Growing up in Hong Kong under British rule - “almost a guest in your own home in a way” - filmmaker Ray Yeung often found himself alone while his sisters attended boarding school, entertaining himself by watching old black and white martial arts movies with fantastical elements, then acting out all the parts while copying their moves.
Aware of a strange dissonance in his cultural identity from an early age, Yeung was, himself, sent to an English boarding school at the age of 13, where he was one of only two boys of Chinese heritage, though he found no ally in the other. “When I arrived, he consciously made an effort not to know me, distancing himself,” Yeung says. “We were all trying to fit in and be liked and he had already assimilated, so he didn’t want to be associated with me.”
Two can play at that game. So, when other Chinese boys eventually arrived, Yeung would avoid them studiously while laughing at jokes made at their expense. It wasn’t his only hurdle, however, as he began to be bullied for being gay, a good bit before realising he actually was.
“People were calling me names like ‘poofter’ and things like that,” he says, looking back. “Before you realise who you are, you’re already being put in that category, being labelled. You go through stages where you try to deny it and I dated girls a little bit before realising that wasn’t really right for me, so maybe I was really a poofter?”
Having long since embraced both identities, the writer/director will be a guest of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, following an appearance at the Mardi Gras Film Festival in Sydney, showcasing his sophomore feature Front Cover.
It stars Jake Choi as Ryan, a successful, New York-based fashion magazine stylist who's an out gay man but suppresses his migrant Chinese heritage, much to the chagrin of his doting parents. This internalised xenophobia extends to refusing to sleep with anyone other than white men.
“People were calling me names like ‘poofter’ and things like that. Before you realise who you are, you’re already being put in that category, being labelled."
Playing on the gap between the image we present to the world and what’s in our hearts, the inherent fabrication of the fashion world is a perfect fit. Ryan’s mask slips when famous Chinese actor Ning (James Chen) shows up. Insisting on a Chinese stylist for his cover shoot, he’s soon disappointed by Ryan’s shortcomings in that department even as the closeted star is secretly attracted to him, with a crackling energy rattling between the pair.
American Korean actor Choi, a Queens boy, was a perfect fit for the career-focused Ryan, able to bring a lot of his own upbringing to the role. Though straight, he had Yeung fooled in auditions. “He had been working in a gay bar for a few years, so he knows how to get tips from gay men,” Yeung laughs. Chan was a little more complicated. Growing up on Long Island, he had to work with a dialogue coach to speak English with a Chinese accent.
Inspired by the films of Pedro Almodóvar, Yeung singles out Law of Desire (La Ley Del Deseo) as a favourite. “It was so whacky and way out, and yet at the same time I identified with all the characters,” he says. “It made me feel like ‘oh my god, you are not a freak,’ you can have all these different desires and it all made sense in that movie. It’s a very bizarre world, but it’s not so strange to me.”
Front Cover delivers a fun set up with both humour and heartache, drawing on Yeung’s personal experiences distancing himself from both his queer and Chinese identities. Luckily he also has friends in the fashion industry who not only loaned him their knowledge, but also fabulous clothes he could never have afforded on the film’s tight budget otherwise.
Studying law while still in England might have kept Yeung’s parents happy, but he was far less content. During a spell back in Hong Kong working in advertising, he and a friend revived the Hong Kong Lesbian and Gay Film Festival in 2000. It had drawn to a close around the time of the handover back to Chinese rule in 1997, but Yeung felt it was an important part of the city’s queer culture. “We wanted to show the world that after the handover to China, the gay rights movement was still happening. We don’t want it to disappear.”
Starting small, with only a handful of films in its first program, the festival has gone from strength to strength since, opening with Front Cover last year - a fact that Yeung, maintaining only a background involvement these days, found a little awkward. “I was worried people would be like ‘oh my god, you chose your own film?’”
Yeung’s championing of the festival sparked a desire to make his own movies. Leaving Hong Kong again under his own steam, Yeung studied filmmaking at New York’s Columbia University, a world he found very different to the former British colony and the stiff upper lip of his British boarding school.
“New York is hodge podge of all kinds of different people from all over the world bringing their own cultures with them, but you don’t have to belong to that culture, you can just be a New Yorker, with everybody on equal terms,” Yeung says. “It’s not really typical America. You don’t feel like you’re in someone else’s country like I did in England.”
Yeung has embraced his heritage a little bit more through the making of Front Cover, with things which previously embarrassed him as a kid now fondly recalled. He says the movie’s key message is that you can’t cover up insecurities. “While you are busy impressing other people or trying to fit in, you lose the core fabric of yourself.”
While he sees a push back against mainland Chinese culture happening in Hong Kong, he prefers to bring a little of both worlds. “Experience has taught me to have more compassion and tolerance of people who are different from me, which is what the gay movement is about. That’s what Front Cover tries to convey. When you get to know someone behind the facade, you begin to understand why they behave the way they do.”
Front Cover screens at the Melbourne Queer Film Festival on Friday, April 8.