Film Review: Shanghai Queer – Queer East Docs4Pride

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Director: Xiangqi Chen

Continuing Queer East’s season of documentaries, Docs4Pride, is Shanghai Queer, a meticulously researched history of LGBTQ+ activism in China’s biggest city. Homosexuality was decriminalised in 1997, but the history of same-sex desire in China stretches back centuries. However, it was with the birth of the Internet that members of the LGBTQ+ community were, finally, able to organise and forge support groups. This 2019 film documents this history.

So thorough is Xiangqi Chen’s film is that it sometimes comes across as a PhD project, with interviews with numerous academics, theatre directors, and directors of support groups and non-profit organisations. Each interviewee has something important to say about the journey to the present day where same-sex relationships are more accepted in the country, but perhaps some of these interviews could have been edited to give the documentary more focus.

At the start of the twenty-first century, support groups sprang up supporting gay men around HIV/AIDS issues, and while, of course, these groups were critical in offering advice and safe-sex information, this meant that the other members of the LGBTQ+ community remained marginalised. Lesbian groups struggled to be heard in these early years, and it wasn’t until later that trans issues came to the forefront.

This film refuses to leave anyone out who was crucial in forming this community that has gained confidence and agency over the years, and it will be a key source for scholars of queer history, which is so often obscured. Xiangqi Chen includes authors and lecturers who sense that the binaries of man/woman, gay/straight and gay/lesbian are slowly being eroded and that in the future communities will be formed of members who declare that they are gender queer, or, excitingly, that they have no gender.

Not all of the subjects are so optimistic with an academic relating the homophobic and transphobic posts that her colleagues send online and a queer film festival programmer despairing of the increased censorship on the internet; spaces are shrinking, she says, both physical and virtual. One theatre director undoes all his hard work by insisting that everyone, every member of the LGBTQ+ community, have children of their own.

There are few personal stories, but they have the greatest impact and it is a shame that we don’t hear more of the lives that queer people in Shanghai lead. We meet two women for flew to New Zealand to get married and the trans woman whose father would not accept her. We meet three older men who discuss the 90s and the club that they used to attend and that they still frequent. These stories make the city feel real.

By the end of the 90 minutes, you do see Shanghai in a new light; progressive, courageous, ground-breaking. This is a serious, albeit occasionally dry, documentary challenging Western ideas of Communist China. For anyone interested in queer China, or in queer studies, or, indeed in how we live today, then Shanghai Queer is a necessity.

Available here until 17 July 2020

Director Xiangqi Chen is in conversation on Thursday 16 July 2pm on Queer East’s Facebook page.

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