What Do You Want? — Blue Gate Crossing and Queer Languages
A lot of reviews I surveyed contemporary to the English release of Taiwanese film Blue Gate Crossing (2002, dir. Yee Chin-yen) describe the movie in phrases like “little,” “slight,” describing its lack of “impact.” Instead of floating through my viewing experience like this reception would suggest, I have since my initial viewing found myself sinking into it, and into myself. I think so much of that comes down to language.
I typically avoid young adult fiction and coming-of-age narratives, for no reason better than personal bias and a general disconnect to the style (The Spectacular Now and The Perks of Being a Wallflower come to mind as examples of the rote narrative and visual genre trappings of the contemporary YA bildungsroman, neither being especially worthwhile to actually watch). That said, Blue Gate Crossing was one of those movies that I caught a few stills of online and wanted to watch to get a fuller context. An early shot of protagonist Meng Kerou (Gwei Lun-mei, who would later star in the similarly themed GF*BF) and her best friend/unrequited crush Lin Yuezhen (Yolin Liang) both leaning over broom handles, looking just past the frame of the camera, sold me on the visuals before even watching the film. When I got around to doing just that, I found a lot to love; the staging and blocking of actors are often mannered and deliberate, with there being skill in creating sorts of tableaux. Still, it took me a few days to “get” the movie. I was cool on the movie, until I wasn’t.
The other thing that sort of interested me before watching was that the film was pitched as a queer narrative, about a young, secondary school aged girl addressing feelings of gay desire. This is where I think the movie, and whatever reputation it has outside of its native Taiwan, perhaps needs some unraveling. At the center of Blue Gate Crossing is a love triangle that can be boiled down to: A Girl Likes a Boy, Asks Her Best Friend to Send a Love Letter > The Boy Ends Up Actually Liking Her Best Friend > But Her Best Friend Might Just Love the Girl. (Tangentially: On the English language Wikipedia page for the movie, there is this gem: “The Portland Mercury described the film as ‘a modern-day Chinese lesbo twist on the old Cyrano story’ that ‘treads new territory in the teen coming of age drama realm,’ praising Yee’s ‘haiku-like directorial lyricism.’” Yikes from top to bottom!)
The movie’s subject remains biased towards Kerou, the begrudgingly budding lesbian, emphasizing her growth and perspective over that of either Yuezhen or the boy between them, Zhang Shihao (Chen Bolin, who does such great work with subtle facial inflections and changes in intonation within the simple, refrained dialogue), but complicates this point-of-view by placing her in a primarily passive role. Both Shihao and Yuezhen act upon Kerou, innocently mostly. An early illustrative is when Yuezhen puts a cutout of Shihao’s face onto her and makes her dance with her tenderly. Kerou, driven by her admitted desire to do anything for her friend, is happy to take Shihao’s face. Kerou does not remain wholly passive and nonconfrontational: when she gets in trouble, she demands, and demands, and demands, a response from Yuezhen that she never receives. Silence, even when not Kerou’s, dominates much of the film.
Asking, multiple times, and never receiving, becomes the film’s major conceit. The dialogue is sparse, but memorable in just how often you hear it. Throughout the film’s first act, Shihao continuously pitches himself to Kerou, the same bit over and over, expressing his young infatuation with: “My name is Zhang Shihao. I’m a Scorpio. Swim Team, Guitar Club. I’m ‘not bad’.” Kerou responds in silence or absence more often than she does with anything resembling engagement, leaving the frame or scene as he is left alone with his bid, later his questions. Repetition comes through in the dialogue of both Kerou and Shihao, in Yuezhen’s obsessive writing of his name, and in the cinematography. The languidness of shots, the deployment of repetitious visual motifs, such as the various night time visits of Shihao to Kerou’s mother’s food cart, or the shots of Shihao and Kerou inching forward at a traffic light that bookend the film, are not imbued with “plot” driven symbolism, save perhaps the mirrored shots of Kerou/Yuezhen and Kerou/Shihao kissing, but instead continue to drive home this sense of the irresolution of repetition. Through it all, there is never a satisfactory end to reiteration; neither Shihao nor Kerou “get their girl” in the end, and the few answers Kerou gives and takes for the questions that swirl around her mostly dishearten the people involved.
