Hong Kong’s LGBTQ+ community has seen some solid social progress in recent years: The government recognized same-sex partnerships in spousal visa applications, the highest court ruled that same-sex couples can apply for spousal benefits and file joint tax returns, and a study conducted last year showed that the majority of Hongkongers support gay marriage.
Of course there’s still undercurrents of homophobia, too, as seen in the recent furor over a Cathay Pacific ad featuring a gay couple, the withdrawal of 10 LGBT children’s books from the city’s libraries, and the appointment of an anti-gay marriage politician to the city’s equalities watchdog.
With the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots this week, and as publications around the world put out retrospective features on how the LGBTQ+ struggle has changed (and in some cases, didn’t change) in the decades since, we here at Coconuts HK decided to do something a little closer to home: the portrayal of the LGBTQ+ experience within the history of Hong Kong cinema.
This was a tricky list to compile, not least because in Hong Kong cinema, gay, lesbian, and queer characters are often framed in stereotypical ways: as the butt of a joke, or as the protagonist’s “gay friend” whose character has a laughable lack of nuance. For instance, gay men have largely been portrayed as effeminate and wimpy, or “camp camp dei,” in much of the history of Hong Kong cinema.
But while recent films depicting LGBTQ+ characters still are far from perfect, there have been some promising developments — we’ve had the first mainstream film to tackle the topic of transgenderism, portrayals of gay men that go far deeper than the trope of “camp camp dei,” and explorations of the lesbian woman’s experience beyond the stereotype of an aggressive, leather jacket-wearing butch.
Here’s our list of some of the best and most important Hong Kong films that center on LGBT characters and stories:
Happy Together 春光乍洩
Wong Kar-wai’s 1997 film about two men in an abusive and contentious relationship is definitely one of most well-known LGBT movies from Hong Kong outside the SAR. It was nominated for the top prize at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival and won the award for best director at the same festival.
The film’s protagonists are played by the late Leslie Cheung and frequent WKW collaborator Tony Leung as a couple who move from Argentina to a pre-handover Hong Kong for a better life only to find themselves drifting apart after they arrive in the city.
He’s a Woman, She’s a Man 金枝玉葉
In this romantic comedy about confused genders and cross-dressing, Leslie Cheung plays a talented record producer and songwriter called Sam, who is in a not-entirely-happy relationship with his pop star girlfriend Rose. Sam is also on the hunt for the next big male pop star, and acing the audition process is Wing, who unbeknownst to everyone, is actually a female superfan who has disguised herself as a man in a bid to meet Rose.
Sensing that Sam and Rose are not happy together, Wing decides to make it her mission to reconcile the two lovers, but in the process finds finds herself falling in love with Sam, and Sam likewise falling in love with Wing — which leads him to question whether he is actually gay.
The film also spawned a sequel, Who’s the Woman? Who’s the Man?.
Who’s the Woman? Who’s the Man? 金枝玉葉2
The sequel to the He’s a Woman, She’s a Man explores the same themes of sexual confusion and cross-dressing, and is a bit more playful than the first film.
It also stars another late Cantopop icon, Anita Mui, known in Hong Kong as the “Madonna of the East” for her edgy and androgynous style. True to form, in the film, Mui plays a glamorous, androgynous pop star named Fan Fan, who decides to return to the Cantopop scene after a 10-year hiatus and inserts herself into Sam and Wing’s lives.
Sam begins to worry that the whole world will think he’s gay after Wing lets slip “I love you, Sam” at an awards ceremony, so in a bid to ward off suspicions about Sam’s sexuality, Wing asks Fan to pretend to be her lover, but Wing soon finds herself falling for the charismatic star.
This film stars Philip Keung — a veteran actor who’s more well-known for appearing in action films — as a fifty-something optometrist called Tai-hung living what appears to be the perfect life: He’s happily married and the father of two well-adjusted grown-up children. But then his life is turned upside-down when a man called Bond — the husband of a recently-deceased childhood friend — arrives in Hong Kong, forcing him to confront his lifelong struggle with his gender identity.
