1998, partly re-written November 2004
Cinema: Selya and Beautiful Thing
Word about two films is buzzing around gay circles at this time: Selya and
Beautiful Thing. There is no particular point to be made from the presence
of these two films, but it may be useful to document this moment in time.
Videotapes and VCDs, some geniune, some fake, of the UK-made film Beautiful Thing have been circulating in Singapore's gay underground for months.
Now, Beautiful Thing is a gem of a film. It has a truly original storyline, with wonderful direction and extraordinarily fine acting, especially when you consider that the lead actors were teenagers. It tells of two working-class schoolboys in the UK falling in love with each other. It explores the questions of alienation of teenagers from their classmates, ostracism and family violence, and the trauma of being outed. The film has received glowing reviews abroad. It has not had commercial release in Singapore.
A friend of mine wondered aloud why it hasn't seen commercial release. His conclusion: the government would not allow it; even an R(A) film rating would not be permitted.
Perhaps, but I doubt if it even got that far. I think Beautiful Thing suffered not from a government ban, but merely from poor marketing, compounded by a perception in the minds of cinema distributors here that gay films have no market, and the chances of getting it approved by the censors are too low to be worth the trouble.
Beautiful Thing was made by Channel Four Productions in the UK. It wasn't from any of the major American movie-houses. It appears that the producers didn't get any cinema chain in Singapore to pick it up. As anyone familiar with business can tell you, even the best ideas or inventions can fail through poor marketing.
As for getting it approved, it must seem impossible. Homosexuality is the key that runs right through the film. It's not a matter of having a few scenes cut. We are too discouraged to even attempt to get it through the system.
Remarkably however, some dogged folks at the National University of Singapore arranged a private screening of it on campus. As I understand it, it is possible to exhibit a film to a private audience with looser censorship approval.
Selya - the men in her life is now showing at the Golden Theatre, Beach Road. News about it had been circulating on the gay grapevine for a week. My friend and I finally energised ourselves and went last night. It was well worth it. This Filipino film, with dialogue in Tagalog and subtitles in English, has a teacher, Selya, lustily in love with a travelling salesman, Bobby. Unfortunately, Bobby seems to want her only for sex. He disappears for long periods at a time. Selya then meets Ramon, a school principal in a small town. The whole town except Selya knows that Ramon is gay and has a relationship with his gardener Carding, but pressure to produce an heir finally brings about a marriage between Ramon and Selya.
The second part of the film deals with the tensions the marriage has to endure: Selya's discovery that Ramon is sexually uninterested in her; Selya getting pregnant with Bobby's child (the whole town knows Bobby is the real father); Ramon taking the child as his own; and the reappearance of Bobby in a fit of jealousy. The film is very gay-positive about the relationship between Ramon and Carding: they have strong bonds of devotion, understanding and loyalty. It also depicts gay Ramon as a good father to the young son.
There are some interesting minor scenes of Ramon visiting a gay bar, complete with nearly nude dancers gyrating in their bikini underwear, à la Patpong, only to meet one of his pupils working there as a rentboy. There are scenes of Ramon and Carding in bed with each other; you can't misunderstand what they are doing together even if you try.
While the pressure to produce an heir is something that many Asians can identify with, the anti-gay taunting of the townspeople at Ramon, Carding and Selya, is possibly more a reflection of Filipino culture than "Asian" (whatever "Asian" means).
As far as I could tell, the film did not suffer any cuts at all. However, the film had next to no publicity, and since it was in Tagalog, everybody assumed that it was meant for Filipina maids on their days off. The cinema where it was shown, Golden Theatre, belonged to one of the minor chains, with a rather down-market reputation.
But, the fact is, it was shown. It slipped under the radar.
It's now 2004, and while the film Beautiful Thing still hasn't reached our cinemas, and probably never will, I should record here that a local playhouse adapted the script and staged both English and Chinese versions of it two years ago.
The Toy Factory Theatre Ensemble staged the Chinese version, directed by Goh Boon Teck, in January 2002. The script was adapted to relocate the play into Singapore's housing estates. Judging by a review , it was quite successful.
A month later, Toy Factory staged the English version, directed by Beatrice Chia .
Plays reach a very narrow audience in Singapore, and especially if it is labelled a 'gay play', then the majority of those watching it are gay. The opportunity to get the message out to the masses doesn't amount to much. Cinema, if well marketed, is a whole lot more impactful, and if the film version of Beautiful Thing had had the benefit of commercial release and good marketing, it would have made a difference.
But alas, the government is also aware that cinema is more impactful than stage plays, which is precisely why censorship is still in place 6 years on.
© Yawning Bread