To all unaware folks of London (or the world, for that matter), the BFI Southbank lit up momentarily over the last ten days, celebrating the best of what LGBT cinema has to offer to this bustling city. Today sees the festival’s final bow until next year’s programme, so while many are sipping the last drops of champagne and picking up leftover glitter, allow me to recount the number of films I’ve managed to see in the few days of ‘flaring’ – because the festival has now been dubbed BFI Flare, you understand.
I watched a slacker-worthy number of nine (9) films, excluding the ones I’ve already seen before in my gallivanting trip up and down continental Europe recently. As anyone who’s culturally aware enough to follow festivals, BFI Flare has showcased a few established triumps from previous festival circuits, plucking Cannes favourites, the Palme d’Or-winning Blue is the Warmest Colour, the Un Certain Regard-garlanded Stranger by the Lake and Steven Soderbergh’s big-screen swansong Behind The Candelabra, as well last year’s Sundance sweetheart Kill Your Darlings.
Often the biggest challenge in film festivals is in determining the towering magnum opus among the crème de la crème, but that’s not the case in London’s BFI Flare. It’s undoubtedly a good programme, but it’s not difficult to spot the two best films because both have strategically book-ended the festival. The great standouts Hang Khaou’s Lilting and Sophie Hyde’s 52 Tuesdays have enclosed an array of mediocre films that, if you’re fortunate, manage to enlighten, move or provoke in the same magnitude as your average trip to the south side of the river’s premier arthouse cinema.
Let’s start ranking the 9 films, shall we?
Hong Khaou’s sensitive and heartbreaking portrait of love and loss is without a scintilla of doubt the best film film to play in BFI Flare. It’s deeply moving without being sentimental and it explores grief with such delicacy and tenderness, wisely eschewing tear-strained excess (even if you’re watching it through an unholy pool of water streaming down your face). The story of an aggrieved mother and her son’s lover brought together by bereavement strike chords with its themes of isolation, communication and acceptance, but it’s Ben Wishaw and Chinese legend Cheng Pei Pei’s melancholic, existential pas de deux around language barriers and common grief that will squeeze your hearts in the most gentle of aches.
Sophie Hyde’s coming-of-age drama has already set sparks in Sundance and Berlin, and continues blazing through festival circuits with her idiosyncratic work. Transgender transitions aren’t often covered in cinema, but 52 Tuesdays make a somewhat bold statement that change is human’s nature, including sexuality. It’s a film more powerful to analyse in retrospect than to experience, as part of the film’s framework charts real-life Tuesdays over the course of a calendar year, with all the excitement, boredom, frustration and aimlessness of family life. But it’s ultimately touching and heartfelt in its portrayal of metamorphosis between two females – a girl’s turbulent sexual exploration as triggered by her mother’s transformation from woman to man. The relationships captured here feel plucked out from real life – enlightening, exasperating, wayward and poignant.
You’ll be hard pressed to find a more provocative film than Bruce LaBruce’s Gerontophilia, a slightly berserk, confrontational and unintentionally hilarious tale of love between a twentysomething carer and an ailing octogenarian in a post-Harold and Maude world. LaBruce is not the one to temper with safe movies, and anyone acquainted with the director’s ouevre knows that this man doesn’t give a flying fuck to social conventions. And while he is unfortunately overshadows by Hal Ashby, who got to the stage of inter-generational affairs in 1971 first, LaBruce throws what he can onscreen, often to a fault. The character Lake’s attraction to the glorious old fruit Mr Peabody might seem unconvincing at first, but there is some radical spunk in LaBruce’s attempt in confronting society’s notions about youth and ageing, while building a bridge over the vast gulf between the two.
Esteban Larraín’s period drama about a teen stigmata in Chile circa 1983 has all the elements of many other penetrating films about faith and the hypocrisy of religion, but his account of the 14-year old named Miguel Angel (who changed his name after seeing a picture of the Italian maestro’s Pieta) and his claims of having the Virgin Mary stamp of approval goes one up further by suggesting homoeroticism in religion and the blatant campery in religiosity. Miguel becomes instant media sensation and achieves rock-star status, while behind his performance theatre, the Chilean government are manipulating hosannas, proclaiming Pinochet as the best president ever. The set-up is familiar, but it’s ultimately incisive in its cynical view of society using religion as tool for politics, and the grand delusions of hyper-sexuality in its central protagonist, who goes on later in his life as a transgender. True story.
