“Who Are We To Judge?”: Ray Yeung On The Closeted Older Men Who Inspired ‘Suk Suk’
'Suk Suk' is currently screening at Queer Screen's Mardi Gras Film Festival and is definitely worth watching.
While Ray Yeung’s latest film is currently screening at Queer Screen’s Mardi Gras Film Festival as Suk Suk, it’s just been released under the title Twilight’s Kiss in the US, after nabbing a slate of best actor and best film awards and nominations at film festivals across the globe — Berlin, Madrid, Hong Kong, Tel Aviv, Florence, and beyond. When I ask Yeung about the title change over Zoom, he laughs.
“Well, the US distributors particularly felt it needed to be changed because it’s pronounced like ‘Suck Suck’,” he says. “They thought people might think that it’s a porn movie — that title wasn’t going to work in America.”
Suk Suk means ‘Uncle Uncle’ in Cantonese, but Twilight’s Kiss still works well, capturing the romance of the film, which is about two men who fall in love late in life. Pak (Tai Bo), 70, is a married taxi driver in Hong Kong; Hoi (Ben Yuen), 65, is retired and divorced, and the two meet when Pak tries to cruise in a park, but Hoi suggests a walk.
Yeung made the film after reading Oral Histories Of Older Gay Men In Hong Kong, a collation of 13 stories by historian Travis Kong. In Suk Suk, neither lead lives as an out gay man, and while Hoi attends meetings with older gay men to discuss the idea of a LGBT+ retirement village, living there would undoubtedly cut him off from his Christian son and grandchild. The two find comfort in each other. At a bathhouse, they have sex, but it’s the cuddling and conversations afterward that bond them.
It marks a shift from his earlier features, 2006’s Cut Sleeve Boys and 2015’s Front Cover. Despite being instrumental in refounding the then defunct Hong Kong Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in 2000, Yeung had previously made his feature lengths in the UK and US, respectively. While all his features focus on queer Asian men, Suk Suk sees Yeung return to his home city — a process he describes as freeing and difficult, for a multitude of social, creative, and financial reasons.
Speaking to Junkee, Yeung describes why he wanted to create a film about older, closeted men in Hong Kong, the difficulties of casting and financing, and where he thinks queer filmmaking needs to improve.
JUNKEE: Let’s start off by talking the inspiration behind Suk Suk: Travis Kong’s book. What struck you the most about those stories?
RAY YEUNG: When I first read it, I’d never heard stories like them before. I didn’t really know not that they exist, but I just didn’t know what their lives were like. It was eye-opening, particularly one story — Travis asked a guy who has been married for many years and had kids if he’s had any regrets, because he’s lived in the closet.
And he said, “No, because I came from China as a refugee to Hong Kong. I had nothing when I first arrived and now after 40 years, I have a wife. Every night when I go home, she makes dinner for me. At the end of the month, my kids give me a monthly allowance. From nothing, I became this person with a family, I own my own apartment. I am a success story, I have no regrets.”
I thought that was just such an interesting way of seeing it, because I grew up in the West [where] we believe coming out is very important — and if you don’t, then your life is almost like a sham. But who are we to judge him?
If he thinks that he’s a success story, if he feels that his life is fulfilled and he is satisfied with what he has, then what are we to say that he’s not a success story?
I asked Travis whether I could meet up the people he interviewed — the man from that story had already passed away, so that was a bit sad. But then, that also made me feel that there’s an urgency to tell this story because, in a couple of years, maybe all of them will be gone. Eventually, I met up with some of them who were willing to see me because not all of them were willing to, and then we became friends.
J: Your earlier features focus on queer Chinese men in the US and UK, but this was a very pointed effort to do something focused on queer Hong Kong men. What were the differences in setting a story there, and creating it?
RY: It’s different. Actually, it kind of satisfied one part of me after I made Cut Sleeve Boys and Front Cover, because when you are dealing with a story like that, you always have to deal with the race issue. Because you are Chinese in a foreign country or Western country, that issue will always come up. Even though you want to talk about other topics, the race issue will always be there.
