.2 Cowives in close quarters fall in love. Shanty and Rieke Dyah Pitaloka
in Love for Share. Courtesy Kalyana Shira.
138 chapter four
who we have known all along is the true boss—of the restaurant and the
ménage. The film concludes with Ming’s voiceover, a declaration of sexual
independence in the big city, and her move to the crowded neighborhood
where the polygamist uncle’s remaining wife is just waking up to find her
friends missing. Her offscreen voice calling out for the decamped cowives
combines with a pop song about making a family on the soundtrack, as the
camera rapidly tracks back down the narrow street, linking sight and a particular site—the neighborhood where such contradictions are playing out.
Three stories: multiple wives in each. While there is no intentional homology between the several narrative strands and the issue of polygamy,
in fact the combination serves the film well. Depending on point-of-view,
polygamy singles out one wife at a time. But this narrative does not follow
conjugal time, and surprising connections among the women keep turning
up. And of course, the orchestrator of these convergences and the one who
maintains the balance among the stories—the director herself—is on the
women’s side. The result is a wider portrait of Indonesian women’s lives
that suggests the breadth of a social problem as well as the potential for selfdetermination, resistance, and solidarity. Dinata critiques this widespread,
socially tolerated practice; she also uses the pretext of polygamy to generate
play with space, time, and common destinies.
We find out at the end, in the sequence that I just described, that the
cab in which Ming moves back to the overcrowded neighborhood is the
same one that carries away the two lovers and kids when they move out.
The transition links the characters’ fresh starts through the trope of circulation. The cab driver remarks, “Everyone is moving this morning”—urban
density that protects the polygamist also affords women social mobility. The
overlap reveals that the three stories are convergent in space and time; this
simultaneity is reinforced in each segment by news coverage of the aftermath of the devastating tsunami of 2004 in the Aceh province of northern
Sumatra. Sharp indictments of hypocritical humanitarianism are painted
in brief scenes: Madame Salma refuses her husband’s request that she accompany him for a photo opportunity—his second wife is only too willing
to go. In the second segment, Uncle drives a documentary film crew to the
site, and comes back with a fourth wife. In the third segment, Ming, in the
capital, reads about the disaster in the newspaper.
The tsunami is one of the primary globally mediated images of Indonesia
in recent years. Dinata builds this devastating event into the texture of the
film without exploiting it.8
The tsunami is a powerful figure through which
to explore the interaction between the address to national and global audi-
network narratives 139
ences. International viewers may be more or less aware of Aceh’s history
of separatist armed struggle; in the wake of the crisis the remote province
became better known through the coverage of celebrity humanitarian visits. Of relevance to the film’s feminist politics are the striking disproportions in male and female survival rates, with women numbering two-thirds
of the dead.9
This appalling statistic—women were thought more likely
to be at home, burdened down with children and the elderly, or less able
to withstand the force—takes on grim irony in the context of polygamy.
But rather than making an appeal to international humanitarianism—even
one shaped by a feminist gaze such as the one I just deployed—the film
links the tsunami to the thematizing of the media and filmmaking in Indonesia. Besides the documentary crew in the second segment, the news
comes when Madame Salma’s husband is being interviewed for television,
a female director in charge. This embeds in Dinata’s film ethical questions
of how to frame images of Indonesia—natural disaster, Islamic militancy,
polygamy—for transnational consumption.
In turn, the treatment of other issues in the film is geared more to urban
and international rather than national audiences. Feminists organizing
around polygamy in Indonesia who were primed to embrace Dinata’s film
criticized the lesbian subject matter of the second section, and Dinata
points out that the film’s success was centered in Jakarta. The thematizing
of film production figures the very question of what we imagine the filmmaker’s job to be (in other words, the aesthetic and political problem of
how a feature film can be about a feminist issue) while showing her actually
going about her work—quite literally, in the case of the production stills
punctuating the credits (fig. 4.3). When Ming expresses her desire to be the
Indonesian Zhang Ziyi, she situates Indonesian national cinema within regional East Asian and world cinema cultures. Love for Share refuses to claim
a transparent relationship between storytelling and polygamy as an issue,
but it also assumes a certain burden of representation, linking individual
women’s lives to bring a big picture into focus.
The film’s use of multiple narrative strands, mediated and connected
by chance and social and historical context, finally goes beyond the metaphor of infidelity suggested by the polygamy theme. Rather, its rhythms
resonate with aspects of feminist narrative theory—defying closure (like a
soap opera), it relies on the contiguous and accidental in the syntagmatic
connections among stories and builds up to the generalizable, in the paradigmatic relationships among parallel lives. By presenting Madame Salma
first—telling a first wife’s story—the film maintains a certain loyalty to this
140 chapter four
mother figure (who is also a gynecologist who treats the second segments’
cowives for sexually transmitted diseases).
For ultimately the film is primarily concerned with polygamy not as a
trope, but as a social reality. While the stringently moralistic Suharto regime kept polygamy in check, the practice became more widespread in
Indonesia during the post-Suharto reform starting in 1998. Today, while
there is a movement in the government to make the practice illegal, there
is little confidence that this will be effective given that some high-ranking
officials themselves have multiple wives.10 There is also vocal feminist opposition and cultural debate. Love for Share partakes of what Fatimah Rony
describes as an exciting post-Suharto film culture in Indonesia in which
young women play a central role.11 Dinata’s very active career as producer
(thirteen features plus shorts and television through her company, Kalyana
figure 4.3 Nia Dinata. Courtesy Kalyana Shira.
network narratives 141
Shira) is central to these national networks. At the same time, the film
incorporates a postmodern, Pan-Asian aesthetic while addressing an issue
that is the focus of transnational activism in the Islamic world.
Love for Share shows polygamy as an aspect of patriarchal Muslim culture
that is taken advantage of by non-Muslim men and as part of the structure
of village life that adapts to the overlapping spaces and intersecting lives,
as well as the anomie and anonymity, of the city. Dinata uses humor and
melodrama, rather than gritty realism, to usurp the platitudes about the
practice that are given voice in her film in the hypocritical holy man’s radio
broadcast. Again, she speaks within and to a nation about and through a
transnational issue and medium.
Dinata’s work is a significant feminist intervention in the national media
culture of Indonesia, and it is committed to the theatrically exhibited feature as a way to engage conversations about the role of women in public
culture—through the content of each film, debates around reception, and
the persona of the director. An ensemble of interviews, media appearances,
and other projects contributes to Dinata’s vocal presence.
After Love for Share, Dinata’s production company produced several omnibus films featuring Indonesian women directors, extending the openendedness of the multipart structure to a collectivity of cultural producers.12
As Fatimah Rony details in her richly textured essay on the documentary
Pertaruhan / At Stake (2008), Dinata’s work as producer and her focus on
collaboration are precedent setting. The different segments in At Stake highlight sexuality, class, and migrant labor. In the fiction film Perempuan punya
cerita / Chants of Lotus (2007), four women directors, including Dinata
and Rony, explore various aspects of women and sexuality in fictional scenarios about trafficking, abortion, and hiv/aids. Although it was subject
to significant censorship, the film opened the Jakarta Film Festival. As a
U.S. filmmaker-scholar of Indonesian descent participating in and writing
about these projects, Rony exemplifies in her own practice the richness of
networks of transnational feminist cinema.
As we have seen, in the case of Dinata, “network narrative” denotes
Love for Share’s narrational strategy and her work as producer—especially
of omnibus films on women’s issues. But like many global women’s films,
her works have not entered the distribution networks of North American
theatrical release due to language barriers and the hierarchies of value and
distinction analyzed throughout this book. But in the flexibility of the current mediascape, Dinata’s work travels through transnational circuits that
bring it into contact with diasporan and general audiences at festivals, as
142 chapter four
well as with overlapping feminist and queer counterpublics. Love for Share
showed in Taiwan at Women Make Waves, and the International Women’s
Film Festival in Seoul highlighted Dinata’s work in a series on post-1998
Indonesian women’s cinema in the Asian Spectrum section and invited her
to serve on the jury. Her previous hit, Arisan! (2003), Indonesia’s first gaythemed film, was widely exhibited in global lgbt festivals and circulates
in and beyond Asia on dvd—it is so well loved it prompted a sequel, Arisan! 2 (2011), eight years later. Olivia Khoo develops the concept of “minor
transnationalism” to illuminate the affinities between queer networks and
women’s filmmaking in Asia.13
The discussion of Zero Chou that follows attends in detail to these networks of economic and information exchange as well as political and affective affiliations. Both cases show how women’s and queer film festival
circuits remain vital cultural hubs that contest globalization with local organization and regional alliances. In Chou’s case, subcultural lesbian networks in transnational China are particularly crucial. In order to situate
her success, I first contrast how questions of authorship and identity are
mobilized in the reception of her work with the discourses of prestige that
frame male auteurs in world cinema today.
Zero Chou and the Spaces of Chinese Lesbian Film
In an indelibly romantic image just before the halfway point of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Sud pralad / Tropical Malady (2004), two lovers
ride together on a motorbike, accompanied by the addictively sweet song
“Straight” by Thai band Fashion Show. An image of freedom that precedes
an abrupt narrative switch, the motorbike ride, in this syntagmatic placement, traces a Deleuzian line of flight, an unpredictable swerve into the
unknown. In the film’s strange, fantasmatic second half, the soldier Keng
(Banlop Lomnoi), on some weird walkabout in the desert, is stalked by a
beast of prey, who may or may not be Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee), the village boy he’d courted so charmingly in the film’s first half. Resisting territorialization by narrative succession, the motorbike ride is an image of the
virtual, in which past, present, and (open) future coexist.
In a similarly romantic scene near the ending of Taiwan director Zero
Chou’s Piao lang qingchun / Drifting Flowers (2008), the tomboy Diego, protagonist of one of the film’s three parts, takes Lily, a showgirl, for a spin.
Although this pair too will be separated, in a future that the film has already
dramatized, their paths cross here in a time and space marked by its poten-
network narratives 143
tial (fig. 4.4). A ride on the back of a scooter is a romantic cliché, seemingly
ubiquitous in Asian films, so there is no reason to see this similar scene in
the third fiction feature by Chou as quoting Tropical Malady. But what if
we hold these two queer cinematic flights together for a moment? Chou’s
image could be an homage, either to the sublimity of queer emotion, or to
the formal structure of Weerasethakul’s film, given Chou’s film’s use of a
multipart narrative. But the images, the films that contain them, and the
authorial signatures they carry do not circulate in the same way, even if
they encounter each other on the road. I locate Chou’s work and persona
at the transnational horizon where Chinese-language, women’s, and queer
cinemas intersect, where ardently desired lesbian futures are cautiously
Queerness is an oft-remarked theme in the Asian cinema boom of recent
decades, running the gamut from cross-dressing in Chinese opera films
and comedies to schoolgirl romances, gay rom-coms, and art films, with
audiences for these films’ theatrical runs, dvds, downloads, and festival
presentations divided into different niches of reception, more or less gay
or straight, geographically proximate, Asian-identified, or linguistically and
culturally competent.14 Within the contrary currents of this mediascape,
the two films just invoked might, however reductively, be said to correspond to auteur and identity categories. In both cases, the authorial persona
signifies strongly in determining value, but to different audiences and ends.
figure 4.4 Diego comes into her erotic identity through the romantic trope
of riding double. Chao Yi-lan and Herb Hsu in Drifting Flowers. Frame capture.
