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“Reel Affirmations VII:

Washington, D.C.’s Seventh

International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival”

October 16-26 at the Cineplex Odeon Embassy and West End Theaters

Ernesto Che Guevara:

As usual, this year’s “Reel Affirmations” festival features films from the United States, Canada, Britain, and a few farther-flung places. Perhaps the most significant of those places is Hong Kong, whose sexually reticent cinema has recently begun to explore gay themes. The three such movies included in this program, however, may be some of the last. Hong Kong films must now be approved by mainland Chinese censors, who are unlikely to be pleased to find the Chinese city of Shenzhen depicted—as it is in A Queer Story—as a hotbed of gay hustlers catering to men from affluent nearby Hong Kong.

Although it’s not radical stylistically, Shu Kei’s A Queer Story (Oct. 17 at 7 p.m., West End) is the most upfront thematically; it’s the only one of the three to feature a gay central character. Law (George Lam) is a 40ish marriage counselor who has long lived with the boyish Sonny (Jordan Chan), a younger man who works as a hairdresser. Although Law travels in gay circles, he has never come out to his family or employer. This is a contentious issue for Sonny, who lives a more open life. The crisis comes when Chuen, a childhood friend who has long expected Law to marry her, returns from Canada to sound him out one last time. Almost simultaneously, Sonny and Law fight over the funeral of a friend who died of AIDS; Sonny is angry that Law agreed to honor the family’s request that the dead man’s lover be barred from the ceremony.

This scenario provides some somber moments, but the film actually takes the form of a romantic comedy. Culturally, the candid discussion of gay issues is remarkable. Cinematically, however, the movie is more notable for its good spirits, high energy, and assured handling of a dozen or more players. (Among the minor characters are Law’s gruff but not naive father, a lesbian who hopes to reconcile with her homophobic son before his graduation, the lesbian couple next door, and that gay hustler from Shenzhen.) Sweet, charming, and nearly utopian, A Queer Story admits gay people into the enchanted world of the Hong Kong comedy—while never forgetting that AIDS, homophobia, and the mainland-Chinese takeover are ever-present threats.

Gay concerns take a more mainstream form in Peter Chan’s He’s a Woman, She’s a Man (Oct. 18 at 5 p.m., Embassy), one of the many Hong Kong comedies to use the former territory’s music industry as its backdrop. Wing (Anita Yuen) is innocently obsessed both with singer Rose (Carina Lau) and with Rose’s producer, songwriter, and sometime boyfriend Sam (Leslie Cheung). The celebrated couple is unapproachable, until one day Sam announces that he’s holding open auditions in the hope of discovering a new star who represents the common people. The only problem is that the audition is open only to men. Encouraged by a friend, Wing binds her breasts and stuffs a light-stick into her pants. Just to spite Rose, Sam signs the unpromising Wing as his new star.

Wing is not much of a singer, but she/he is thoughtful, enthusiastic, and charming. Soon both Rose and Sam are in love with Wing, who claims to be gay in order to divert their advances. This is fine with Rose, who accepts Wing as a “sister,” but it throws the homophobic Sam into crisis. Neatly, he has to decide that he doesn’t care that he’s in love with a man before Wing admits she’s actually a woman. It’s a victory for acceptance, but also for the common (wo)man, since Sam realizes he’s tired of glamorous types.

Chan’s film is the broadest, most slapsticky of the three, although it has affinities with the work of the artier Wong Kar-Wai. (Wing’s dialogues with Muppets, for example, recall the whimsies of Wong’s Chungking Express.) By Western standards, perhaps the most remarkable thing about the film is the respect it shows Wing. Where American movies tend to treat devoted fans as dangerous creeps, He’s a Woman, She’s a Man suggests that Wing’s obsession is pure and even redemptive. (Coincidentally, another Chan film, the grittier but still sweet Comrades, Almost a Love Story, screens Oct. 16 & 17 at 8 p.m. at the Hirshhorn.)

The richest of the Hong Kong entries is Stage Door (Oct. 19 at 9 p.m., West End), also directed by Shu Kei. Like A Queer Story, this 1996 film blithely juggles a vast cast of characters while addressing such issues as gay identity and the then-imminent mainland-Chinese takeover. The central character is Lang (Josephine Siao), a Cantonese Opera actress who plays male roles. She’s not gay, but she confronts sex-role confusion every time her female fans treat her as the man of their dreams. Lang’s businessman husband is planning the family’s move to Australia, while brooding over their teenage daughter’s budding romance with a female classmate. As both a mother and a father figure, Lang is regularly called on to sort out the problems of her real and theatrical families.

There are dark passages in this film as well, but it meets the classical definition of comedy. That’s because things turn out for the best for most of the characters and because Lang has nothing resembling a tragic flaw. The kind of mother/father who makes everything all right, she’s strong yet empathetic, decisive yet thoughtful. Fittingly, the director’s style is as confident as his protagonist. Shu depicts the intersection of art and life—embodied by the film’s Chinese title, Hu-du-men, which refers to the place offstage where an actor assumes his character—and the result is both naturalistic and fanciful.

