Hong Kong’s LGBTQ+ Film Fest is Back – Here’s What to Watch

The Hong Kong Lesbian and Gay Film Festival (HKLGFF) is a vital platform for LGBTQ+ visibility, communication and acceptance – as much today as at any point in the festival’s three-decade history. With the world on a seemingly rightward swing, LGBTQ+ people are under attack, and though it may seem frivolous on the surface, events like the HKGLFF are crucial in countering that. 

Now in its 34th year, the region’s oldest LGBTQ+ film event is aiming to reclaim its place as a vanguard after three years of being, mostly, off the radar. The border is open, so directors will be in town for post-screening Q&As. This year’s programme has over 50 features, documentaries and short films from Hong Kong, Asia-Pacific, Europe, North America and Africa, as well as five in-person panel discussions. Leading the pack might be Indigenous Queer with Matthew Thorne and Derik Lynch, on hand to talk about the Yankunytjatjara people of Australia, after their short film Marungka Tjalatjunu (Dipped in Black). Anyone who’s familiar with the “boys love” phenomenon that has swept through Japan, Thailand and Taiwan will want to get local perspectives on the subject at the “Boys Love – Made in Hong Kong” panel, with the creators of webseries I Am a Fool for You, He He & He and The Love That Dare Not Speak its Name.

But the main reason most of us will hit HKLGFF is for the films, and the 34th edition has a strong, accessible line-up to support its return to the spotlight. Opening night is an exercise in opposites. The American film Cora Bora, by Hannah Pearl Utt, stars Megan Stalter as Cora, a failing musician with a failing love life. Not finding the respite she needs in her hometown, Cora actively resets and heads down a new path in life. That sounds like every middle class white lady crisis movie ever made, but Stalter’s performance as Cora — a fully realised, casually queer, non-traditional leading lady — makes all the difference. Cora Bora is partnered with South Korean director Byun Sung-bin’s debut Peafowl, starring Choi Hae-jun as Myung, a transgender woman who must perform a traditionally gendered dance at her father’s memorial. To do so — his last wish — requires she travel back to the intolerant hometown she left years before. Peafowl ends on a curious, possibly divisive note, but there is no doubting Choi’s incredibly lived-in, moving turn as Myung.

The festival closes on a literal high note this year with the luminous, colourful, joyous US-Mexico co-production Glitter & Doom. The film stars Alex Diaz as circus act Glitter and Alan Cammish as moody troubadour Doom, embarking on a summer romance in Mexico. It’s a musical road trip that goes exactly where you think it will, but is no less frothy and fun for it. The all-star LGBTQ+ supporting cast, including Tig Notaro, Lea DeLaria, Drag Race’s Peppermint and the B-5s’s Kate Pierson, helps too.

The festival’s signature Centrepiece, Asian Focus and international Panorama sections are more adventurous than usual this year, and more diverse in subject matter. On the conventional side is the Canadian film Golden Delicious by Jason Karman, starring Cardi Wong in his first film; it’s a very sweet, very inclusive coming-of-age rom-com. Wong is Jake, a teenager who isn’t into basketball – until high school basketball star Aleks moves in across the street. Karman doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel, but the (mostly) angst-free story nonetheless tackles the two-pronged identity quagmires of race and sexuality. It’s Canadian. It ends very happily and equitably.

The standouts from Asia this year include Indian director Onir’s autobiographical Pine Cone, starring Vidhur Sethi and Sahib Verma as an out gay filmmaker and a young film buff who hit it off, but who have very different ideas of what comes next. Sarah Kambe Holland Egghead and Twinkie (USA) sends best pals played by Sabrina Jie-A-Fa and Louis Tomeo on a road trip that will see one find romance and embrace of their queer identity, and one find heartbreak. Harrison Xu stars in Hong Kong-born Quentin Lee’s latest, Canadian film Last Summer of Nathan Lee. Xu plays a kid who finds out he’s got a terminal illness and consciously decides he’s going to make the most of what time he has left. The quintet of friends that buoy the story sound like teens, adding veracity to the bittersweet story, which strangely is not as weepy as it could be. And Singaporean director Ken Kwek’s #Look at Me brilliantly interrogates the clash of religion, law and social media that arises when a young man publicly defends his gay brother from a hateful, but powerful, church leader. 

On the global front, Iranian actor Payman Maadi, best known for Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, gets a chance to shine in Swedish-Iranian director Milad Alami’s Opponent as an Iranian refugee in remote Sweden whose past comes back to haunt him when he joins the local wrestling team. French director Olivier Peyon adapts Lie With Me from the book by Philippe Besson, and follows a successful middle-aged author returning to his provincial hometown (is there a pattern to the programme this year?) and grappling with his romantic history. Notably, the film stars Jean-Paul Belmondo’s grandson Victor as a young man who has a connection to that history. And LGBTQ+ thriller buffs finally get a queer genre piece in German director Christoph Hochhäusler’s Till the End of the Night, a neo-noir exploration of identity and desire. 

Tope Tedela and Riyo David in All the Colours of the World Are Between Black and White by Babatunde Apalowo (Nigeria)

The most enlightening section in the festival this year could be From Africa With Love, a mini-programme of three films from arguably the most economically, socially and culturally neglected part of the world. Rolando Cola and Josef Burri’s Out of Uganda, and Tünde Skovrán’s Who I Am Not, are documentaries, the former about young LGBTQ+ Ugandans desperately trying to get out of the country that passed smothering anti-LGBTQ+ laws in March 2023, the latter about two intersex people — a beauty queen and an activist — reconciling their identities in place where sex and gender are rigidly defined. It says a great deal that the films’ production credits are technically Switzerland, and Romania/Canada, a testament to just how brave and important the films are. 

Nigerian filmmaker Babatunde Apalowo’s All the Colours of the World Are Between Black and White rounds out the programme. The slower Before Sunrise chronicles the emerging bond between a truck driver and a budding photographer as they explore modern Lagos’s corners. All the Colours is a forbidden romance in the truest sense of the word: homosexuality is illegal in Nigeria, forcing the characters to struggle with the rift between who they are and who they need to be. It’s one of a handful of LGBTQ+ films to ever come out of Nigeria, and deservedly picked up the Teddy Award at the Berlinale earlier this year.

The Hong Kong Lesbian and Gay Film Festival runs from September 8 to 23, 2023.

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