Wolfe Releasing.
144 chapter four
Tropical Malady received the Jury Prize at Cannes and a berth in the
New York Film Festival as well as on many international critics’ top-ten
lists. The inclusion of Drifting Flowers in the Panorama section of the Berlin Film Festival confirms that what we might consider more populist gay
Asian fare also has international designs. However, while Tropical Malady
has been widely written about and all but canonized (with Weerasethakul’s
2010 Palme d’Or for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives vindicating any Cannes boos), Drifting Flowers has followed a different path. After
a modestly successful run in Taiwan, the film played the global lgbt and
women’s film festival circuits, received a brief theatrical release in Hong
Kong, and was acquired by lesbian-owned Wolfe Video for dvd distribution
in the United States. The transnational circulation of her films has brought
Chou a degree of attention among cinephiles and lesbian and gay audiences
within Europe, North America, and Asia. In Taiwan, she has brought her
vision to mainstream film and television projects that have also traveled
beyond boundaries. If not the first out non-Western lesbian director to be
recognized in the West, Chou is perhaps the first to meet the auteur critic’s
criterion of a body of work (i.e., multiple theatrical fiction features) across
which to trace common themes and styles.
While there are a number of world-class Asian gay male auteurs—Lino
Brocka, Stanley Kwan, Tsai Ming-liang15—the persona of the Asian lesbian
director is more likely to be localized, linked with activism more readily
than aesthetics. Indeed, is there reason to talk about the “persona of the
Asian lesbian director,” given the size of the pool, as well as the Western
identity categories it appears to impose? As we’ve seen, women, including a number of quite young ones, are active in industry and independent
filmmaking across Asia, but, not surprisingly, fewer women directors have
gained access to the art film / coproduction sector and the aesthetic habitus
of the internationally heralded Asian new waves.16 I show how discourses
of sexuality, feminism, and filmmaking in transnational China (the PRC,
Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the Chinese-language diaspora) construct female
authorship and women’s cinema in terms of networks rather than within
the aesthetic, celebrity, and genre determinants focused on in previous
There is a growing body of Chinese lesbian filmmaking from which
to draw out these arguments. One of the few women among the underground or sixth-generation Chinese directors to achieve notable success,
Li Yu made her fiction film debut in 2001 with the low-budget Jı¯n nián xià
tia¯n / Fish and Elephant, touted as mainland China’s first lesbian film. While
network narratives 145
Li is not a lesbian, her film cast Beijing lesbian artist, programmer, and
activist Shi Tou in one of the main roles, and the latter gained some international recognition as the film circulated abroad.17 Hong Kong lesbian experimental filmmaker and scholar Yau Ching has also received attention in
Anglophone queer academic and cultural circles, and her 2001 feature Ho
Yuk / Let’s Love Hong Kong, touted as Hong Kong’s first lesbian film, is a key
text in Chinese-language lesbian cultural production, with international exposure in lgbt venues and circuits. Yan Yan Mak’s Hu die/ Butterfly (2004)
was a more mainstream lesbian narrative, though still a personal one. And
in 2010, Ann Hui achieved new visibility for Hong Kong lesbian film with
her comedy casting well-known actresses as pregnant former lovers who
reunite, Duk haan chau faan / All about Love.
In this context Chou is a significant, though not anomalous, figure. Although she can’t be credited with Taiwan’s first lesbian film, she made two
lesbian-themed, theatrically released feature films in a two-year period—
both were shot, as were her previous gay male–themed feature Yan guang
si she ge wu tuan / Splendid Float (2004), her documentary about the Taipei
gay bar, Si jiao luo / Corners (2001), and her expensive costume drama Hua
yang / Ripples of Desire (2012), by her partner Ho Ho Liu. Her record comes
close to qualifying Chou as a lesbian world cinema auteur.
What is the significance of such a figure, and what more specific definitions of lesbianism, connection to the world, and cinema can be gleaned
from her career to date? These questions are relatively novel ones, as the
lesbian auteur remains rare enough in any era or region of film history. And
they are important ones, as such a figure is accorded considerable standing
through identity politics or what Catherine Grant calls “the identificatory
pleasures of auteurist reception.”18 In this chapter, I attend to discourses
of uniqueness and priority—marks of distinction—around Chou even as I
attempt to locate her within wider networks. Her films should be seen not
simply additively in relation to the firsts just mentioned, but intertextually,
as part of a vibrant moment in Chinese-language lesbian visual culture and
Insofar as Chou’s authorship is tagged by the terms “lesbian” and “Asian
woman” as social identities, it is not easily abstractable to expressive individualism. Her background as a documentarian (shared by mainland directors Li Yu and Guo Xiaolu) supports a grounding in the social. What
might in some cases be considered the baggage of authorial gender, sexual,
national, and ethnic identity can be read not in terms of biography but
rather as traces of the other contexts, audiences, and films that shape a
146 chapter four
filmmaker’s work. These times and spaces and scales interact—arguably
this happens in any filmmaker’s oeuvre—however, I suggest that Chou’s
films themselves make room for those exchanges.
I begin by reading Chou’s first lesbian feature, Ci qing / Spider Lilies (2007),
in the context of recent Taiwan cinema. Then I consider the global market
for lesbian feature film programming (mainstream, queer, and women’s
film festivals, lesbian consumers) and follow the kinds of gazes that structure this circuit, particularly for Asian films. Finally, I return to situate the
national and regional (sub)cultural dimensions of Drifting Flowers, offering
a reading of the fantasy and work of initiation in Chou’s films.
Contemporary Taiwan Cinema
Taiwan cinema is the object of considerable critical attention within Chinese- and English-language academic and critical circles at present. Chou’s
third feature, Drifting Flowers, was released in 2008 just a week before the
sensational hit Cape No. 7, which ushered in a return of audiences to locally made films. This was a much remarked-upon development after a
crisis in the domestic industry driven by Hollywood films’ dominance in
the 1990s.20 Cinephiles speak with hushed tones the names of the Taiwan
New Cinema auteurs heralded on the international festival and art house
circuit since the 1980s. Yet in Taiwan, art film directors like Hou Hsiaohsien and the late Edward Yang had been criticized for neglecting local
audiences’ sensibilities and for relying on foreign money and festival exposure. Such criticism was also aimed at Tsai Ming-liang, who launched what
some call a second new wave in the 1990s.21 (U.S.-based, Oscar-winning
director Ang Lee is the outsized figure against which these vicissitudes of
loyalty and repudiation are plotted.) The revitalized domestic production
that has emerged alongside the auteurist coproductions combines an eye
for commercial viability with an independent and entrepreneurial spirit.
spot-Taipei Film House, the film center of the Taiwan Film and Culture
Association, with Hou as president, is one site of this resurgence.
The fact that the building that houses spot served as the U.S. consulate
and ambassador’s residence before the severing of diplomatic ties between
the United States and Taiwan in 1979 in favor of mainland China reminds
us that Taiwan’s is a film context in which questions of the national cannot be bracketed even as they are unusually fraught. These questions are
of course geopolitical ones, as Taiwan’s political status in the international
community remains as undecided as its economic one is central. And they
are questions that arise in the transnational context of Chinese film more
network narratives 147
generally, in which shared culture and language have in recent years been
strengthened by closer ties in film financing, production, and distribution,
especially since the turnover of Hong Kong to mainland China in 1997.
Finally, queerness challenges national boundaries, both in the formations
that are sometimes pejoratively referred to as “global gay” and in those that
the editors of the volume Asiapacifiqueer describe in Foucauldian terms as
“‘discontinuous, particular and local critiques’ based on the (re)emergence
of ‘subjugated knowledges’” that make intraregional links and connections
possible.22 A national queer Taiwan cinema is both an impossibility and a
de facto reality.
In the context of democratic reforms and the lifting of martial law in
the mid-1980s, an outspoken lesbian and gay culture emerged in Taiwan,
especially in Taipei. Fran Martin explores in Situating Sexualities: Queer
Representation in Taiwan Fiction, Film and Public Culture the “knotty entanglements of appropriation and translation in regard to sexual knowledges
and cultures” that this emergence entails.23 Martin teases out the strands
of signification in a local lesbian magazine’s multiple translations of the
U.S.-originated term Queer Nation in 1994. The use of the localized term
tongzhi, “comrade,” for gay and lesbian allies it with the egalitarian ethos of
communist address and bears a resemblance to the more clinical term for
homosexuality, tongxinglian. Significantly introduced by Edward Lam in the
title of the inaugural Hong Kong lgbt film festival, tongzhi has been widely
adopted in Taiwan (a Google search for nütongzhi, the term for lesbian,
yields a hit for Chou’s Spider Lilies). Tongzhi exists alongside other terms,
Martin points out, with the magazine passage also deploying guaitai (freak
or weirdo) as well as several differently inflected terms for nation. The word
ku’er (cool kid) was also introduced in Taipei circles as a more cutting-edge
term that sounds like “queer.”24 As the multiplication of translations indicates, queer Taiwan culture flourishes at the intersection of local, regional,
and global discourses. As Martin details, its cultural imaginaries and practices are informed by Republican China under the Kuomantang, indigenous
Taiwan, imperial Japan, and postcolonial Hong Kong as well as Western or
“global gay” identity politics and consumer culture. In Taiwan, university
programs draw on, translate, and hybridize English-language queer theory;
numerous gay- and lesbian-themed novels and other cultural artifacts have
gained acclaim; and homoerotic television dramas have achieved popular
success, all forces of “glocalizing” tongzhi.