And so [filming Suk Suk] in a way was quite liberating because I came back and I didn’t actually have to address the race issue. It’s not a question or topic that’s in the movie. I could just deal with being gay, and just be in the story itself. In a way, I was able to take that mask or that label away for this particular movie, which was refreshing.
J: Both Pak and Hoi are working class. Pak is a taxi driver, and while Hoi is retired, it’s clear he’s not wealthy. Do you think that if these characters were richer or of a higher class, that they would be able to live an out life? Is this a distinctly working-class way of expressing sexuality while surviving?
RY: It does make a difference, definitely. It’s not just the money, but education and access to information.
People who have a bit more money are able to travel and have more access to information, then realise that there are different lifestyles out there. But because [these characters] don’t have the access, they don’t actually know — or if they do, it’s still something very distant away they don’t feel they can reach. They are living in this very homophobic world and don’t see any way of breaking out.
And in that particular generation and age group and social class, their careers are very much based on the environment. In those days [of Pak and Hoi starting their adult lives], say the seventies or eighties in Hong Kong, you couldn’t really find jobs by just sending a resume to a company.
A job was through friends or relatives, you know, it’s like, ‘Oh, your neighbor’s uncle knows that this factory is looking for people’, so they recommend you. Everything is connected with this social environment and your family, therefore coming out is very difficult.
But if you’re from a different class, you can apply for jobs and you can move away from home. In the West it’s easier because people tend to do that, right? If you know that you’re gay, you [probably] don’t want to live in your hometown, which is very claustrophobic: you apply for a job in New York, in London, in Sydney, then move away from home. You can reinvent your identity, learn to be accepting who you are and find your own friends, your own family.
But if you can’t get out, then, whatever your environment is, that’s your world. And that’s why getting married was important because, in the old days, if you were single and 40-something, it was very difficult to get a promotion. Because people would actually think ‘what’s wrong with this guy? Why is he not married? He’s possibly not very stable or normal’. They’d rather promote someone who’s married with 2.5 kids than someone who’s single, who they think they must be hiding something.
J: Earlier you mentioned how setting a story in Hong Kong meant you didn’t have to depict tropes of racism, which is how they’re experienced in life. The film also doesn’t follow a conventional coming-out narrative — is there some kind of relief in resisting that archetype of queer filmmaking?
RY: I didn’t really think so much about how the movie has to have that perfect, happy ending. It was more important was to tell their story and have an ending that’s organic and loyal to the characters’ environment.
Of course, I thought while writing, ‘Oh, they should come out. They should talk to their wives, or come out to their kids, at least one of the characters’. But first of all, I feel that we’ve seen that before. And then second — it wouldn’t be loyal to the characters. It’d seem strange that after they have spent all their lives building up [a life] in the closet, and suddenly [because] that they find this other person, that they’re able to break out.
Say in Pak’s case, [think about] the number of things that he’d have to sacrifice. He spent all his life earning the respect from his family, his kids, and all that. And suddenly you come out, then you can be labeled as a pervert, a traitor, and a liar. All those things are very difficult to endure, not to mention that your wife will probably be very upset.
When I interviewed [older gay men], yes, they were in a marriage not built on a classic love, but they did have love for their wives because they have built this life together. And she has been looking after him and their kids for all these years. Everything is not so black and white — you might not have that passion, so-called romantic love, but there is still love there. That was something that I wanted to capture — just because the marriage was first of all, built on something that maybe you can call a lie, the emotion can be real and true.
J: You’ve talked about the difficulties of casting the film’s two leads before. Am I right that it took 10 months and 100 actors to find the actors?
RY: Yeah, it took 10 months to a year, really.
Finding Pak was very difficult because of the age — someone who is 65 to 75. In Hong Kong, I contacted most of the actors of that age range, but because a lot of them were, playing action heroes or Kung Fu masters when they were young, they were very concerned about their image. They didn’t really want to play a gay part, and the ones that who [were] didn’t really want to hold hands or kiss or have any intimate scenes. They’d say, ‘Oh, why can’t it just be a platonic relationship’, trying to change the script. So I’d say, ‘well, that’s not what I want to do’ — we’d never really have a second meeting with those people.
