HA VU reviews ‘Inside the Chinese Closet’, Sophia Luvarà’s documentary on the struggle of young LGBT+ people in China.
Overlooking the foggy skyline of Shanghai, nervous twenty-somethings meet in an unremarkable lounge, hoping to strike a matrimonial deal. Far from the average matchmaking event, gay men and lesbian women assemble in this grey room in an attempt to satisfy conventional expectations of what marriage should be. Inside The Chinese Closet is a documentary that exposes the heartbreaking tale of a community who suffer from a severe lack of acceptance and are forced to live under false pretences.
In a society where just the mention of the words ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ result in stigmatisation, the needs of the individual are shown to be brutally cast aside. Desperate searches for the ingredients to make up a ‘normal’ family occupy every waking moment of Andy and Zhouying’s lives. Their struggle is symptomatic of the distressing situation faced by China’s LGBT+ community. Conflicting personal and familial interests highlights the widening gap between China’s older generations and its modernised youth. Inside The Chinese Closet delves into the unspoken sentiments, the heartaches and the pain. It challenges notions of normality and dismisses the necessity of pursuing a heteronormative lifestyle.
Director Sophia Luvarà follows urbanite Andy and country girl Zhouying to explore two different sides of the same tragic tale. After his coming out, Andy’s father burst into tears. “When I came out of the closet, my father went in”, Andy nervously jokes. His vibrant, energetic personal life entirely contrasts with his tired phone calls to his father, who still insists on discussing marriage and having children. Meetings with potential lesbian wives shed light on a sad truth: in Andy’s world, marriage proposals are anything but romantic. Less like an expression of love and more a matter of logistics, they talk of surrogacy and payment, of the time they want away from the marriage. Turning to Thailand for a procedure that is illegal in China, agencies for surrogate mothers happily charge astronomical sums, with “an extra $3,000 to choose the baby’s gender”.
Although her parents are aware of her preference for girls, being in a small village places even greater restrictions on Zhouying. She has yet to even speak the word ‘gay’ in front of them. Taken to a doctor who offers ‘cures’ for homosexuality, she is forced to seek refuge in a deserted hut away from spiteful eyes. “My father will beat me to death if I came out. I know him. He would do it”, insists Zhouying when recalling her expulsion from school for having a girlfriend. Deeply hurt, her current relationship has to be kept in the dark. Minute fragments in her voice and her hidden desperation for human touch evokes the concomitant selfishness of parents and selflessness of their children. “Is it because I gave you too much candy as a child?”, quizzes Zhouying’s mother, hopelessly trying to find reason for something that should just be.
Luvarà’s decision to restrict the scope of her documentary to two characters leaves the audience wanting more. Unnecessary fillers combined with a lethargic pace create a film that fails to cover the immense scope of Chinese queer culture. Inside The Chinese Closet glosses over the inner conflicts of its protagonists, sacrificing style for substance. An incongruous soundtrack of cheery acoustic guitar tunes does little to mirror the troubled mood of the stories told. A curious, multi-faceted subject matter such as this has incredible potential to reveal the deeper realities of a changing nation. Yet Inside The Chinese Closet is underwhelming and does not do its stories justice.
Parents of gay men and lesbian women become controlling precisely because of a lack of control. They cling at solutions, no matter how impossible or feeble, to try and ‘fix’ the perceived problem. In a culture where homophobia is institutionally ingrained, immense pressure to be normal turns lives into tragedies. Ending the film with vibrant fireworks, Luvarà uses these flashes of light to distract from the thorny issues the documentary struggles to resolve. Andy and Zhouying will continue to fade in and out marriages, all the while hiding their desires in shadows and under dim light.
‘Inside the Chinese Closet’ was shown at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival from 9-18th March. More information about the festival can be found here.