The 40th Frameline Film Festival ends this weekend, but there are still some great films to catch. Here is a list of four features, four shorts programs, and four documentaries playing between now and the end of the fest.
Paris 5:59: Theo & Hugo by gay filmmakers Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau is a remarkable romance. The film opens with an astonishing, explicit, and nearly wordless 18-minute erotic sequence set in an afterhours Parisian sex club. Theo (Geoffrey Couët) is smitten with Hugo (François Nambot) and manages to connect with Hugo while they are both having sex with other guys. The passionate kiss prompts a highly sexual encounter that is made all the more powerful by their palpable attraction. After climaxing, the guys go off into the night in a state of bliss. However, Hugo kills their post-coital buzz by realizing they had unprotected sex. Hugo discloses he is HIV+. As he urges Theo to get immediate medical attention, the two guys get to learn more about one another, and fall in love in the process. Paris 5:59 is a sweet, serious, and enchanting love story that captures the guys’ nascent romance by following the characters in real time as they bike through the streets, share a meal, and stare at one another, lovingly, on the metro. Both Couët and Nambot have fabulous chemistry together, and they are quite sexy sans clothes. But it is the heart of their relationship that goes from the public to the private that makes this unique film so superb.
In the fabulous Front Cover, Ryan (the charming Jake Choi) is an American-born Chinese fashion stylist who is assigned to work with Ning (the sexy James Chen) an actor promoting his new film in New York. The two men are “like fire and water,” with Ning telling Ryan “not to show his homo side.” Of course, as the guys grow closer, an attraction develops that changes both of their perspectives. Front Cover may feature an obvious plot, but it provides valid messages about respect, shame, and reputation. Moreover, while sexuality is at its core, and there is palpable sexual tension between the two appealing leads, issues of nationality and identity are at the story’s forefront. This is what distinguishes filmmaker Ray Yeung’s romantic comedy-drama.
Jonathan is a passable German film in which the title character, (Jannis Niewöhner), is taking care of his dying father, Burkhard (André Hennicke) on their family farm. Jonathan finds some solace when Anka (Julia Koschitz) arrives to assist with the caregiving, and the two beautiful youths soon become lovers. However, when Ron (Thomas Sarbacher) turns up and reveals himself to be Burkhard’s lover, the family’s secrets and lies predictably come to light. The film doesn’t offer much sympathy for the handsome but selfish Jonathan, who rejects Ron, but there is considerable poignancy in watching Burkhard live out his last weeks with his lover. A scene of the older men having sex in a hospital bed is, indeed, as tender as the youth frolicking naked through the fields.
Spa Night is one of the highlights at this year’s Frameline. This complex, quietly powerful drama, written and directed by Andrew Ahn, introduces David (Joe Seo) in a Korean spa in LA, where he tells his father, Jin (Youn Ho Cho), “I can’t breathe.” The stifling hothouse atmosphere of both the spa and David’s family life is palpable throughout this intense film. When Jin loses the family restaurant, his wife Soyoung (Haerry Kim) takes a waitressing job, while David is pressured to go to college. He is given a chance to shadow an old childhood friend, Eddie (Tae Song) as USC, and David’s discomfort is visible behind his poker face. So too is his sexual anxiety; David is twice caught looking at Eddie’s penis. Spa Night meticulously shows the expectations parents have for their children. In addition, the various rituals and traditions the family participates in provide vivid details that inform David’s character. When the shy, closeted David takes a job at the spa, and witnesses various naked male guests behaving inappropriately, his complicit behavior slowly moves him toward independence–but at what price? Spa Night benefits immensely from Seo’s extraordinary performance; he conveys pent up emotion, shame, and desire with just the slightest expression and body language. Spa Night is a minor masterpiece.
The Fun in Boys Shorts program is a collection of nine silly short films, with the emphasis on silly and short. The 2-minute-long opener, The Weigh In, has two boxers preparing for a bout that ends not unexpectedly for a film playing at Frameline. It’s an amuse bouche before Bittersweet, an adorable animated short about Jason finding–and possibly regretting–his decision to reveal his crush on Armando. Moving on to mating, Spark features an unlikely romance between two strangers who meet by accident, while the sweet and naughty Glory Hole recounts a long term’s couple’s initial coupling in a dirty bookstore. MASK4MASK and MeTube2: August Sings Carmina Burana are inventive shorts that feature dozens of latex-clad bodies. Time Quest offers some amusement as its hero goes back to meet his younger self to save the world. The two best films in the anthology are the extremely clever The Radical Fairy Prince, an endearing silent movie made from footage director Bobby R. Poirior found, and Sauna the Dead, a fairy tale in the guise of a zombie movie. This slight program offers more smiles than laughs, but it mostly fun.