In this context, gay-themed films have contributed to a desirable external image of Taiwan as progressive, as readings of Ang Lee’s The Wedding
148 chapter four
Banquet (1993) have argued.25 Arguably, recent films have also played a key
role in the nationalizing of Taiwan’s gay culture. The gay rom-com 17 sui
de tian kong / Formula 17, the domestic box-office winner of 2004, is regularly invoked among the hits that registered a resurgent interest among
youth audiences in nurturing domestic film culture in Taiwan. As Brian
Hu concludes in a discussion of the film and the phenomenon of its success in Senses of Cinema, “the fact that mainstream Taiwanese cinema is still
untreaded [sic] territory means that filmmakers, distributors and marketers have the opportunity to produce meaningful products which project
a multiplicity of voices, especially in a time of great political and social
uncertainty. Is a radical mainstream cinema possible? The infant industry can certainly try.”26 It isn’t the film’s subject matter or its music-video
style that Hu finds potentially radical, but its successful appeal to an audience. He locates particular promise in the fact that Formula 17, with its
vision of gay utopia and lack of diegetic female characters, was directed by
a woman, then twenty-three-year old dj Chen Yin-jung. The film’s production company, Three Dots Entertainment, founded by young women with
a background in marketing and distribution, has become a significant force
on the Taiwanese film scene.27 Yu-Shan Huang and Chun-Chi Wang note
that these box-office successes by young women filmmakers “established a
marketing model independent of government support.” They are “commercially oriented but retain uniquely Taiwanese social, cultural and historical
Interestingly, the same year’s Golden Horse winner for Best Taiwanese
film was also a gay-male-themed debut feature by a woman director. Splendid Float, Zero Chou’s first fiction feature, shot on 16 mm, tells the tale of
a transvestite Taoist priest longing for his lost lover. Tonally distinct from
Formula 17’s comic and breezy urban love story, it is interested in rendering
an authentic, regional gay milieu (the Splendid Float is a traveling drag
troupe). Previously, Chou’s feature-length documentary Corners, her most
personal film, memorialized a Taipei gay bar forced to close after a police
raid. The film’s self-reflexive style is heralded by Kuei-fen Chiu as sign of
the maturity of Taiwan documentary, particularly in the hands of women
directors, and its evocation of a vanished yet present space, a memory that
lives in the now, are themes to which Chou returns.29 If Chou’s Splendid
Float played to the international lgbt film festival network that embraced
Corners, as a deliberate turn to feature filmmaking it also had its eye on a
domestic and regional Chinese-language audience.
30 Splendid Float’s award
at the island’s most prestigious film festival earned it a theatrical release.
network narratives 149
The film’s interest in queer intersections with traditional culture, as well as
its high drama, link it to Chou’s later features.
While Splendid Float received aesthetic recognition, Chen’s Formula 17
connected with audiences, and Chou would expand in this direction with
her next release. Hu and others cite Formula 17’s youth-oriented, musicvideo aesthetic, urban middle-class demographic, and cute (straight) male
stars (from Hong Kong and Taiwan) for its success. Young women were a
significant audience for the film despite its exclusively gay male world. The
film played at spot; gay cultural consumption was both niche and trend.
Into this climate came Chou’s next film, Ci qing (Tattoo), with the English release title Spider Lilies, a glossy lesbian art romance with its share
of melodramatic hokum that became the island’s breakthrough nütongzhi
(lesbian) title. Lesbian onscreen content in mainstream films was not entirely new—the French/Taiwanese coproduction Lan se da men / Blue Gate
Crossing (2002) about a three-way high school friendship won popular audiences and critical acclaim at home and abroad. That film is a key example of
what Martin calls a “flexible” text, which emulates in a scaled-down fashion
Hollywood’s attempt to maximize audiences by including something for
multiple users. A teen pic with art film elements, Blue Gate Crossing, Martin
argues, is intentionally multicoded, allowing for global queer audiences to
“respecify” the main character’s rite of passage as coming out and for Taipei
audiences to recognize it as a local film, at the same time that its friendship themes and shallow-focus, urban backgrounds can travel as universalized signifiers of big-city youth romance (the obligatory motorbike date is
complemented with multiple bicycle scenes).31
But Spider Lilies goes further than Blue Gate Crossing. Directed and produced by an out lesbian director collaborating with her partner and cinematographer, the film features true love; butch/femme—or more apt to
Taiwan, T/po (tomboy/wife)—gender play; tasteful (that is, tantalizingly
short) sex scenes; and the promise of romantic closure. It tells the story of
Jade, a naive young girl who works from home, where she lives with her
grandmother, offering private chats with male callers over a webcam. When
she reencounters the female tattoo artist she remembers from her lonely
childhood, she attempts to revive their love in the present. Described by
Elsa Eider as “a trippy hybrid of traditional queer Asian tragedy and magical realism” in the 2008 Frameline (San Francisco International lgbt Film
Festival catalog), Spider Lilies was nevertheless a breakthrough for local lesbian realities.
The hook for mainstream Chinese-speaking audiences was the casting:
150 chapter four
Spider Lilies features Taiwanese pop star Rainie Yang as Jade, steadfast in
her crush on Takeko, played by Macau-born Hong Kong actress-on-the-rise
Isabella Leong. Advance publicity about the casting of Yang, a popular tv
personality, played to her fascinated Pan-Asian fan base eager to see her
acting in a more mature role, with the kiss between the stars received as
humanistic revelation or soft-core come-on, depending on one’s inclination. In either case, the pairing was a considerable box-office draw.32 The
domestic distribution campaign appealed directly to youth audiences and
the film’s success as a local independent was stoked by word-of-mouth and
promotional events—including fans sporting Jade’s signature green wig.
After the film’s release, YouTube clips and fan movies as well as discussion board postings attest to strong responses from nongay Asian audiences
outside Taiwan, some of whom were able to see the film in theaters, while
others accessed it later on dvd, vcd, and over the Internet. Though the
male gaze is certainly solicited by Jade’s job as a sex worker, Yang’s fandom,
consisting largely of young girls, was rewarded by her “cute” character and
the opportunity to hear her sing (the karaoke-ready theme song “Xiao Mo
Li” is prominent on the soundtrack) as well as by the titillations of tattoo
and lesbian love.
Zero Chou is out as a lesbian in the publicity for and press coverage of
the film, and grassroots efforts effectively targeted both Taiwanese queer
audiences for the theatrical release and Chinese-speaking queer audiences
elsewhere for word-of-mouth interest in the film. As Martin indicates,
transnational nütongzhi discussion boards were just as active in dissecting Spider Lilies’ kisses, sex scenes, and casting choices as were those frequented by “Rainie’s” more mainstream fanbase; she even cites a thread
discussing the ethics of circulating the film since it could not be released
in mainland China.33
Spider Lilies thus played to intersections of queer, gendered, generational, and genre-based regional circuits, activating counterpublics across
fandoms and subcultures. In this regard Spider Lilies qualifies as a flexible
text like Blue Gate Crossing; while here the content is unmistakably lesbian, the context is less so, and its breakthrough success can be recoded
as stunt casting or voyeurism (a theme that the webcam trope inscribes in
the film). However flexibly defined, the formula worked: the International
Herald Tribune reported in June from Singapore as the film opened there
that it was the top-grossing local film at the Taiwanese box office of the
year to date; the article was headed “In Taiwan, Spider Lilies Fuels a Small
Gay Renaissance.”
network narratives 151
If domestic box office is international English-language news, it is also
enhanced by international recognition. Spider Lilies’ award at the Berlin
film festival provided just that. Taiwan film programmer Sophie Shu-yi Lin,
who managed the film’s early marketing, recounted that Chou was even
recognized by her taxi driver on the way home from the festival because of
the publicity her film had received. The fact that the award was in a competition for lesbian- and gay-themed films didn’t seem to matter: the Teddy
worked for marketing purposes much as a Golden Bear (Berlin’s top prize)
or Horse (Taiwan’s) would have done. This box-office boost is ironic given
the reluctance of many major distributors in the United States to premiere
gay features in lgbt contexts for fear of ghettoizing them when first reviewed. Is the Taiwan box-office phenomenon indicative of a mistranslation
of the tags of global identity politics into national pride? Or is the identity
category trumped by film politics—the prestige Berlin/Europe confers on
a film? Certainly the anecdote speaks to a cinema consciousness in Taiwan
that Chou, Chen, and other filmmakers are using to their advantage to connect with an important youth demographic imagined as antihomophobic
and potentially queer.
With regard to national recognition, Chou can again be regarded as a
flexible author. Her films signify as authentically lesbian and authentically
Chinese, without being so specific that they cannot travel. While since
Splendid Float her feature films have been notably set outside Taipei, the
markers of locality are not emphatic. Like many Chinese-language films
today, Spider Lilies pulled its cast from Taiwanese and Hong Kong actors.
The lives of the film’s protagonists have been tragically marked by the earthquake that struck in their youth, and while the characters’ ages mark this
as the devastating “921” earthquake of September 1999 that struck central
Taiwan, the event is not specified for foreign viewers. Nor do unmistakable
markers territorialize the film’s symbolic spider lilies and jasmine blooms
in a specific region.
But rather than seeing these as generic and even self-orientalizing images, we might see Chou’s films as choosing not to put everything up on the
screen for outsiders to decipher. If they bear limited traces of the specific
place and time of contemporary Taiwan nütongzhi subcultural politics and
history, her films nevertheless emerge from local and queer cultural milieus, connections secured through Chou’s own lesbian community identity
and her history as a documentarian (source material for Spider Lilies came
from work on a documentary on the earthquake’s legacy). Yet markers that
seem to be specifically, even mythically, Taiwanese, such as the family pup-
152 chapter four
pet troupe of Drifting Flowers’ main characters, can be understood in the
context of localism as negotiations, not mystifications, of this identity. A
more consciously political syncretism in Chou’s work is the drag queen
Buddhist priest of Splendid Float. Chou localizes Taiwan’s queer culture
outside of, but not in isolation from, the urban centers in which global gay
discourses circulate most insistently.34
One mark against authenticity claims around Chou’s depiction of lesbian
identity is raised by the gender presentation of Spider Lilies’ central couple. While Jade is very much a girl—even a case of arrested development
who uses a lookalike doll as part of her webcam mise-en-scène—the halfJapanese Takeko’s gender identification, although visually signified only by
button-down shirts and ponytails, is taken for granted, not as puzzlingly
masculine, but as legibly “T” or butch lesbian.35 The punk youth Ah Dong,
a frequent visitor to her tattoo salon, first jokingly hits on Takeko and then
asks, with sincerity, why she doesn’t have a girlfriend. Later, he and Jade
exchange a joke about Takeko’s being “too much like a man” (as the subtitle renders it) to excuse her behavior as pms. The dialogue may ring false
when applied to the willowy, long-haired Isabella Leong, but the discourse
of lesbian gender complementarity, or “secondary gender” as Martin calls
it, is enlisted to guarantee the central couple’s destiny.36
Melodramatic vicissitudes intervene: Takeko’s flight from commitment
is accounted for in flashback as a consequence of having abandoned her
four-year-old brother the night of the earthquake in order to visit a schoolmate’s bed; their father was killed rescuing the boy and her brother has not
remembered her, or anything besides the spider lily tattoo on their father’s
severed arm (the “real skin” on the wall of Takeko’s parlor), since that night.
