Joe Lam and Joanne Leung Have Made Hong Kong’s Only LGBT Film Festival More Relevant Than Ever

Joe Lam and Joanne Leung are sitting in a Tai Kwun bar on this sunny morning. Lam looks like the graphic designer he once was, decked out in vivid stripes, hair impeccably groomed. Leung looks like the activist she is, dressed for comfort and action. The pair is an integral part of the forthcoming Hong Kong Lesbian & Gay Film Festival (HKLGFF), Lam as director and Leung as this year’s Prism Award recipient.

The region’s oldest LGBT film event is at its most crucial since its inception in 1989. At a time when a legally married woman had to fight to get a spousal visa for her wife — a case that reached Hong Kong’s highest court — “Asia’s World City” still lacks a significant Pride Day, never mind substantive anti-discrimination legislation. Meanwhile, Chief Executive Carrie Lam refuses to acknowledge the city’s winning bid for the 2022 Gay Games, a major international event.

“Of course it’s important,” says Lam, who has been the festival’s director for seven years. “We want the festival to be for everyone. 90 percent of our audiences is LGBT, but the rest may never have seen an LGBT film, they may have never met a transgender person or someone who’s HIV-positive. When we take this in a mini-festival to the universities, those kids are the future of Hong Kong. They’ve got the right attitude, and we want to help them understand the community. Some of these kids may be teachers in the future.”

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Rift, from Iceland, directed by Erlingur Toroddsen, about two men wrestling with the ghost of their failed relationship –

Founded by Edward Lam (no relation to Joe Lam), the festival chugged along as a low-key community event until it found an ally in Fortissimo Films’ Wouter Barendrecht, the sadly deceased but influential film sales agent, and filmmaker Raymond Yeung (currently the festival’s executive director), who incorporated the HKLGFF in 2000 and breathed new life into it. Lam started as a consultant offering design and advertising tips (he’s also the founder of LGBT magazine Dim Sum) and more or less fell into the director’s role. “No one was willing to take over the job,” he says with a laugh. “I had no idea what I’d have to do, and no one told me. I was stupid enough to say yes – and I’m still doing it.”

Despite the feigned exasperation, Lam enjoys the job and working with a small crew, and takes a fair bit of satisfaction from seeing a great film selling well. He and Leung agree that as a communication tool, film does have the power to shape hearts and minds; both are adamant they’ve seen social changes that were a result of art. As a touchstone, Lam cites the original Queer Eye For the Straight Guy series that aired on TVB, an unusual move for a traditional TV channel. “This [was] the first time that I could sit in front of a TV and watch a queer program with my family,” he says. “It’s a program about acceptance, fun and gayness.” Both happiness and identity.

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An unsuccessful married poet falls for a younger man in The Poet and the Boy from Kim Yang-hee

Cinema is a great way to bridge gaps, which Leung has been doing for a decade as chair of the Transgender Resource Center (TGR), through education, advocacy (Leung is contributing to Hong Kong’s overdue anti-discrimination and gender recognition ordinances), research and community service, and with the LGBT and LGBT-ally Pink Dot festival. Ask why the festival chose her for this year’s Prism honour, which recognises those who’ve made significant contributions to the LGBT community, and Lam states flatly, “She’s doing an amazing job.” Leung, conversely, lets loose a flummoxed, “I don’t know!”

The festival’s decision to honour Leung seems entirely justified. Press her a bit and she’ll admit to willingly committing time, money and energy to the LGBT movement, but that awards are often misguided. “There are a lot of awards around the region, and my fear is that they don’t understand the movement here. But Joe does. [Dim Sum] was also the first place I really put myself out in public as a transgender woman, in the media, dressed up in a beautiful outfit,” she adds with a chuckle.

Ironically, though the festival’s most obvious goal is improved tolerance and understanding outside the LGBT community, the community itself needs it just as much. “There is a lot of arguing within the community,” explains Leung of how lesbian and gay interests and activism can conflict with trans ones, and trans people’s concern of marginalisation by the LGB part the community. “I identify as transgender lesbian, so I’m familiar with the gay and lesbian side. The lesbian community was very welcoming to me. I like to think I also understand the grassroots LGBT community and the broader middle-class, including Westerners. What I’ve been working on is the whole community. So I don’t think this award is for me. It’s for the whole community.”