The other fiction film made available for preview is Lilies (Oct. 24 at 9 p.m., Embassy), by Canadian director John Greyson (Urinal, Zero Patience). A lurid tale of dark secrets, this brings an aging bishop to a French-Canadian prison to hear the confession of Simon, the man he lusted after as a teenager. Simon doesn’t want to confess, however; he wants to accuse. Using his fellow inmates as actors, Simon presents the adolescent incident that led to his wrongful imprisonment. Greyson’s staging shifts between the prison chapel and the Canadian resort town where the events actually transpired, but even in the latter sequences there’s a strong element of theatricality: since all the parts are played by Simon’s fellow inmates, the women’s roles are taken by men. The effect suggests made-for-TV Genet: artful but overripe, a high-church melodrama swaddled in high camp.

Also previewed were two documentaries, You Don’t Know Dick and Dear Jesse. The former (Oct. 18 at 7 p.m., West End) lets six female-to-male transsexuals tell their tales of body “betrayal” and transformation. Even within this limited sample, there’s much diversity. Some of the six have had surgery “down there,” and some haven’t. Some now have female lovers, and some have male. (One also has grown children, not all of whom have adapted to now having two male parents.) Claiming the role of a modern Tiresias, one argues that, “it seems to me that transsexuals are the only ones who really know what’s going on.” Directors Candace Schmerhorn and Bestor Cram don’t turn their camera on any skeptics; this film strictly offers the testimonies of the six transsexuals and a few friends and lovers. That’s hardly definitive, but most will probably find it fascinating nonetheless.

Tim Kirkman’s Dear Jesse (Oct. 21 at 7 p.m., Embassy) is advertised as “fiery,” but that overheats the case. Kirkman is a gay, North Carolina-born New Yorker, and his minor but engaging first-person meditation seeks to understand Sen. Helms’ popularity in the state the filmmaker still loves. (Indeed, Kirkman eventually admits to having once voted for Helms.) Some of the people Kirkman interviews direct sharp barbs at “Senator No,” but the film’s tone is more rueful than incendiary. The filmmaker’s relationship with his family and his estranged lover is as central as the problem of North Carolina’s senior senator. The most wearying aspect is the repeated shots of the director driving through his home state; by the time the film ends, it seems plausible that Carolinians vote for Helms because they’ve been driven mad by all the time they spend on the road.

“Let me say that a true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love,” announced Latin American leftist Che Guevara, providing one of the classic dorm-room-poster quotations of the late ’60s. Ernesto Che Guevara: The Bolivian Diary is based on the guerrilla’s writings during the last year of his life, but it turns out that Che wasn’t always so quotable. Indeed, his day-by-day account of his misbegotten attempt to start a revolution in Bolivia proves fairly routine. Those who didn’t dwell in a dorm during the period may well wonder what all the fuss is about.

One reason for that is that filmmaker Richard Dindo doesn’t like fuss. An austere formalist who distrusts archival footage, the Zurich-based documentarian prefers to construct his films from letters, diaries, and other unmediated accounts. By itself, his account of Che’s final months is quite dry. It begs a context that viewers themselves will have to provide.

The Argentine-born Che was a leader of the campaign to overthrow Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, but he was uncomfortable in post-revolution Cuba. He became the head of the ministry of industry but resigned the post after his attacks on the Soviet Union led to friction between Fidel Castro and Communist Cuba’s principal underwriter. After abortive actions in Argentina and Zaire, he decided to go to Bolivia. The country was poor, run by a military junta, and centrally located; Che imagined that it was the place from which to start a continentwide revolution.

As Che’s diaries recount in very specific terms, the operation was a fiasco. Unable to gain significant support from Bolivian peasants or revolutionaries, Che led about 50 men—few of them Bolivian—in a futile march through deserts, jungles, and mountains. Less than a year after his arrival in the country, CIA-trained Bolivian troops captured Che. The next day—Oct. 9, 1967—the guerrilla was executed.

Pio Corradi’s video camera tracks Che’s route through Bolivia, showing us the terrain he would have seen, as Robert Kramer’s voice-over samples the diaries. These writings recount a mixture of inconvenience and disaster, as Che loses his boots, runs low on asthma medication, and watches his longtime comrades die in clashes with Bolivian soldiers. Occasionally, Dindo enlists witnesses to the guerrillas’ disorganized campaign, testifying to what they saw 30 years ago.

Remarkably, some of Ernesto Che Guevara: The Bolivian Diary’s reviewers have found it stirring. Those who come to the film without any sentimental attachment to Che, however, are unlikely to be moved. Dindo’s just-the-facts-señora style is not very involving, and the revolutionary’s diary offers no revelations. If Che really knew what he was doing in Bolivia, he didn’t write it down.CP