Meanwhile, Jade is under surveillance in an internet sex sting operation,
but her real problems were caused long ago by her mother’s running off to
Taipei after the earthquake, taking only the girl’s brother. The nine-year-old
took consolation in the small kindnesses of her neighbor, whose own spider
lily tattoo allows us to recognize her as the younger Takeko, who got the tattoo, and became a tattoo artist herself, in order to connect with her brother
through the memory of a signifier of their dead father’s body. Jade tries to
provoke Takeko’s memory by digging out and wearing the bright green wig
she first wore as a little girl in an attempt to attract Takeko’s attention. Already a keen reader of codes, she had waited by the side of the road for the
older girl to bike past in her school uniform. And there are side plots for the
male characters, appealing to girl fans’ sympathies: Ah Dong is gay-bashed;
Takeko’s brother Chen runs away from his care facility and is lost among
network narratives 153
the spider lilies (did I mention the myth that spider lilies line the path to
hell?) before being struck by a car and falling into a coma from which he
awakens with his memory restored; and a stuttering detective-cum-cyber
stalker tries to tip off Jade about the impending raid of the website’s operations that his boss has ordered.
The pileup of parallel childhood traumas, oedipal thematics, performative genders, and physical impairments all intertwined with the trauma
of natural disaster portend a tragic queer romance littered with narrative
debris. But all ends happily with Takeko declaring a halt to the madness—
with a text message: “I’m sorry, meet me at the studio.” Pathos swells again
as the film ends, Rainie’s jasmine flower song playing on the soundtrack as
the two women walk toward the rendezvous in slow motion. Jade wears
her childhood wig but has a new maturity in her stride. Fade to black: if it
means we don’t get that final sex scene, at least we don’t have to see the film
scrambling to integrate the trail of wounded males into the reconstituted
In Backward Glances Fran Martin describes a “female homoerotic imaginary” that cuts across contemporary Chinese public cultures. Female samesex love is depicted in a pervasive “memorial mode”; a schoolgirl romance
is remembered but renounced, evoked everywhere while ostensibly consigned to the past.The affective triumph of Spider Lilies’ happy ending trades
on the memorial temporality. As Martin notes, the film’s narrative and symbolic preoccupation with memory and forgetting, jasmine and spider lilies,
position it as an explicitly lesbian rewriting of this structure of feeling.37 As
she notes, Chinese lesbian films that revisit the dominant memorial trope
“dramatize the radical potential of that narrative by literalizing memory’s
enactment within, and power to transform, present experience.”38 Spider
Lilies is certainly deeply invested in questions of temporality (to the point of
confusion: unless Takeko suffers from amnesia like her brother, why doesn’t
she remember Jade from events that happened less than a decade earlier?).
However, Jade’s reclaimed wig in the final shot suggests that Spider Lilies
may be content to offer lesbian role-playing fantasy, both to its protagonists
and to its audiences, rather than definitively moving on. Its embrace of the
doomed-to-repetition nature of the schoolgirl romance (of genre itself) as
part of its pop legacy makes the film harder to distinguish as a lesbian text
(critical or not) from a mainstream homoerotic one except with recourse to
the author figure. I don’t mean that we should overvalue Chou’s intentionality, but rather that we should attend to the markers of what Kaja Silverman
calls the “authorial fantasmatic”—a set of libidinally invested figures and
154 chapter four
scenarios (“nodal points”) that characterize a director’s oeuvre.39 I return
to this in my discussion of Chou’s follow-up feature.
The critical notice and financial success of Spider Lilies enabled Chou
quickly to go into production with Drifting Flowers, which she opted to
make on a more modest scale. Although Chou is quoted as having plans
for a rainbow series, with a movie for each color of the flag, she is not
exclusively interested in queer subject matter, and in interviews plays the
universality card.40 I suggest that her very productivity recodes Spider Lilies’
success: a domestic box-office mini-phenomenon, a sign of Taiwan progressivism, new product source for the global lgbt festival network as distribution alternative, and part of a lesbian director’s oeuvre. An interviewer at
the Berlinale asks Chou how she could be back the very next year with a
new feature. The director seems stumped: “I have nothing else to do except
make films.”
Film Festival Circulation:
Value Addition, Identity Crises, and Orientalism
As my discussion of Spider Lilies’ regional reception has suggested, the itineraries of Chou’s work bring it into contact with different systems of value
and different audiences. In this section I discuss various international film
festivals as destinations for her films, considering how the relationship between a global gaze and global gays receives different emphases in the programming and consumption of lesbian versus gay male work.41
Spider Lilies debuted at the 2007 Berlinale, where, as noted, the film
collected the Teddy Award for Best Feature. Instituted in 1987, the Teddy
recognizes the festival’s best lgbt-themed feature, documentary, and
short. Chou was the first Asian lesbian director and the first director from
Taiwan to win the award. The film was invited to Berlin by programmer
Wieland Speck, who screened a cut while scouting in Taiwan; after the
invitation to Panorama was secured, Three Dots, the production company
that formed to make Formula 17, signed on as international sales agent.
One year later, Chou’s Drifting Flowers, also represented by Three Dots, was
invited to the Berlinale and promoted as the work of the previous year’s
Teddy Award–winning director, garnering good ticket sales and generally
favorable reviews.
Although third in the hierarchy of Europe’s A-list festivals (established
in 1951 as a Cold War Western cultural foothold in the East), Berlin is a
preferred destination for programmers of the bigger lgbt festivals (San
Francisco, LA, London, Melbourne, Toronto, Hong Kong).42 As a competi-
network narratives 155
tive festival, Berlin is both gatekeeper and feeder (given its February dates)
for the global network of such festivals clustered around gay pride month
in June. At the same time, the prestigious context of the Berlinale puts individual lgbt titles on the wider film market in a way that festivals branded
as lgbt do not, with distributor, press, sales, and propaganda efforts surrounding festival appearances.43 As Marijke de Valck and Thomas Elsaesser
emphasize, the process of “value addition” through a film or director’s recognition on the festival circuit is self-sustaining. Although Drifting Flowers
was not as successful as Spider Lilies at Berlin, its selection there signaled
prestige and potential commercial viability.
Still it is via the dedicated queer festivals that such work makes contact
with audiences, potentially on a global, if grassroots, scale.44 Most of the
more than two hundred lgbt festivals currently in operation worldwide
are audience, not industry, oriented, and critical opinion is often less important in programming decisions than is pleasing a local constituency.
The buzz from Berlin was certainly helpful, but the mere fact that Spider
Lilies and Drifting Flowers were competently made lesbian feature films
guaranteed Chou’s work a spot on this circuit (no disrespect to Chou’s talent or curatorial vision intended). The festivals’ mushrooming growth was
coterminous with the New Queer Cinema boom in independent American
cinema, and lgbt film festivals continue to struggle with the identity crisis
of being community-oriented versus film events brought into focus by New
Queers Cinema’s commercial and critical success.45 Programming reflects
both mandates, drawing on queer cinema’s rich history and high degree
of experimentalism on the one hand, and the democratization of video,
in the service of activism and seeing oneself on screen, on the other. As
Jenni Olson stresses, the festivals are an ecosystem; production feeds the
festivals, and the festivals encourage production.46 lgbt film festivals serve
local communities—in Minneapolis or Mumbai—as site-specific calendardriven festivities that link audiences with the global images they view in a
mutual traveling. But they are defined by wildly discontinuous local realities and political agendas that make their circuit less self-regulating than
that of the prestigious international festivals, which arguably aims to reproduce a comparable cosmopolitanism and even tourist economy in each of
its sites, a uniformity that has started to inform festival film aesthetics. The
kind of reception a film like Spider Lilies receives on the lgbt network, in
contrast, will vary greatly.
The lgbt festivals provide occasions for many forms of cross-cultural
spectatorship. The most established North American festivals have long
156 chapter four
highlighted international programming, from storied queer European art
film directors and contemporary heirs to the tradition like François Ozon,
to homosexual heritage films, to breakout queer films from the Global South
like Brocka’s Macho Dancer (1988) or Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Strawberry and
Chocolate (1994). Gay-friendly offerings from a number of different Asian
cinema trends—Hong Kong genre films, Taiwan art cinema, Korean horror—
travel the Western lgbt festival circuits. Audiences may bring their own
contextual frames—if they are diasporan subjects from the filmmaking
nations, such frames are likely to differ greatly from those of Hong Kong
swordplay film aficionados or cinephiles seeking out the latest Tsai Mingliang.47 Often queer audiences are quite sophisticated spectators and have
indeed been trained as such by the festivals. Yet the reality is that non-EuroAmerican works are often received through universalizing discourses of
oppression versus rights, consumerist criteria of entertainment, humanist
concepts of positive images and visibility, or dynamics of sexual tourism
that can be objectifying, orientalizing, or otherwise unimaginative. Mimetic
spectatorship is a dominant mode, with subtitles regarded more as code for
the universality of whichever dimension of the film—sex, romance, family, or coming-out—enables cross-cultural consumption than as markers
of a film’s origin or reminders of the way in which all films are foreign.48
There are gendered dimensions to these viewing dynamics and the programming choices that feed them. Most lgbt festivals are committed to
gender equity in what is otherwise a fairly asymmetrical cultural realm, and
lesbian audiences are vocal in their demands for realist and entertaining
representations. Because of the paucity of nonpornographic feature-length
lesbian programming, which remains underresourced and underdeveloped
in the United States despite important breakthroughs, international art
films have historically filled the lesbian feature programming slots. The lesbian content of such films is either characteristic of the art film tradition’s
branding as sexually daring or functions as a code for female emancipation
and social progressivism, or both.49 Many such films are directed by men.
Only with the advent of digital technology were lesbian producers able to
make feature-length films in any significant numbers. Yet even when they
were, they did not have the production values of industrial or art house
filmmaking or the publicity of theatrical release.
Given this confluence of circumstances, a film by and about Asian lesbians, and a glossy feature to boot, was a perfect plug-in to the global lgbt
festival network in 2007. Spider Lilies was screened in dozens of such festivals, and Drifting Flowers followed, programmed at metropolitan queer
network narratives 157
fests like Turin, Oslo, and Barcelona as well as the biggest North American
venues, Frameline, Outfest, New Fest, and Inside/Out. The films did not
secure theatrical distribution in the United States but were released on
dvd by the lesbian-owned company Wolfe Video, with Jenni Olson, former
programmer of Frameline’s storied festival in San Francisco, in charge of
marketing. The consumer market for the dvd includes Chinese-language
and queer audiences. Any public nontheatrical events that programmed the
films are hard to trace.