Sauna the Dead also screens in the Oh the Horror! Shorts program. Two of these shorts, Tonight, It’s You, and PYOTR495, have online seductions turn sinister, with gay guys exacting revenge on homophobes. Both films are tense and twisted. In contrast, there’s a sweetness to Monster Mash, a Canadian entry about two horror movie-loving guys bonding one night, although one is wary of romance–for (no) good reason? Rounding out the program is B., an animated film featuring bisexual dolls.
Worldly Affairs offers four romantic English-language shorts. Arguably the best is the first entry, You Deserve Everything, about an Australian doctor and an Arabic translator hitting a snag in their clandestine relationship. As they re-evaluate what they mean to each other the film builds to an emotionally powerful climax. The well-acted two-hander No Strings is a tender romantic tale in which a lonely Welsh twentysomething in London has a hook-up with an Irish guy that may turn into something meaningful. Say U Will is a short, but engaging, story about two strangers who meet clubbing on New Year’s Eve and spend the night together; but will they meet again? Closing out the program is the delightful, Iris prize winner, Spoilers, a magical-realist comedy depicting the romance that may develop between two strangers if they would only listen to their hearts, not their heads. The shorts are uniformly strong, and all four are satisfying.
Likewise, We Need to Talk is a terrific shorts program in which various gay men grapple with issues of love and (mis)communication. Before Midnight Cowboy has a cuddler and a cudlee displaying some intense emotions as they reach a pivotal point in their relationship. We Could Be Parents shows the extent one guy goes to have children—much to his boyfriend’s chagrin. He justifies his behavior in a striking, unedited video. A couple’s 3-year anniversary is not happy when one admits to cheating, despite their open relationship policy in the compelling Raw Footage. The sensitive Norwegian import, Thanks for Dancing, depicts an elderly couple’s relationship after one retires. The program closes with the moving drama, Pick Up, in which a driver longs to connect romantically with a passenger he is crushed on, only to have a roadblock get in the way.
Growing Up Coy addresses the topical subject of transgender rights. The film, produced and directed by Eric Juhola, focuses on the landmark case of Coloradan six-year-old, Coy Mathis, who was born male, but identifies as a girl. His parents, Jeremy and Kathryn, legally challenge Coy’s elementary school for denying her the right to use the girls’ bathroom. As Michael Silverman, then Executive Director of the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, takes on the case, a media storm ensues. Growing Up Coy thoughtfully takes a mostly observational approach to showing how Jeremy, Kathryn, Coy, and her siblings deal with the stresses of educating and fighting against discrimination and the negative reactions to sexual identity issues in pre-teens. The subjects all speak from their hearts, which is what makes this documentary so affecting.
Inside the Chinese Closet is a clumsily made, but not uninteresting, documentary about being queer in China. Andy is a bear whose father knows he is gay, but is pressuring him to get married and have children. He attends a fake marriage market and hopes to find a lesbian who will be a close friend and help him achieve this goal. The film’s other subject is Cherry, a lesbian who is being pressured to adopt a child. Her parents explain that they had Cherry so she will take care of them as they age; they want her to have a child so someone will care for her in her dotage. Inside the Chinese Closet illuminates how men like Andy and women like Cherry navigate their lives with their parents and others, from Cherry’s date (shot in silhouette) with a woman she wants to kiss, to Andy discussing pregnancy and caretaking details with a potential wife. Director Sophia Luvara has compassion for her subjects, but this slight film seems to only scratch the surface of the pressures lesbians and gay men face in China.
Strike a Pose is a poignant documentary that reunites 6 of the 7 backup dancers who performed alongside Madonna on her 1990 “Blonde Ambition” tour and appeared in her film Truth or Dare. The men—all but one of whom are gay—explain in heartfelt, often teary-eyed interviews, the impact the job had on their lives and the impact they had as role models for gay youth. The dancers also eloquently discuss the struggles they had during and after the tour. From having to keep secrets because of fear, to subsequent addictions, lawsuits, and personal disappointments in their lives, each man comes to terms with his success and failure after a moment in the spotlight. Strike a Pose excels at showing the inspiration and humanity of these men who lives were forever changed by their unique experience.
The historical documentary Upstairs Inferno chronicles the 1973 fire (determined to be arson) at the Up Stairs Lounge, a New Orleans gay bar, in which 32 people were killed. The film, narrated (albeit a bit stiffly) by gay writer Christopher Rice, establishes the patrons’ happier memories of the bar, a safe space with a homey feel. Director Robert Camina provides a solid, nostalgic picture of what LGBT life was like back in the 1970s as patrons explained that they could not be out at work, and many had been estranged from their families. While the tragedy is horrifically recounted, Upstairs Inferno also documents the homophobia and bigotry that the survivors experienced after the blaze. The film becomes especially interesting in its third act when Roger Dale Nunez is identified as the suspected arsonist, and the socio-cultural factors that may have lead Nunez to have committed the crime are discussed. But it is the forgiveness and resiliency of the men and women appearing in the film that is most vivid.
For showtimes and tickets, visit, https://ticketing.frameline.org/festival/index.aspx
© 2016 Gary M. Kramer
Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.” Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer