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Hot Mano-A-Mano Love

April 2nd, 2006 (03:49 pm)

Hah - made ya look.

While tooling around the web recently, I stumbled onto a thriving yaoi / slash / shounen-ai subculture. The terms are related but not equivalent, and Wikipedia can explain the nuances and roots much better than I can. But the basic idea is fiction involving a romantic relationship between two male characters, often written as an extension of a well-known mainstream story (anime, manga, Lord of the Rings, even Harry Potter (ew) have gotten the treatment). The twist is that these stories are written by and for women, with romance and angst playing major roles; there's often explicit sex, but the relationship's more the point. It's possible that most gay men find it ridiculous, and it's possible that there are just more women than gay men percentage-wise; but this genre caters towards women from their teens to middle age.

Well, a few days ago I came across a group of yaoi fans discussing how disappointed they were with Brokeback Mountain: it wasn't cute, it wasn't happy, and it sure wasn't wall-to-wall hardcore. This got me thinking, because I'd run into something similar in a couple other places. A number of people apparently heard "gay cowboys" (I know they weren't cowboys; work with me here) and thought NC-17 (if not XXX). Most of what people imagined probably fits the definition of yaoi (more or less). But that misses the point: BBM isn't yaoi and doesn't lend itself to the medium. It's M/M, but not romantic or meant to be; in fact, it's anti-romantic. (For that matter, there's more hetero than homosexual sex.) The point of the movie is really the repercussions of the relationship rather than the relationship itself.

I saw BBM when it was first released, before the hype got out of hand. It's got some minor problems in execution (notably in how Jake Gyllenhaal settled into his character in the first half hour), but I thought it was a very well done movie. And maybe the more important issue is that a story like that can get told in mainstream Hollywood. It's a universal story - you can even argue that it's a variation on Romeo and Juliet - with two main characters who just happen to be the same gender. But by and large the movie's been accepted. Think of movies like Watermelon Man or Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, which would make no waves today but were groundbreaking in the late '60s. BBM is a well-made movie, but the long-term importance is more likely the politics underlying it.

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Then there's Maurice. Sort of E.M. Forster gets the Masterpiece Theatre treatment, during which a gay man learns to embrace his homosexuality in Edwardian England.

This was highly praised by several of the yaoi fangirls in the Brokeback Mountain dsicussion, and I see why - it's fairly romantic, it's got a happy ending, and there's enough frontal nudity and making out (although moderate) to make this pretty cutting edge in 1987. It's also got enough serious effort behind it (as in Merchant / Ivory, fresh off A Room With A View) to be a pretty polished piece of work. It's got James Ivory visuals, a solid storyline by a literary heavyweight, tight direction and editing, and very good award-winning performances, especially given the age of the leads. (And anyone who can get a good performance out of Hugh Grant goes up twenty points in my book.)

Its merits go beyond a professional presentation of uncommon material; there's also a strong undercurrent of the harshness of the class system. Servants are ignored as a matter of course, even while answering questions from the master. Homosexuality was the equivalent of a felony, but that doesn't stop the master from showing affection in front of the servants. And god forbid that a servant would want to leave service to improve his / her life. But class differences play a large role in Maurice's growth, as he moves from what he should be to what he is. There would be no maturity without overcoming the class hurdle.

From Merchant Ivory Productions

However, the happy resolution that gives the movie a strong fan base also keeps the movie from completely working. It's just too hard to believe - not that Maurice would in the end give up his comfortable life for the right person, but that the relationship he did form would last. It's too easy to visualize a life a few months later in which Maurice sits naked on the side of a bed in some nameless foreign country, head in hands, alone and wondering what he has left. Maurice's journey is clearly the important issue here (and the fangirls will come up with a beautiful future for the couple no matter what). But it's also an awkward place for Forster to stop.

Maybe that's the difference between Maurice and Brokeback Mountain: while I don't think Maurice would have gotten the following it has with a more realistic ending, I also don't think that Brokeback Mountain would have the following it has with a happy ending.

Interestingly enough, though... several of the actors interviewed in the DVD extras mentioned the volume of mail they got from Japanese schoolgirls. Hmmm...

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Looking towards the future: there's a movie currently playing in South Korea that's guaranteed to make the fangirls stand up and cheer: King and the Clown (aka The Royal Jester), a gay love triangle set in a 16th-century royal court. (There's a decent writeup in the New York Times, although there are more substantive reviews on the web.) It's got no name stars, a moderate budget, modest promotion, and what would normally be considered a pretty boring subject - but it's become the highest-grossing Korean film ever in a country that only removed homosexuality from the government's list of "socially unacceptable" acts in 2004. Word of mouth, along with repeat viewing, wins this time around.
This success has made the film into a phenomenon. The now-familiar poster has been used for political satire. (Unlike George Bush and Brokeback Mountain here, President Roh Moo-hyun has seen it.) The producers are submitting it for consideration at the Venice Film Festival. The English translation is being handled by Dr. Kim Yong-Ok, one of the foremost living Korean philosophers (and whose previous translation job was Im Kwon-taek's Chihwaseaon, which won the Best Director Award at Cannes in 2002). And Dr. Kim apparently volunteered to do this.

What's the film like? Hard to tell from here. It can't be released internationally before Venice, and a DVD is doubtful before the translation is done. From the reports coming out of Korea, the film sounds like it has some flaws, but the story and acting are very good. But although the Western take is the Brokeback Mountain comparison, and the plot centers around a gay love triangle, it would seem that the story and not the sex is driving the ship. (I would guess that's doubly true, since it's a little hard to see this being anywhere as explicit as a U.S. production would have been.)

But this time it's the Shanghai schoolgirls, living in Home of the Bootleg, that are mobbing the stars. Some things never change.

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So what did I get out of this short cinematic tour? This started with me getting pissed about people assuming gay fiction is just sex. The genre is becoming populated with a lot of well-made films which are getting a broader audience. The movies may not go as far as the fangirls might like, but they've got solid momentum towards acceptance as a part of cinematic tradition.