If Chou’s earlier work was shaped by the existence and structure of the
global lgbt festival circuit, it was Spider Lilies that matched lesbian content (including sex), female authorship, and scale (feature film of relatively
high production values, with stars) to its specifications. It is true that many
audiences will consume such work with little understanding of cultural or
subcultural specificities, genre conventions, or even the gender of the director. Homogenizing aesthetic and spectatorial vision may structure such
interactions. Spider Lilies delivers tradition (flower symbolism) and technomodernity (Net sex) with tattoo, providing a balance of oriental exoticism
and subcultural currency. Queer audiences’ consumerism—of lifestyle and
cultural difference—can be objectifying in its very sophistication.
And yet, as I argue in my introduction to a 1999 collection of short essays
on lesbian and gay film festivals published in glq, “Queer Publicity,” queer
festivals also function as a counterpublic sphere in which the interests and
pleasures of diverse nonhegemonic subjects are articulated to a specific
time and space. The degree and nature of the “counter” vary according to
geopolitical location and other factors, as much writing on the increasing
commodification of gay life under neoliberalism shows. But simply by virtue of the attempt to address at once gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans constituencies and their allies, as well as film fans and special interest groups
for particular films, the public for such events cannot be imagined as homogeneous. At festivals, local interests confront the circulation of global
gay aesthetics and politics, contesting representations, generating debate
and even counterimages.50
glq subsequently hosted a series of round tables devoted to three sets of
actors in the lgbt festivals: filmmakers, critics, and programmers. These
polyvocal texts challenge thinking that relegates lgbt events to the category of thematic festivals without understanding the dimension of queer
world making they involve. But the festivals are not innocent instances of
“glocalization.” As Ragan Rhyne notes in her contribution to the curators’
round table:
158 chapter four
Festivals are the primary markets for international queer film, but
they do not simply acquire and screen the films they show; they actually create the economic conditions that enable their production.
This is not to imply that queer internationalism is merely inauthentic or commercial and thus without any kind of political viability.
Rather, what it indicates is that scholars, activists, and festival directors must begin to look at the economy of queer cultural production
as an essential element of queer collectivities and the institutions
they form. Conceiving of an international queer community through
cultural circulation and consumption begs significant questions
about how U.S. audiences understand the role of the festival in defining a gay and lesbian class identity within this global economy.51
Across the global network, the flows of images and the power to determine
meanings are much more likely to be from the West to “the rest.” While
oppositional media spaces like the lgbt festivals are a site to contest these
imbalances, they may also emulate these uneven flows, with white muscleboy films and corporate sponsors headlining events from the cosmopolitan
to the grassroots. A brief look at how Chinese lesbian films and filmmakers
have networked with festivals in Asia to redirect these currents will bring
some of these questions into relief.52
Intersections of Feminist and
Queer Film Culture in Transnational China
The number, scale, and longevity of lgbt film festivals in Asia—in Tokyo,
Bangkok, Manila, and Mumbai—attests to thriving queer and movie cultures and their intersections as well as to the potential for disjuncture in
this global queer image economy. The oldest festival in the region is the
Hong Kong Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, founded in 1989 by Edward Lam
and Wouter Barendretch. As mentioned, the festival’s first edition coined
the now-prevalent term tongzhi as a Chinese, gender-inclusive nomination
for gays and lesbians. After more than twenty-five years, spanning the decriminalizing of homosexuality in 1991 and the return of Hong Kong to
China in 1997, the festival has undeniably served a counterhegemonic and
political purpose. However, as Yau Ching outlines in her contribution to the
glq critics’ round table: “lgbtq film/video festivals in Asia suffer from the
triple burdens produced by the globalization of Euro-American white gay
culture, the colonial histories of our own social contexts, and the chauvinism embedded in our queer communities. . . . Hong Kong’s film festivals
network narratives 159
and their audiences, including the hklgff, have been ‘programmed’ to
take the white, mainly gay—with a little bit of lesbian recently—culture as
‘natural,’ ‘desirable,’ and ‘progressive,’ contributing to further suppression
and marginalization of a localized and regional queer culture.”53 Do Asian
lgbt festivals necessarily reinforce hegemonic global gay discourse or are
they a significant articulation of local, already hybridized queer identities
and globally circulating, already hybridized images? Whether the queer
Asian films shown at the fests are forms of self-representation aimed at
local subcultures or represent the cultural and economic significance of
Asian cinemas regionally and across contemporary world cinema, their
production and reception show the ways that sexual citizenship and subjectivity and global belonging are continually being recast. Yau concludes
with the mandate “to relocalize lgbtq issues and strategies within and
against the global gay economy.”
Audiences, curators, and filmmakers are all faced with these paradoxes.
Film scholar and curator Denise Tang, who served as director of hklgff in
2004–2005, turned toward the future in her introduction to the twentieth
anniversary edition in 2009:
I imagine a selection of films and videos that are controversial, warm
and fuzzy, local, with lesbians, inter-Asia based and at the very least,
pornographic. I imagine media coverage that stretches beyond web
forums, pop magazines and the festival website but on the 6:30 news
and Ming Pao headlines.
Okay, so maybe the future is partly here and partly there.
This complicated spatial-temporal figure “the future is partly here and
partly there” resonates with Chou’s images of lesbians living passionate
lives limned with tragedy in nebulous times in which contemporary political movements are evoked but not depicted. Taken on a more practical
level, the phrase might refer to perspectives on the different areas within
“cultural China.” While Hong Kong’s future may lie in China, mainland gay
and lesbian culture looks to both Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Although after the lifting of martial law in 1987 Taiwan quickly became
a regional center of lesbian and gay culture, the island still lacks a regular
lgbt or tongzhi festival. Perhaps mainstreaming has been successful—
locally made queer-themed hits like Eternal Summer (2006) get exposure
in the high-profile Golden Horse festival and robust theatrical release. Or
perhaps it is partly because, for lesbian work, there is a viable alternative.
Taipei is the site of the longest-running women’s film festival outside Eu-
160 chapter four
rope. In Taiwan, feminism is central to lesbian film culture as well as lesbian identity formation, literature, and politics.
Women Make Waves was founded in 1993 by a group including filmmaker Huang Yu-Shan, whose The Twin Bracelets (1991), a Hong Kong–
produced period drama about the friendship between two girls, was, to the
best of my memory as a programmer, the first Chinese-language film directed by a woman to be featured in the New York Lesbian and Gay Film
Festival. The Taiwan festival (its title echoing that of New York–based distributor Women Make Movies, which initially provided films to screen)
has been held annually with one exception in the intervening period.54
Asian women’s work and lesbian work are not explicitly part of the mission,
but the festival is an indispensable forum for both. Corners showed at the
festival (credited to Zero and Ho-Ho, no surnames), and Spider Lilies and
Drifting Flowers showed in the festival in addition to having theatrical runs.
Chou’s subsequent feature, the public television production Wavebreaker,
was the domestic opener in 2009. Chou’s persona as a community-based,
commercially savvy, out lesbian and feminist director is to a significant
extent congruent with and exemplary of the festival’s philosophy.
Despite—or enhanced by—the presence of an established annual women’s event, Taiwan was also host to the first Asian Lesbian Film and Video
Festival in 2005. Organized by prominent activist Wang Ping and scholar
Chen Yu-Rong of the Gender and Sexuality Rights Association of Taiwan,
the festival was a showcase for locally made and Pan-Asian women’s film
and video, a mark of the coming of age of the movement. One participant
writes, “The alff was a breakthrough event for the Asian lesbian community, as it brought together media art, social activism and cultural exchange.55 Although there has not yet been a second such festival, regional
organizing among Chinese lesbians in film and video has continued. The
circulation of commercially viable works like Chou’s is crucial in this
The clashing politics of transnational networks intersecting with locally
organized events are perhaps most visible in mainland China where, as Lisa
Rofel’s work details, the mobilization of Western-style sexual identity and
rights politics serves a complex function in relation to both communist
and globalization ideologies.56 Since the authorities shut down Beijing’s
first lesbian and gay film festival in 2001, efforts to support regular exhibition of queer work have been continuous. The first event was organized by
prominent filmmaker, writer, and film professor Cui Zi’en and activist and
artist Shi Tou, the same pair who claimed the distinction of being the first
network narratives 161
gay man and lesbian to come out on Chinese television. The program of the
2001 event included Fish and Elephant and the first mainland gay film, East
Palace, West Palace (Yuan Zhang, 1996). These films subsequently received
university screenings but only became widely viewed in China on pirated
dvds. The 2005 follow-up event was also interrupted by the authorities.
Finally, in 2009 the festival was pulled off successfully, soon followed by a
Shanghai pride event with a film component. The distance traversed in the
decade since 2001 can be seen in the Beijing-based webcast Queer Comrade’s 2010 segment on the top ten Asian lesbian feature films. Included
were works by Chou and mainland independent lesbian director Zhu Yiye.57
Drifting Identities: Circulating Lesbian Histories
This top-ten feature demonstrates that the Internet is a crucial element
of Chinese queer (post)modernity,58 but it also foregrounds, in its restriction to fiction features—many of which are described citing their festival appearances or critical accolades—the importance of this format to
the circuits of queer culture. These circuits are built around the agency
of cultural workers, the creativity and contribution of other formats such
as documentaries and shorts, performance and installation work, and the
material spaces of programming venues and publications. But feature films
help lay the tracks, not just for consumption, but also for the networks that
build identities and audiences across spaces and over time.59 The Queer
Comrade segment quotes Chou on the difference between her two features:
“Spider Lilies is a dream; Drifting Flowers is reality. We live in both dreams
and reality.” Not a documentary, Drifting Flowers (2008) uses the feature
film format to depict a more personal reality, addressing Taiwan lesbian
history in three intertwining story lines.60
Drifting Flowers lacks the box-office stars of Spider Lilies, but its casting
of newcomer Chao Yi-lan in the role of Diego, a sad-eyed accordion player,
goes some way toward redressing Leong’s lack of butch (T) credibility in the
earlier film. The three parts are loosely related and of varying lengths. The
first tells of the romance between Diego and the blind singer Jing (Serena
Fang) from the perspective of Jing’s jealous ten-year-old sister May (Pai
Chih-Ying). Economically insecure, Jing is shamed into allowing May to
be adopted by a childless bourgeois couple. The second, seemingly anomalous, part of the film tells of an older lesbian suffering from Alzheimer’s,
Lily (played by Tsai regular Lu Yi-Ching), who is reunited with Yen (Sam
Wang), the gay man she’d married years earlier as a cover. Yen, who is hivpositive, has been dumped by his lover and shows up at Lily’s door with a
162 chapter four
suitcase. Lily misrecognizes Yen as her former female partner Ocean and
the two go on to find a measure of comfort together under this premise.
The third part tells Diego’s backstory as a tomboy coming of age, struggling
to find her place in the world and in her family’s business, a village puppet
theater.61 Meeting a showgirl from a rival puppeteer family helps give shape
to some of Diego’s inchoate longings, and, when the viewer figures out the
girl is the young Lily (Herb Hsu), to the film’s multipart structure. The film
affirms a range of lesbian possibilities in its tentative resolution of stories of
painful separation, without resorting to the romanticized closure of Spider
Lilies or its traumatic events.