Eventually, I found Tai Bo to play Pak — he was living in Taiwan, which is also interesting that I was not able to find an actor in Hong Kong. He’s originally is from Hong Kong, but he moved to Taiwan for almost 20 years already. I don’t know, maybe in Taiwan the attitude is a little bit more open, because he didn’t really have as much of a problem with playing gay. But he still had to show his wife the script and she had to approve.
And then after that, by then we’d already exhausted all the actors of the age group. I had to go for someone younger, which originally I didn’t really want it to do — I was starting to meet actors who are in their fifties. And Ben [Yuen] has played a gay character on stage before, so it wasn’t a big hassle for him.
J: Given your work at the HKGLFF, I’m interested in where you think Hong Kong films and Cantonese films still have to go in terms of representation. It’s a big question, of course, but I’m just curious to hear your thoughts.
RY: Hong Kong has made a lot of movies, but not that many gay movies.
There’s a long, long way to go because, as we know, ‘Gay’ is just one small element of it within the LGBTIQ+ community.
There are so many things we need to talk about. Our lives are so much more complex in many ways — and if straight movies have so many topics, we should multiply that by five times because we’ve got so much more to say. There are endless topics — when people ask me, ‘Oh, are you just going to make gay movies?’, I say, ‘I’m just making movies about the world that I’m in. And there are so many straight people who have made so many straight movies, they don’t need me to go and make more. I have this wealth of topics that I can explore, then why don’t I just keep on making them?
Back to your question, I feel that Hong Kong LGBT films are still [in an] infant [stage]. We still have a long, long way to go. We need more filmmakers telling stories, but of course, you always come up with the issue about funding and people don’t believe that LGBT movies have a market. So you’re always having to combat that.
J: You just brought up funding: I’m curious, how did you get this film financed?
RY: It was hard. All of them are hard, but this one was particularly hard.
We applied for Hong Kong government funding but they rejected us. Usually funding bodies from the government will give money to movies that they feel are not commercial, but artistically have value they want to support.
But in Hong Kong it’s a co-financing, so they only finance or help if they feel that there’s a market for it and they want to profit. It isn’t a grant, it’s an investment and your film has to be marketable. And they thought the LGBT movie about elderly men was not marketable.
I met up with [gay Hong Kong director] Stanley Kwan, and he really liked this script. He has connections with China, but the [production companies there] said that they don’t want to invest in an LGBT movie because it can’t be shown in China. So, we thought Taiwan would be a good market. But still because of the older generation, they didn’t feel that there’s a market for it. We’d already exhausted all the production companies. They were not interested.
So we eventually had to do crowdfunding, basically with [investors] mainly in the LGBT community. People would you come to table reads and we’d talk to them and see whether they are interested in investing in a movie.
J: One thing that does strike me about this film is that we so rarely see older people generally given proper lives in mainstream cinema, let alone older queer Asian men. I was curious about the sex scenes, and your thought process behind filling them.
RY: We always think that [older people] don’t need sex. When we see our parents or grandparents, when we show our concern, all we ever ask is, ‘Do you see a doctor? Are you feeling well? Are you eating enough?’.
We never really feel that they also have all these other desires. But we do.
You still will have the sexual desire too. So, we should show that. That’s why when actors said that they didn’t want to do a sex scene or lovemaking scene, I told them that I’m not interested in working with [them], because it’s very important to show that people at that age still have that kind of desires.
And [I wanted] to show it as it is. I wanted to shoot it in a romantic way, but I also didn’t want it to hide it in the sense that you wouldn’t see flesh or there’d be a soft-light shadow. It’s important to be honest about how our bodies look when we are at a certain age. There’s nothing shameful or ugly about it. It is just natural. Why not show it?
Queer Screen’s 28th Mardi Gras Film Festival is screening in cinema in Sydney and on-demand nationally for the first time. This year’s festival will screen 94 feature, documentary, short, and episodic films with 70 percent of films available on-demand. See the full program and get tickets here.
Suk Suk is available to stream on-demand until March 4.
Jared Richards is a freelance writer who has written for The Guardian, Sissy Screens, The Big Issue and more. He’s on Twitter.