The desire for representation cuts across all ethnicities, genders, creeds, ages, weight classes and able-bodied-ness. Wonder Woman, Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians proved audiences exist for mainstream stories with people considered “niche” by their producers, as did sleeper high-school rom-com Love, Simon. But for Leung, representation is currently defined by straight men, and events like HKLGFF combat that. “Academy Award [winning] The Danish Girl by Tom Hooper was a great mainstream movie that reached ‘normal’ people to help them understand the trans community — just a little bit,” she reasons. “But that was rare even in the mainstream. So we need these festivals, for us to enjoy and to show off the real world. I found [the film] mostly touching, but not ‘true’. For myself, truth is diversity.”

Leung once flirted with filmmaking herself, and recently submitted a short documentary to the Mongolian Film Festival – a revelation that draws a side-eye from Lam and a slow, “I didn’t know about this.” But left to the hands of those from outside the community, LGBT films will always struggle. “We want our movies, but our stories are never going to exist, so we need to do our own thing.”

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Debuting director Jamal Sims’ When the Beat Drops spotlights the joyous Atlanta dance phenomenon known as bucking

One group not doing its own thing is Hong Kong, which this year is represented by Simon Chung’s I Miss You When I See You, which premiered at HKIFF in March, and Scud’s new film, Thirty Years of Adonis. “It’s really embarrassing,” admits Lam of the dearth of local films on the programme. Not surprisingly, the issue comes down to money and distribution. Funders want a return on their investments, and for LGBT filmmakers getting a mainland China release remains problematic — torpedoing any potential returns. Occasionally it’s a matter of quality (“That’s why I didn’t submit my film to Joe,” chimes in Leung), but ultimately, “It’s a commercial city,” quips Lam.

Looking down the road, Lam wants to keep challenging moviegoers. He’s put hard sell films that may get overlooked in coveted slots, like opening with Sara Jodenö’s documentary about LGBTQ youth of colour, Kiki, and closing with Lee Dong-ha’s doc about Korea’s only gay choir Weekends last year. “Those were big risks,” he says. “Sometimes Hong Kong isn’t really ready, and you have to push the audience.

Also on tap is widening the festival’s Asian scope, and running more of the kind of technical workshops that could help cultivate the next generation of Hong Kong filmmakers, so that the domestic audience is, well, represented. “[But] we need more money,” says Lam bluntly. Opting out of Chinese subtitles is another risky move but one Lam claims is sadly unavoidable. Assistance from a Taiwanese festival this year and a generous distributor for opening night’s Sorry Angel helped, but subtitling everything that was titled only in English, the international festival standard, would break the bank. “It’s very frustrating when people complain there’s no Chinese subtitles, but they don’t understand how expensive it really is.”

The latest by provocative Hong Kong filmmaker Scud, Thirty Years of Adonis explores the intersection of sexuality and religion

Before Lam has to start worrying about the festival’s landmark 30th anniversary next year, the current edition looms. This year kicks off with Christophe Honoré’s Palme d’Or contender, the semi-autobiographical dramatic romance about two French artists who fall in love at the height of the AIDS crisis, and a story about two women on opposites sides of a political divide in My Days of Mercy, by Tali Shalom-Ezer. Between September 9 and the 26, a total of 29 features and 31 shorts will unspool, along with workshops, panel discussions and — most thrillingly — a Mamma Mia! sing-along at the Palace IFC cinema.

At the top of the list of Lam’s personal picks is Jamal Sims’ When the Beat Drops, a doc exploring the singular art form of bucking, an ultra-acrobatic dance created by black Atlanta women in the 1970s and that gained traction in the gay community in the 1990s. “This is my favourite film,” Lam declares. “The world is not a happy place right now, and this film made me want to get up and dance. I would love this subculture to take off in Hong Kong.”

Also on Lam’s list of musts is Tucked by Jamie Patterson, a sweet-natured but raw drama about an octogenarian drag queen and his younger friend dealing with mortality and identity that Lam calls very British, with “great drag queen jokes,” says Lam, and Crystal Moselle’s Skate Kitchen, about a gang of teenaged skateboarders in New York. “It’s easy to absorb for anyone. All the girls are real skaters, and it’s about girls, and boys … It’s very sweet and it’s for everyone. When you watch this you just feel free.” Which sums up the festival nicely.

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Christophe Honoré’s Cannes competitor set at the dawn of the AIDS era, Sorry Angel opens the festival

The 29th Hong Kong Lesbian & Gay Film Festival runs September 9 to 26, 2018. Click here for more details.

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