Variety gave Drifting Flowers a negative review at Berlin: “[The film] . . .
moseys along for 90-odd minutes, seemingly content to speak largely in
lesbian cliches. Centered on a group of femmes struggling with that old
gay chestnut, ‘identity,’ three-parter looks to bounce into fest dates on the
strength of Chou’s niche success with last year’s ‘Spider Lilies.’ But without
Asian name leads behaving transgressively onscreen this time, theatrical
biz looks far weaker, especially in the East.”62 Whether we should credit a
publication that uses its dated slang for women, “femmes,” to encompass
literal butches in its dismissal of “lesbian clichés” is questionable.63 But
notable here is an attribution of authorship that is repeated across reviews,
blogs, and catalog descriptions of the film, whether or not Chou is identified as a lesbian. Also prominent is the use of a developmental scale arranging Chinese sexualities on the way to fully realized Western definitions. I’d
suggest that the seeming naïveté of the film’s politics should be reframed
in relation to culturally specific modes of queer gender performance and
sexual definition, as well as to the trope of initiation, which challenges a
linear progress narrative.
Thematically, both of Chou’s lesbian films are centered on stories of
young girls with intense crushes on older butch figures. The girls are quite
young (nine and ten)—that these crushes are not innocent is suggested by
Jade’s telling her lesbian origin story as part of a live online chat. Her male
clients are voyeuristically attuned to what they want to hear as a prurient
loss-of-virginity tale; instead Jade tells a very girly story of getting a lift on
the back of a bicycle by a neighbor (Takeko, who she hopes is signed in and
listening to the session). May in Drifting Flowers falls in love with Diego
at first sight (something her blind sister cannot literally do), and the film
underscores the importance of the girl’s gaze with a point-of-view construction (figs. 4.5–4.7).
figure 4.5 (top) May looks on as Diego performs with her sister in
Drifting Flowers. Frame capture. Wolfe Releasing. figure 4.6 (middle)
Gender performance converges with musical performance. Chao Yi-lan
and Serena Fang in Drifting Flowers. Frame capture. Wolfe Releasing.
figure 4.7 (bottom) A shot of May anchors the previous image in her
point-of-view shot in Drifting Flowers. Frame capture. Wolfe Releasing.
164 chapter four
It is hard for me not to extrapolate these girls who fall in love with tomboys to the figure of the spectator; at the same time, the repetition across
both films points to Chou’s authorial signature or fantasmatic. The director
projects images of young girls attempting to decipher (their feelings for)
charismatic tomboy figures for audiences that include, but are not limited
to, young female consumers of popular culture. Second in importance to
the schoolgirl romance, another subgenre of Chinese female homoerotic
representation Martin defines is the tomboy melodrama (ch. 4). In the examples she cites, the viewer is positioned as a sympathetic friend to the
tomboy, who often meets a tragic end. Drifting Flowers, with its charismatic
butch hero, combines this empathic address to the viewer with an inscription of authorial, erotic desire that refuses to sacrifice or isolate the tomboy.
The spell is effectively cast. An early conversation in which May quizzes
Diego about her gender—with the blunt curiosity natural to a ten-yearold—is echoed later in the film in a scene representing Diego’s own past.
The outcome of the latter scene (discussed below) is erotic initiation, and
so, in a sense, is that of the former. We catch glimpses of an older May
that indicate that she does become a lesbian (when she’s away at school,
of course).
Perhaps the narrative trope of initiation also facilitates the film’s transnational mobility. Evidently Chao Yi-lan as Diego was as warmly received
on the North American lgbt festival circuit as she was in Taiwan. Drifting Flowers’ temporal scheme allows for the resolution of individual stories
while keeping a larger network open, and its migrating lesbian plots are
spatially correlated as well. The film’s “clichés”—which arise in part because of the limited narrative time allotted each of its stories—signal its
translatability on the international market but also invite more stories.
Images from a train traveling through a tunnel in the forested mountains serve as a connecting device among the film’s three parts. Each of
the film’s principals appears on the train. The teenage May’s journey home
from boarding school is diegetic, with her reflections along the way, rendered in flashback, leading to her resolution to reconcile with her sister and
Diego. The presence of elderly Lily and Yen on the train is less explicitly
narratively motivated; we do see them on a platform at the end of their segment, at peace with each other and graced with a rainbow marking their
joint queer journey. And we find Diego standing outside on the platform
behind the train’s rear car; thus all of these bridging shots retrospectively
take up her optical point of view. Whether hers is the travel of a trouba-
network narratives 165
dour or a linear journey to Jing, her destiny, we are not sure, and her accordion, whose rhythms accompany these sequences, supports both interpretations with its up-and-down rhythms. Endless transit and circulation,
foregrounded by these interstitial train sequences, frames the film’s own
disjunctive encounters.
In the final segment, Diego takes Lily, headline act of the rival puppet
troupe in town, for the spin on her scooter that I mentioned at the beginning of the chapter. This exhilarating image of a freer form of motion and
flight than the train permits comes near the end of the film. As they speed
along, Diego confides that her family would like her, too, to perform as a
showgirl to attract audiences. “How can that be possible?” Lily jokes, grabbing Diego’s chest—we know that Diego binds her breasts. When Diego
repeats, as if it is a liberating mantra, “How can that even be possible?”
the phrase condenses several meanings. Diego can’t be a showgirl—she is
a tomboy (she can be a musician); Lily can’t grab her breasts, as they are
disavowed (but she can touch her). This intuition of im/possibility allows
her an ecstatic moment, acknowledging her desire for girls and the body
image she projects. It is in this sense that I suggested the scooter ride is a
“line of flight,” Gilles Deleuze’s figure for creative evolution through the
encounter with something new.
After their ride, it begins to rain, and the pair takes refuge in the cab of a
truck. Attracted to Lily but reluctant to be touched and unsure of the codes,
Diego asks, “Am I a boy or a girl?” Lily’s answer is quick, “A girl of course,
but one who doesn’t like her body.”
diego: Can a girl love a girl?
lily: Yes, love is love. But can you love a showgirl like me?
diego: Can you love a tomboy like me?
lily: Yes, that’s always been my type.
This conversation about “that old chestnut” identity, however didactic,
emphasizes, by ending with the timeless allure of the tomboy type, that
it is just as much about desire. Although Western-style transgender and
coming-out discourses clearly inform both the construction of the scene
and viewers’ readings of the film, the subtitles cannot convey all that is
at stake here. Moments later, the kiss between Diego and Lily breaks off
in laughter. Does this interruption signify relief of tension, excitement at
their intimacy, or amusement at the tangle of tropes (gender inversion, humanist transcendence, tomboy melodrama) they’ve just tugged at? We are
166 chapter four
left gazing at the screen, which soon fades to black, much as the pair look
through the windshield, not knowing whether it is an urgent eroticism, an
identity lesson, or something new that we’ve just witnessed (fig. 4.8). We
know already that this couple does not last, though the two remain queer
kin through their mutual friend Yen (Diego and Jing perform at the wedding). Overlapping codes of Chinese gender presentation and lesbian desire
authorize flexible readings of the film.
If Chou has cannily framed a moment of multivalent reception in the
scene in the truck, she elsewhere includes a blatant authorial inscription,
one that locates her films in what Helen Hok-Sze Leung, adapting the term
from Gordon Brent Ingram to the Chinese context, calls a “queerscape.”64
In the middle segment of the film, Yen wanders the city after a conflict with
Lily, encountering a line of posters for the film Spider Lilies (Berlinale logo
visible) (fig. 4.9).65 As Leung explains, “Queer space is . . . a ‘locality of contests’ between normative constitutions of identity and less acceptable forms
of identification, desire, and contact” (14). “What is this place?” Yen mutters, aptly. While one might read the poster placement as Chou’s shameless
self-promotion, this local encounter with a globally circulating commodity
resites both Spider Lilies and the film in which it appears in a queerscape,
as queer Chinese public culture in a tangible form. If Spider Lilies signifies
on one level Taiwan’s box-office revival, both trans- and subnational queer
spaces echo with uncanny effect within that national discourse.
Underscoring this theme of the uncanny is the film’s Alzheimer-like
figure 4.8 After their kiss, Diego and Lily gaze at what looks like a movie screen.
Chao Yi-lan and Herb Hsu in Drifting Flowers. Frame capture. Wolfe Releasing.
network narratives 167
temporality: not only are the segments out of order, but the ages of the
characters just don’t add up. In the brief coda set on the train, May has
aged at most ten years while Lily, who grew up with Diego, is in her seventies, and Diego appears on the train platform as she did when May was a
child. This convergence of the film’s multiple temporalities may suggest a
disregard for a precise historicizing of Taiwan queer culture, a postmodern
sense of its rapidly accelerated timeline, or just incompetent plotting. But
in Brian Hu’s reading, “the result of the temporal inconsistency is a magical folding together of the lesbian community’s past, present, and future,
allowing tradition and destiny to commingle in one spectacular gasp of
air.”66 What might seem like continuity problems finally appear to be intentional simultaneity. We experience the stories’ closure and the plot’s openendedness and implied dispersal. Without fully untangling its investments
in the memorial mode or the tomboy trope or including much by way of
mise-en-scène (with the exception of the Spider Lilies poster) that could
definitively date the film in a post–identity politics present, Drifting Flowers
asks what’s next.
Refusing closure, the film eventually achieves something like Tropical
Malady’s image of the virtual, despite its more conventional plot. Opening
up the narrative world through its multipart network structure, Drifting
Flowers is a different kind of flexible text, with multiple encounters possible
along all its lesbian story lines. Chou overstuffs her films, it is true, perhaps
to make up for lost time, but also to allow each world to multiply.
figure 4.9 A wall of posters for director Zero Chou’s Spider Lilies serves as
queerscape for Yen. Sam Wang in Drifting Flowers. Frame capture. Wolfe Releasing.
168 chapter four
Zero Chou’s oeuvre resonates within Chinese-speaking lesbian cultures
and plays within the economy of lesbian and gay film festivals and their
demand for product. It traces contours of a transnational lesbian audience
without conforming to global gay tropes and genres. For the purposes of my
argument about the circulation of a set of thematics, affective experiences,
and associations evoked by her name, it is also important to stress Chou’s
successful breach of the independent/popular barrier with an address to
female and youth audiences. Before the big-budget Ripples of Desire, Chou
directed the successful tv drama Gloomy Salad Days / Death Girl (2010).
Unlike most (but not all) of the gay male Asian auteurs, Chou enters transnational spaces with local identity and community politics trailing—if she
doesn’t quite gain the status of art film auteur, she is able to travel these
networks without having to transcend nationality, queerness, or feminism.