There are two especially poignant deployments of this repetition: first, a scene between Shihao and Kerou where, in demanding to know what it is that she wants, the camera stays at a distance, showing her trying to physically avoid his questions, walking through an auditorium full of chairs, and him blocking this escape, first by following between chairs, then by simply pushing her as she resignedly continues to just try and walk into him; secondly, the mirrored lies of Kerou and Yuezhen, with Kerou telling herself that “I am a girl, and I like boys,” and Yuezhen telling herself she is into another boy, any boy but Shihao. These sequences rung true to me, but I felt unsettled by them. Shihao is largely likeable, “puppy dog” might be reductive, but he remains mostly innocent in his affections, but this forcefulness stung. Meanwhile, that Kerou spends time reflecting on her rejection by escaping to a fantasy of heterosexuality, while certainly a believable arc, made me worry that this could be a conclusion for the film. On reflection, it was in moments like these, moments where repetition dominated the language of the film, that Blue Gate Crossing moved from “movie about a queer character,” à la Frankenstein flicks like The Danish Girl, to lived, queer cinema, at least for me.
I have, on the best of days, a mixed opinion on Gertrude Stein. In this moment though, I think Stein’s approach to language perhaps would make sense here for what I am trying to say. The lesbian Modernist is most immediately aesthetically recognizable for repetition. “If I Told Him, A Completed Portrait of Picasso” is an easily accessible demonstration of her aesthetic goals, this attempt at deriving meaninglessness through that which is inherently meaningful (ie. words). But homosexual desire and queerness is also inherent to her work; in replacing transparent and transactional meaning of words with more of an aesthetic impression of the word, using the sounds, associations, and proximity to other language within the confines of an individual poem, Stein also produces some gay ass poetry. “Susie Asado” is demonstrative of this, as poem wherein the word play creates a sensuous texture (as in how “sweet” becomes a swishing motion of flamenco) or mask multiple meanings (how told tray sure can alternatively be read in context of “tea” or as a play on “treasure,” denoting desire, possessiveness maybe). The poem refuses easy logic, probably confounds those who aren’t “in” on it, sure, but so does Kerou’s sexuality to all of those around her. Both remain thoroughly gay.
The process of coming out is itself a deeply repetitive and monotonous proposition for many. Coming out as trans necessitates that I re-out myself to loved ones, to colleagues, to every administrative role when I need to get something done anywhere. Repeating to myself affirmations of gender and sexuality with varying degrees of success depending on the day leads to little more than further questions and little answers. While Kerou’s own identity remains elusive to her by the end, my own felt seen in Blue Gate Crossing’s torrential approach to questions without answers. I can’t presume to know the intent behind the film, but it’s mostly not germane to the language the film taps into. Queer adolescence in the closet so often consists of silence, questions, and repetitions, all of which act to disrupt the milestones we are taught to recognize throughout life. I can regurgitate what I was told was right, but the language I can process is discovered and defined in the repetitions, of my name, of my identity, of my refusals, for better and worse.
Kerou’s silence is disrupted by a monologue at the end of the film. She ends up distanced from Yuezhen, and while her attempt at a relationship with Shihao goes nowhere, she confides in him her sexuality, and while he is heterosexual through and through (“If you ever like boys, let me know!”), they become close friends. Kerou muses on where they will be, in three years, in five. What jobs will they have. If he’ll still have pimples. Her fantasy is not romantic, remaining strictly platonic, and still, she says, “I can’t see myself, even with my eyes closed, but I can see you.” Kerou is lost in a language and timeline she doesn’t quite understand. There is irresolution in her queerness, but it presents longing for understanding, rejecting hopelessness or saccharine closure. Kerou is lost, but searching, as I am, as I continue to be.