CUT SLEEVE BOYS
Director: Ray Yeung
Stars: Chowee Leow, Steven Lim
Mel (Steven Lim) and Ash (Chowee Leow) are mismatched friends with a mutual concern: they’re getting older and wondering where they’ll end up as two thirtysomething Chinese on the London gay scene. Mel is the handsome, muscular fashion fag who worries that he’s no longer at the top of the designer-jean pool. Fuckwit Ash has more of a Dowager Empress thing going on as he reclines at his fairy-lit, bead-curtained home in pink robes lip-synching to scratchy vinyl recordings of classical Chinese Opera.
The “plot” is set in motion when a mutual friend of Mel and Ash dies of a heart attack after sniffing amyl in a tea-room tryst. At his funeral, Mel and Ash encounter Diane (John Ebb-On-Knee Campbell), a (bad) black transvestite. When he sees that Diane has snared the burly tranny-chaser Ross (Neil Collie) Ash believes his romantic future may be secured by cross-dressing and finding himself such a macho man. After the funeral, Mel returns home to find that last weekend’s Welsh rough trade, Todd (Gareth Rhys Davies) has taken Mel up on his high-on-ecstasy offer to move in to Mel’s flat.
This dreadful and inane minstrel show takes its title from a poem written by the Han Emperor Ai, “The Passion of the Cut Sleeve”, where an enamored Emperor cut off the sleeve of his beautiful robe so he could get out of bed without waking his sleeping male concubine. “Cut Sleeve” became ancient Chinese slang for homosexual men and remains in use today, where the Chinese word for homosexuality, danxiu, translates as “cut sleeve”.
Any clear arms of theme, story or purpose are cut off at the sleeve here, though, with director Yeung seeming to have had no idea what film he wanted to make. This is evidenced by the aimless inconsistencies of character, plot and style and also by Yeung’s incoherent and self-contradicting director’s statement (readable on the film’s official website) where he speaks of his urge to create a film that looks specifically at the particulars of “modern gay Asian lives” yet one where the characters’ Chineseness was made so matter-of-fact that “you forget they were Chinese”.
Yeung was wise to want to avoid the shopworn Chinese sterotypes of waiter/triad-gangster but draining ethnic main characters of any markers of their ethnicity is a most remarkably suicidal way to make a film that aims to explore the experiences particular to that ethnicity. Apart from their obviously-Chinese faces and Singaporean accents, Mel and Ash are indistinguishable in word and action from any random fast-lane queen from Amsterdam to Adelaide. They dish at the gym, they do drugs and clubs, they treasure their designer clothes (which look awful on them). So casting Asian actors and giving the film a gay-Chinese title only serves to hyper-stereotype and Orientalise the characters as we don’t know why we are watching their story beyond the fact that they are Chinese in appearance and so must have some inscrutable Chinese-y stuff going on deep down, secrets that only other Chinese could cunningly understand. It’s also rather strange that this purportedly stereotype-avoidant film has attached every gay stereotype in the world to every poor character that has the misfortune to enter the frame.
Tellingly, the largely-Chinese audience at the screening I attended giggled knowingly throughout but me and my friend, who are both convict-stock Aussies, were aghast and embarrassed for all concerned, including said audience, who seemed to take great pleasure in the hopeless affairs of the film’s two totally unlikeable leads and the bitter, despairing undertone of the whole thing.
For, one by one, every character in the movie is dragged out for a long public Death By A Thousand Cuts and by the end of the film, not a single identity meets with any kind of progress or success. Driven by the enjoyably camp Leow, Ash provides a couple of small laughs with her mini-Diva behaviour but all we get from Mel is one bitterly-delivered put down after another and the depressing denouement sees every character alone, displaced or destroyed. It simply isn’t funny to watch a group of poorly-drawn vapid people spin on the spot for ninety minutes then fall over. And, Yeung’s ill-thought-out ideological oil slick coats every scene.
Acting is generally ok, except for the monotone Lim, who delivers his lines like someone has a gun to his head. Nothing special occurs in clothes, make up or design either, which seems strange in a film about a drag queen and his friend, who’s a buyer at Harvey Nicks.
Twenty years ago, when the gay film festival circuit was not as large and commercial as it is today, the erudite My Beautiful Laundrette explored the personal subsets of a gay Pakistani and his family living hardscrabble in Thatcher’s London. The lazy and expedient Cut Sleeve Boys shoots ducks in a barrel by marketing itself to monied gay Chinese expats who parade into screenings with Pavlovian obedience. To have been at all interesting, Cut Sleeve Boys’ chichi Emperors needed something more than flashy new clothes.