Shaping careers that defy standard pathways limiting women’s achievement, Nia Dinata and Zero Chou are feminist icons. They connect with
audiences through their incorporation of popular and youth-oriented idioms without relinquishing their political affiliations. Their network narratives use multipart structures not to pose formal challenges but to open
up women’s spaces and temporalities. A regional rather than an exclusively
national perspective on Asian filmmaking and flows makes these patterns
and possibilities more apparent.
224 notes to chapter three
34. Dawson, “Nadine Labaki.”
35. Press release, Caramel.
36. Labaki was dramatically unveiled in January 2012 as the new spokesperson for
Johnnie Walker’s social media campaign Keep Walking Lebanon, which invites users to
select one of three projects to benefit the country. Caroline Labaki’s promotional video,
“Walk with Nadine Labaki,” was featured on the campaign’s home page and YouTube
channel as well as on the official Nadine Labaki YouTube channel:
.com/user/labakinadine?feature=results_main. “Nadine Labaki—Keep Walking Lebanon,” also directed by her sister, includes the following introduction: “Listen to Nadine
Labaki’s words of inspiration as she adopts the mantle of mother, citizen, and director
to deliver a powerful message to the Lebanese.” According to the ad agency responsible for the campaign, Leo Burnett Beirut, “The percentage of female interaction with
the brand doubled to 49% versus just 24% last year.” “2012 Winners and Shortlists—
Media,” Dubai Lynx,
37. Marks, “What Is That and between Arab Women and Video?” See the curated
programs and online cinema database of Arte East: Arts and Culture of the Middle
East, directed by Livia Alexander,, in particular the multipart
exhibition Mapping Subjectivity: Experimentation in Arab Cinema, 1960–Now, curated by
Rasha Salti, and The Calm after the Storm: Making Sense of Lebanon’s Civil War.
4. Network Narratives
1. I refer to East and Southeast Asian cinema. For an excellent discussion of the
concept of the transnational in film studies that draws on its use within scholarship
on Chinese and East Asian cinemas, see Higbee and Lim, “Concepts of Transnational
2. See, for example, Wong, “The Hong Kong International Film Festival as Cultural
Event,” in her Film Festivals, 190–222.
3. Wang, Chinese Women’s Cinema, 39.
4. Bordwell, The Way Hollywood Tells It, 100.
5. The Network of Asian Women’s Film Festival had its first meeting in Seoul in
2011. “The First 3 Years of nawff—an Interview of Ms. Lee Hyae-Kyoung, Chairperson of nawff,” nawff, February 6, 2013,
6. There are direct models for these open narratives in television anthology formats,
serials, and in Asian art films by Wong Kar Wai and Apichatpong Weerasethukal (I address the latter’s work briefly below).
7. For a richly textured and culturally contextualized reading of the film, see Imanjaya, “The Curious Cases of Salma, Siti, and Ming.”
8. Indeed, a question about the role of these references in the film provoked visible
emotion in the filmmaker, as she spoke of her decision not to visit Aceh and attract
attention to herself, questioning both the motives of those who did and her own ability
to bear witness. Interview with the author, New York, May 2006.
9. “While the full human impact of the Asian tsunami in Aceh Province, in terms
of lives lost or damaged, may never be fully measured, the resulting female deficit will
notes to chapter four 225
likely be the tsunami’s most deeply felt and prolonged impact.” Shannon Doocy,
Abdur Rofi, Claire Moodie, Eric Spring, Scott Bradley, Gilbert Burnham, and Courtland Robinson, “Tsunami Mortality in Aceh Province, Indonesia,” Bulletin of the World
Health Organization 85.4 (2007): 273–278,
10. See Imanjaya’s summary of the debates and controversies in “The Curious Cases
of Salma, Siti, and Ming.”
11. Rony, “Transforming Documentary.”
12. In addition to Perempuan punya cerita / Chants of Lotus (2007) and Pertaruhan / At
Stake (2008), Dinata produced Working Girls (2011), a documentary on women and
work featuring segments by both male and female directors.
13. Khoo, “The Minor Transnationalism of Queer Asian Cinema.”
14. See Grossman, Queer Asian Cinema; Berry, “Asian Values, Family Values.”
15. See Lim, Celluloid Comrades, for chapters on Kwan and Tsai.
16. Kawase Naomi from Japan, Guo Xiaolu and Li Yu from China, and the Thai director Anocha Suwichakornpong are recent examples of women acclaimed in global art
cinema and enabled by its festival and funding networks. Several Asian women directors of Hui’s generation were key figures in national film industries, including Malaysian feature film and advertising director Yasmin Ahmad and Filipina filmmaker and
film school founder Marilou Diaz-Abaya, both prematurely deceased.
17. See Martin, “Appendix: Interview with Shi Tou,” in Backward Glances.
18. Grant, “,” 106. Very few lesbian directors anywhere in the world
have made multiple queer features, again in contrast to queer male auteurs. A favorable
subsidy system or a healthy independent sector and market circumstances are required
as well as credible distribution opportunities through and beyond the lgbt festival
network. Monika Treut tapped German tv funding sources to make multiple feature
films starting in the 1980s, and she has continued to work in and out of features and
documentaries. Interestingly, she has worked in Taipei, including directing a film
that includes a profile of young Taiwan filmmaker dj Chen Yin-jun (Formula 17) and a
feature film, Ghosted, in which a German artist’s dead Taiwanese girlfriend is reincarnated. Another German director, Angelina Maccarone, has made several queer-themed
features, short of Fassbinder’s thirty-plus film oeuvre, but impressive nonetheless. The
New Queer Cinema was notorious for the late blooming of lesbian features, and the careers of its star lesbian directors Kim Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry) and Rose Troche (Go Fish)
evince the long gap between feature film work typical of independent U.S. women
directors. Jamie Babbit targeted lesbian audiences in modestly budgeted features like
But I’m a Cheerleader, The Quiet, Itty Bitty Titty Committee, and Breaking the Girls, often
produced by Babbit’s partner, Andrea Sperling. Indeed lesbian producers have longer
filmographies than most directors; Christine Vachon is by far the most important lesbian auteur of New Queer Cinema. Even Lisa Cholodenko—who, somewhat like Chou,
is an out lesbian filmmaker with an auteurist mark who has crossed into a wider market with lesbian-themed films—has had considerable time between projects. Chantal
Akerman and Ulrike Ottinger, key art cinema auteurs of an earlier generation (though
Akerman’s work is not overtly lesbian), have greater affinity with art film tradition than
the narrative filmmakers I’ve just named, but they accessed feature-length production
226 notes to chapter four
and international circulation through arts subsidies, thus providing a model for more
conventional storytellers. Barbara Hammer, indisputably the most prolific lesbian
filmmaker, enjoys a central, global reputation in the lesbian community perhaps because of, rather than despite, her eschewal of the feature format. The phenomenon
of the iconic community filmmaker that Hammer embodied in the 1970s confirms
that authorship plays an important role in the grassroots circulation of lesbian films. It
is no accident that she was an invited guest of the precarious Beijing Gay and Lesbian
Film Festival.
19. Two groundbreaking English-language studies—Helen Hok-Sze Leung’s Undercurrents: Queer Culture and Postcolonial Hong Kong, and Fran Martin’s Backward Glances,
on the female homoerotic imaginary in contemporary Chinese popular culture—
address and theorize this juncture in transnational Chinese lesbian culture and have
been invaluable sources for me as a nonspecialist.
20. A statistic that gives a sense of this crisis: Taiwan features numbered
seventy-six in 1990; only twelve were produced in 1998. Zhang, Chinese National
Cinema, 274.
21. Yeh, “Taiwan,” 156–168.
22. Martin, Jackson, McLelland, and Yue, Asiapacifiqueer, 2.
23. Martin, “Situating Sexualities,” 5.
24. Lim, “How to Be Queer in Taiwan.”
25. Berry, “Wedding Banquet.”
26. Hu, “Formula 17.”
27. See “Profile: Michelle Yeh, Producer of ‘Formula 17,’ ‘Heirloom,’ and ‘The Shoe
Fairy,’” Taiwan Cinema, March 6, 2007,
28. Huang and Wang, “Post-Taiwan New Cinema Women Directors and Their
Films,” 136.
29. Chiu, “The Vision of Taiwan New Documentary,” 17–32. The film is narrated in
French, not by an omniscient character but by a wanderer of the night streets of Taipei.
As the voiceover says, “Sometimes it is easier to express myself in a strange language.
Especially if things are difficult to say.” These noir-style reflections are intertwined
with interviews with the bar’s patrons and owners. Chiu writes, “The alienation effect
brought by the French language points to the otherness of gay language and culture,
and thus denies the audience the possibility of fully mastering what it sees and hears
in the film.” It also very concretely represents the idea of self-exile, of strangeness.
Although the rainbow flag beckons at the bar’s entrance, the film is not a global gay
coming-out, visibility narrative. The story of the bar’s closing is one of homophobia and
loss. Indeed, the movie is haunted by absence; the bar has been ghosted. In one scene
an impresario retraces the steps of drag queens performing at a long-ago party in front
of a mute projection of the footage.
And of course French is also a language of eroticism—we see the two lovers learning
the tongue. Elsewhere, we see what we presume to be the same women making love,
first in a hot tub, later in a bedroom while being photographed. These scenes contrast with those in the bar, but they are not mapped strictly onto gender bifurcation,
with lesbians in private, gay men in (semi)public. The lesbian personal narrative fits
notes to chapter four 227
obliquely into the public history, serving as a forceful authorial inscription in the wider
history the film traces and the spaces it maps.
30. Both Formula 17 and Nia Dinata’s Arisan!, the first Indonesian gay film, have in
common the fact that they were directed by young women with professional roots in
television or music video production. The youth audience and aesthetic also establishes
viewing networks.
31. Martin, “Taiwan (Trans)national Cinema,” 131–145. A France/Taiwan coproduction, Blue Gate Crossing was produced by Peggy Chiao, a Taiwan film scholar at the
center of nurturing Chinese-language filmmaking. Blue Gate Crossing is part of her
company Arc Light’s Tales of Three Cities project of films by Hong Kong, Taiwanese,
and mainland directors.
32. See, for example, the discussion forum at the Korean pop chat site Soompi: “Spider Lilies/ Tattoo / Mandala,” Soompi, March 2007,
33. Martin, Backward Glances, 254n7. Spider Lilies appeared too late to be fully incorporated into Martin’s argument in this book. She develops her reading in Fran Martin,
“Love and Remembrance: Women’s Same-Sex Love in Trans-national Chinese Media
and Popular Cultures,” unpublished manuscript.