This witty and withering misanthropic comedy lays all the spades going in its favour in the first half, where a cynical antihero embarks on a comically dead-pan detour into Oregon to slave in an apple farm, encountering a panoply of sad-sack characters to run away from. Kyle Patrick Alvarez conjures a razor-sharp script from a David Sedaris essay, deftly balancing observational comedy and character-driven drama that’s constantly hilarious and unexpectedly insightful. But it’s an utter shame when C.O.G. (standing for Child of God) recedes to tedium and coming-of-age conventions via Christian camp America, detailing a story that feels half-baked. Nonetheless, it’s worth checking out for Jonathan Groff (he of HBO’s Looking fame), who gets to shoulder an entire film with charm and effortlessness, and Corey Stoll, who pops up with a rib-tickling, scene-stealing cameo, replete with his character’s vast collection of butt-plugs and dildos.
Classically rendered from first frame to last, this minimalistic, impressionistic and unabashedly romantic film about young love in the throes of separation may very well test your tolerance in slow cinema. Throwing the art of screenplay into the wind, writer and director Mark Thiedeman stretches this halcyon farewell throughout a languorous cinematic grammar, filming in microscopic, Malickian detail the last few moments shared between Luke and Jonah, with the latter leaving the rural, bucolic Arkansas for college life in the city. As if they will never see each other again, Last Summer paints the hushed drama with miniature strokes – shots of textures, leaves, shoes, clouds – that becomes repetitive and tedious. It doesn’t say anything new about adolescent love, but there is a natural beauty and wistful nostalgia in Theideman’s sense of rhythm and pacing. That love holds everything still – until time happens and love has to end.
The continually relevant history of AIDS has vast mines of individual stories to tell, and Chris Mason Johnson’s drama rolls back to the dawn of the sexual epidemic, particularly in San Francisco and the scaremongering looming on the American horizon. But despite of the immensity of its topic, Test is mildly dull and lacks urgency, purely because its main protagonist, a protégé in a dance troupe, is hardly an interesting character. Often Johnson also tips his depiction with horror dynamics and unsubtle metaphors (see: mice infestation) that both sit uncomfortably with the film’s other redeeming feature – dance. When it bursts with dance sequences, Test truly comes alive with its dance choreography, unexpectedly gaining depth and resonance where words fail. It’s all tastefully shot, too, and admirably pitched, but it hardly offers any new insight when it comes to gay promiscuity and relationships. Peel all back what Johnson is trying to say and his core message is mainly – gasp! – use a condom.
This grungy, subversive documentary made me feel like I’ve been tour-guided into the fetish sex club Hoist, a dank, cavernous space located under a Vauxhall bridge, playing host to decades-worth of sodom and gomorrah action in London. It’s not for the faint-hearted. On a few occasions, it had me convinced I was watching kinky pornography with all its graphic shots galore – masturbation, fellatio, watersports, ejaculation, man-fucking – you name it. It’s terribly shot and artlessly constructed, often resembling the aesthetics of guerilla filmmaking and low-rent backroom porn, replacing talking heads with talking torsos. But depending on your stomach when it comes to leather, rubber and explicit porn, Age of Consent comes into its purpose over its last 30 minutes, defiantly charting the club’s history of nonconformism and the decriminalisation of homosexuality. The club stands as a fierce emblem of individuality against London’ gentrification and the social heteronormative. You just have to put up listening to a lecture on the evolution of gay life while a man in bondage outfit wanks into the screen.
Perhaps I’m not the target demographic of this sprightly, colourful teen comedy G.B.F. (an American acronym for Gay Best Friend), drawing in countless of Hollywood high school movies within its reach, from Clueless to Mean Girls, Heathers and Carrie. I have nothing but praise when it come to the aforementioned roll-call of teen classics, but for inevitable reasons seen from first frame to last, Darren Stein’s derivative, unimaginative display of unhinged campery is practically a session in facepalming. There isn’t a corner in Stein’s high school setting where you don’t see a stereotype on legs. It’s well-intentioned and pitched with an admirable pro-equality doctrine, but it’s littered with clichés de rigeur to the genre. Thankfully, there are enough hilarious one-liners to get you sniggering and keep your eyes from rolling far too high into your skull. A fun, if highly predictable, diversion that has sucked far too much glucose-fructose in its veins.