While not entirely perfect in its portrayal of issues relating to transgenderism, cross-dressing, and homosexuality, it’s definitely a groundbreaking and necessary film in that it’s the first film about transgender issues to enter mainstream cinema in Hong Kong.
All About Love 得閒炒飯
This romance stars actresses Sandra Ng and Vivian Chow as Macy and Anita, two bisexual women who were lovers in the past, and meet again years later in a counseling session for expecting moms.
The first act of the film follows the pair through a nighttime walk in Central and Mid-levels, revealing how both women became pregnant and how the pair came to meet. During this walk, we see the pair rekindle their relationship while taking the Mid-Levels escalator up to Macy’s apartment, but then back down again to Anita’s place — each time they reach a destination, they find an excuse to turn around in order to extend their reunion by a few more minutes. It’s a moment that represents the film as a whole: sweet, romantic, heartfelt, and real.
I Miss You When I See You 見你便想念你
This beautifully-shot indie coming-out film deals with issues of social conformity, depression, and internalized homophobia.
Kevin and Jamie were best friends in high school who gave in to their feelings for each other — but their relationship is cut short when Kevin moves to Australia. A decade later, Jamie finds Kevin in Australia, but he’s now chronically depressed. After some contemplation, Kevin decides to follow Jamie back to Hong Kong for a high school reunion.
As the pair discover that their feelings for each other haven’t changed, Jamie — whose girlfriend becomes increasingly suspicious of the pair by the day — finds himself forced to make a choice between society’s expectations for him and following his heart.
This film stars Josie Ho as Flavia, a married high school teacher, mom, and closeted lesbian who has to hide her sexuality because of societal norms and family pressure. As she approaches her 30s, Flavia encounters a free-spirited female singer-songwriter named Yip, and the pair embark on a relationship, with Flavia straying from her husband.
With Yip in her life, Flavia finds she now has to confront who she is and who she wants to be.
Soundless Wind Chime 無聲風鈴
This Hong Kong-Swiss-Chinese film was a 2009 nominee for the Berlin International Film Festival’s Teddy Award, which is given to films that explore LGBT topics.
The film centers on Ricky, a new immigrant to Hong Kong from mainland China who works as a delivery boy in the city. He is then pickpocketed by a Swiss man called Pascal, who is in an abusive relationship with his con artist boyfriend. After Ricky and Pascal share a chance encounter, they begin a romantic — and at times tumultuous — relationship, and are forced to decide whether their relationship is based on love or dependence on one another.
The film was directed by indie filmmaker Kit Hung, who described this film as semi-autobiographical.
I Am Not What You Want 天使
Prior to making Soundless Wind Chime, Kit Hung made his name in the indie film circuit with his short romance film I Am Not What You Want, which has been described as significant in Hong Kong’s queer culture for challenging the city’s stereotypes about gay men.
The film centers on university student Ricky, who was just been kicked out of his family home after coming out. He then moves in with his friend Mark, who is also gay but hasn’t come out to anyone, including his girlfriend. The rest of the film focuses on Mark trying to come to terms with his sexuality.
A Queer Story 基佬四十
This melodrama stars George Lam as Law Ka-Sing, a closeted counselor, whose relationship with his younger “out” hairdresser lover is on the rocks. Law is soon forced to decide between his younger lover and his high school girlfriend, who is pressuring him to marry her.
There’s also a sub-plot involving Law’s friend Kim, a respected university professor dying of AIDS whose brothers attempt to bar his lover from his funeral to avoid unflattering media attention.
Explore more of Hong Kong and beyond with these Coconuts culture guides
Hunt for Cantopop vinyl and at these vinyl shops.
‘Tis the season for lai see with these five classic Chinese New Year films.
Know what to sing at the June 4 candlelight vigil with these songs often associated with the Tiananmen Square Massacre.
Get your culture on at these creative spaces and art centers
I thought that looked familiar — six locations that inspired Netflix’s Love, Death + Robots.