34. That Chou is deliberate in her queer associations is recognized by a Taiwan reviewer: “The lesbian director strategically links gay culture with a localized identity.”
Ho Yi, “A Sassy Melodrama on Lesbian Love,” Taipei Times, March 30, 2007.
35. Takeko’s ethnic difference is narratively motivated by the ancient art of tattoo but
extratextually useful as an excuse for Leong’s accented Mandarin.
36. Disappointment in the casting was expressed by Taiwan lesbians, Huang and
Wang, “Post-Taiwan New Cinema Women Directors and Their Films,” 150.
37. Martin, Backward Glances, 251–252n25.
38. Martin, Backward Glances, 164.
39. Silverman, The Acoustic Mirror, 218.
40. Huang and Wang analyze Chou’s three queer-themed features as her tongzhi trilogy (“Post-Taiwan New Cinema Women Directors and Their Films,” 144); perhaps the
other rainbow stripes have been deferred. Her project after Drifting Flowers, for public
television, Wavebreaker (2009), was a fiction feature about brothers with a hereditary
condition causing brain damage, showing a recurrent authorial interest in disability and
trauma. Her subsequent projects were high profile: the television drama Gloomy Salad
Days and the costume drama Ripples of Desire. The mixed reception of Ripples of Desire
in Taiwan may have betrayed some trepidation with Chou’s role in narrating the nation: costume dramas had been long out of favor and her use of pop idols in a beloved
story sacrificed some credibility. Deborah Young in the Hollywood Reporter (March
23, 2013) characterized the film as “more feminist romance than bodice ripper” but
missed the eroticism in the portrayal of the twin courtesan sisters’ bond: “A break from
her lesbian-themed films . . . and with hetero erotic touches, it could earn Taiwanese
filmmaker Chou Zero a broader fan base among festival goers and Asian film lovers.”
Curiously, the idea of a break from lesbian material appears across the coverage of the
film, suggesting it was described as such in the press materials. The effect is to instill a
binarism between Chou’s hetero and lgbt films but also to signal that she has not aban-
228 notes to chapter four
doned her core constituency. Derek Elley is particularly judgmental about the film and
the director: “It could have been a big step up for the Taiwan film-maker, taking her out
of the lesbian film-making ghetto through which she made her name at festivals . . . and
into a wider arena—sexually, thematically and geographically.” “Ripples of Desire,” Film
Business Asia, July 17, 2013,
41. The phrase comes from Dennis Altman’s key essay about his work as a queer
anthropologist, “Global Gaze / Global Gays,” although I use it somewhat differently to
suggest that a Western global gaze powerfully constructs non-Western subjects in its
own image. See Lisa Rofel’s thoughtful critique of Altman in “Qualities of Desire.”
42. Berlin’s prominence among the major festivals in promoting queer cinema is
attributable to the key role of gay activist Manfred Salzgeber, who founded and programmed the festival’s alternative section, Panorama, until 1992. Salzgeber died of
aids in 1994 and was succeeded by Speck, who had already worked with Panorama
for a decade and is an equally important figure in the promotion of international queer
43. See, for example, the online press release of the Government Information
Office of Taiwan: “GIO-assisted films ‘Spider Lilies’ and ‘Mei’ in competition at 57th
Berlin Film Festival,” February 8, 2007, E-government Entry Point of Taiwan,, which promotes Spider Lilies as a youth subculture film
with stars.
44. See Loist, “Precarious Cultural Work,” and Zielinski, “On the Production of Heterotopia.” For a historical account, see Loist, “The Queer Film Festival Phenomenon.”
The growing field of scholarship on queer film festivals is documented in the bibliography compiled by Loist and Marijke de Valck, “9.1.1 lgbt/Queer Film Festivals,” Film
Festival Research, January 20, 2014,
-queer-film-festivals/. The Big Queer Film Festival List, http://www.queerfilmfestivals
.org/, maintained by Mel Pritchard, lists about 230 active festivals in June 2014. It is
very difficult to be precise about the extent of the network, but it clearly remains a
significant force in local and global queer cultures.
45. See Rich, New Queer Cinema, on the phenomenon in general and on the festivals
in particular.
46. Jenni Olson, “Film Festivals,” glbtq, 2002,
47. In fact, Tsai’s films are not regularly shown in gay festivals, although they do
stage scenes of queer spectatorship. On Tsai’s temporalities see Ma, Melancholy Drift.
Gayatri Gopinath writes on the dynamics of queer diasporan spectatorship in the South
Asian context in Impossible Desires, ch. 4. Gopinath’s essay “Queer Regions: Locating
Lesbians in Sancharram” opens with an anecdote about watching this film from Kerala
at the Frameline festival.
48. See Egoyan and Balfour, Subtitles.
49. Merck, “Dessert Hearts.” Women directors increasingly use lesbian characters
or homoerotic subtexts to signify (the need for) feminism. See Jigna Desai’s reading of
Deepa Mehta’s Fire and my discussion of Caramel in chapter 3.
50. See King, “There Are No Lesbians Here.”
notes to chapter four 229
51. Rhyne, “The Global Economy of Gay and Lesbian Film Festivals,” 618.
52. Olson, “Film Festivals.”
53. Ching, “‘Bridges and Battles’ Queer Film and Video Festival Forum, Take Two,”
606. For an equally enlightening perspective on the specificities of queer programming
in Asia, see Joel David’s contribution to the roundtable, “Queer Shuttling.”
54. Huang, “‘Creating and Distributing Films Openly.’” Huang and Wang discuss the
founding and mission of the festival in “Post-Taiwan New Cinema Women Directors
and Their Films,” 134–135.
55. Perspex, “The First Asian Lesbian Film and Video Festival in Taipei.”
56. Lisa Rofel, “Desiring China: Experiments in Neoliberalism, Sexuality, and Public
Culture.” See also David Eng’s reading of Stanley Kwan’s Lan Yu (2001), “The Queer
Space of China.”
57. See The clip “Top 10 Asian Chinese-Language
Lesbian Films” can be viewed at Queer Comrades, YouTube, September 28, 2009,
58. For the role of new technology in the larger Asian queer context, see the groundbreaking anthology by Berry, Martin, and Yue, Mobile Cultures.
59. Ann Cvetkovich’s An Archive of Feelings helps conceptualize the diverse formations of lesbian public cultures.
60. Neither a genealogical saga nor a soap opera, the film uses its three segments in
a way that can almost be described as superimposition. Interestingly, Let’s Love Hong
Kong is also about three intertwined lesbian stories. But rather than plotting a critique
of the disjunctures and frustrations of globalization as Yau’s (at once more cerebral and
more carnal) film does with this strategy, Chou’s seems interested in the opportunity
the multiple structure offers of compiling a variety of lesbian stories in one film. Another successful 2008 Taiwan lesbian film, Chen Hung-i’s Hua chi le na nv hai / Candy
Rain, tells four stories. The historical dimension, however fuzzy, of Drifting Flowers
comes closer to the conceit of If These Walls Could Talk 2 (Jane Anderson, Martha Coolidge, Ann Heche, 2000), in which one Los Angeles household shelters three sapphic
tales over time.
61. I use female pronouns here following the English subtitles, but the question of
Diego’s gender identification is an interesting one that I lack the linguistic skills and
contextual knowledge to address. See Helen Hok-Sze Leung’s “Thoughts on Lesbian
Genders in Contemporary Chinese Cultures” and her chapter on trans politics and culture in Undercurrents for the complexity of the translation of activist discourses around
transgender to Chinese-speaking contexts.
62. Derek Elley, “Review: ‘Drifting Flowers,’” Variety, February 21, 2008, http:
63. Yu-Shan Huang and Chun-Chi Wang read the use of “femme” in the review as a
literal reference to feminine lesbians and criticize the lack of sub- and cultural awareness in “Post Taiwan New Cinema Women Directors,” 150.
64. Leung, Undercurrents, 8.
65. The image on the diegetic poster is not the same as the promotional image that
circulated for Spider Lilies. Mystifyingly, two men, rather than two women, are featured
in the lovers’ poses. This may be intended as an image more appropriate to appeal to
230 notes to chapter four
Yen’s longing as a gay man. My fanciful reading is that Spider Lilies has become such a
beloved text of Asian camp that the poster is a transformative work.
66. Brian Hu, “Outfest 2008: Capsule Reviews,” Asian Pacific Arts, August 8, 2008, Hu ranks the
film as best Taiwan drama of 2008 in an unusually strong field and notes that his top
ten includes two other lesbian films and a second woman director.
5. Is the Whole World Watching?
1. Grewal, Transnational America, chapter 3.
2. Hesford, Spectacular Rhetorics, ix.
3. The pbs documentary Half the Sky (Maro Chermayeff, 2012), based on Nicholas
Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s best seller on global activism on behalf of women and
girls, is an example of the “women’s human rights” genre. Films in the long tradition of
independent feminist documentary on such key issues of transnational feminist activism as sexual trafficking, rape as a tactic of war, “honor” crimes, and femicide include:
Mimi Chakarova’s The Price of Sex (2011), Laura F. Jackson’s The Greatest Silence: Rape
in the Congo (2007), Daniel Junge and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s Saving Face (2011),
and Lourdes Portillo’s Señorita Extraviada (2001). These four titles are distributed in
the U.S. by Women Make Movies. For a discussion of films on African women’s rights
distributed by Women Make Movies, see White, “Documentary Practice and Transnational Feminist Theory.”
4. In 2013, Zinda Bhaag, directed by Meenu Gaur and Farjad Nabi, and produced by
Gaur’s husband Mazhar Zaidi, was submitted by Pakistan for Academy Award consideration, its first submission.
5. Shohat, “Post-Third-Worldist Culture,” 292.
6. Small-nation cinema, according to Hjort and Petrie, The Cinema of Small Nations,
functions between the mandate to preserve language and mediate the nation to its
citizens and the need to sustain itself through address to audiences outside its borders.
Although Pakistan is the world’s sixth most populous nation, and its industry, exemplified in the flourishing of “Lollywood”—Lahore-produced popular musical films—was
robust before Islamicization and piracy brought it to a near standstill, Sabiha Sumar’s
film practice is illuminated by Hjort and Petrie’s category.
7. Hjort and Petrie, The Cinema of Small Nations.
8. The only other women who have won the award at the Berlinale are Márta
Mészáros and Larisa Shepitko, back in 1975 and 1977. The fact that three of the four
directors are Eastern European is testament to the festival’s historical role in mediating East-West relations (see de Valck, Film Festivals) and to the relative prominence of
women directors under socialism.
9. Jaikumar, “Translating Silences,” 220. Subsequent references to this work given in
the text.
10. Iordanova, Cinema of Flames, 210.
11. In the Global North, celebrities are used to bring humanitarian attention to
women’s rights violations. Half the Sky features a multicultural group of U.S. “celebrity

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