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An Interview with Yi Wang (Queer East): on representation, cinema and discovery

Updated: Apr 16

Queer East is a cross-disciplinary festival that showcases boundary-pushing LGBTQ+ cinema, live arts, and moving image work from East and Southeast Asia and its diaspora communities. We spoke to the Festival Director and Programmer Yi Wang (he/him) about his curatorial process, tackling the lack of Asian representation in the arts and telling queer stories.

Photo credit: Still from A Song Sung Blue

The programme explores what it means to be queer and Asian today, across short-form and feature, documentary and animation. Can you speak about your curatorial process? How have you selected, and brought together, this programme?

I wanted to start a festival because I didn’t really have a chance to see a lot of films that represented the current queer landscape across East and South-East Asia. Of course we do have queer Asian films. In the UK the most token one would be Happy Together, which is an amazing film but it’s also a film that was made 25 years ago and the film has been showing in Europe and in the UK every three months, I think. I really wanted to create a platform that could bring the public and people who are interested in these topics, towards a deeper understanding of what East and South-East Asian queer community is.

When we talk about East and South-East Asia as a term, it’s never just one country, one culture that we're talking about. It’s a wide spectrum of different cultures, with different languages, different historical backgrounds. And they have different ways of viewing queerness. That’s something fundamental to the programme of Queer East. It’s a real mix of different types of films and they span different decades. We spent a lot of time looking back through the archives. This year we have a film made in 1967 from South Korea, a period drama with a gender play. It’s very interesting to look back at this historical film archive and look at how queerness is portrayed, how gender was viewed, how these stories were told. You’ll also see a wide range of different contemporary films on the programme that reflect what people are thinking about queer communities in current times, because queer for me is a very ‘non-settling’ term. It should keep changing, it should keep evolving, it should keep expanding. I hope that is reflected in our programme as well. We’ve created a programme that is inclusive and diverse, and we try to represent the entire region and the entire queer community. This year we have a Japanese film called I Am What I Am which is a very rare representation of asexuality. I think it’s very important that as a queer festival and a forward-thinking festival, this is the kind of work we platform.

One key change of this year is that I’ve moved away from being the sole curator and programme. This year we invited 13 curators from across the world and from different disciplines, different racial backgrounds and different ages, with different lenses on what queerness is, to work on the festival. We hope that we are offering a programme that can actually help people to think about the current queer community in East and South-East Asia.

The festival is celebrating its fifth anniversary this year, and is offering a new expanded programme which includes nature walks, sauna screenings, an exhibition and an immersive bondage endurance test. Why did you decide to expand the programme in this way? Can you talk about the intersection of film/ cinema with these other mediums (dance, poetry, visual arts)?

This is a festival about East and South-East Asian arts and culture and communities. The reason we started as a film festival is because film, compared to many other different artforms, is a more accessible medium for people who probably don’t have much understanding of East and South-East Asian queer culture. They have the chance to get a glimpse of what a Filipino or Cambodian queer culture looks like.

But as time passes, I think it’s very important we include different artforms into the festival. I actually come from a theatre background, and I think different artforms have different ways of telling queer East and South East stories. And with the festival growing, and being recognised more widely, we do have the chance to access more funding.

Starting from last year we had live dance performances and plays, which we are continuing this year. And the expanded programme is a very fun way to get people to interact with screened content. Since the pandemic people, especially the young generation, are very used to watching films on short screens. They can watch an entire TV series on their phone on the tube. So I think pure film screenings might not be enough for certain demographics. I think they’ll want more. Some screenings do Q&As and panels, but I thought it would be really fun if we could add different things into the screenings. We’re lucky to be working with more alternative spaces this year too which gives us the capacity to do things differently.

It’s our first time trying something like this, but I’m really looking forward to seeing what people say about it!

Photo credit: Still from The Missing

The work that the festival platforms is boundary pushing and challenges stereotypes of the contemporary queer landscape across East and Southeast Asia. How has it felt to gather this body of work together? Have you made any discoveries on the way?

I come from Tawain and I feel that I have limitations in terms of understanding queerness in different cultural contexts. Along the way I’ve learnt a lot from all these people. I do feel that the programme I did five years ago was my understanding of queerness five years ago and it’s changed completely. 

Through running this festival, I get the chance to meet a lot of creatives and assess films I might never have been able to see. Two years ago we programmed a silent black and white film from Thailand made in 1954, known as the oldest film that portrays a transgender character in Thai film history. I felt amazed when I first saw that film, and I realised I would never have discovered it if I hadn’t been working on the festival.

I also meet a lot of film talent and artists along their way, and being able to be a part of their creative process is something I find very satisfying. A lot of East and South-East artists and filmmakers don’t get the chance to bring their work to a wider audience especially in the UK or Europe. East and South-East Asian queer cinema is still under the radar. For more emerging young filmmakers and artists the festival is a great chance for them and I’m very happy we can be a platform for showcasing their work. It’s very important because they do represent the thinking of their generation. This is a generation that I don’t always understand so I’m learning through their work, the way they deal with gender identity and sexuality is different from how it was when I was growing up. So it’s a mutual learning process.

Quite a few of the films are UK premieres. What does it mean to you, and to the filmmakers, to be bringing these films to a UK audience? What do you hope the UK audience will be taking from them?

Our collaborators come from more tightly connected East and South-East Asian communities so often know filmmakers and get to see films that don't get the chance to be on the radars of other film curators, which means we can often get quite a lot of UK premieres.

I still remember last year we premiered I Love You, Beksman which is a Filipino, super camp comedy. Which is very rare to see! A lot of Western audiences still have the mindset that queer East and South-East Asian cinema is very depressing, very sad, portraying queers as sufferers being rejected by their society. It’s very interesting to bring very different films to UK audiences.

We are also helping these filmmakers to unlock their film’s potential in different markets. Many films, after they premier with us, have been selected by different European film festivals. I'm not saying we’re a big industry film festival but I think we have a very unique spot in the calendar and people try to discover new queer cinema from our festival. 

We introduce new things and we bring new people to cinemas - it’s a very dynamic process.

Photo credit: Still from There’s No Sex, Only Fans, showing as part of High hands Small Hands

In your programming, you talk about the systemic lack of Asian representation on the big screen, onstage, and behind the scenes. What do you think the creative industries, and the wider world, can and should be doing to address this?

This is a very important topic, and I do think the sector is aware of that. They are investing in more representation of marginalised communities.

I would say that professionals, artists, curators and venue leadership need to be more open-minded. We are talking about a culture, about different groups of people that we actually don’t have an understanding of. I’m East Asian and I come from Tawain but I’d never say I’m an expert on South-East Asian culture. You can’t be. There are very sensitive and delicate elements when we are talking about cultural backgrounds. If you don’t grow up in that culture, and if you don’t have that experience, you won’t be able to understand it fully. And that’s something I think people need to be more mindful of. 

I think the sector also needs to be less guarded, to try to work with different people, with different groups. And to give curatorial power to more practitioners and artists from different backgrounds. I think it will help the sector to achieve a more dynamic and more diverse landscape. People are putting real effort into getting Asian and Black representations onto the big screen, and even behind the scenes, but if these people can’t play a key role within the sector, a lot of this just touches the surface. 

We also need to be aware that Asian culture is not just Asian culture, it’s Asian cultures. It’s plural. There are so many different Asian communities. We always need to make sure we can cover as much as we can, for example there are East and South-East Asians who are immigrants. They will have different experiences to people who have grown up in the UK. If we are talking about East and South-East Asian experience but only focus on the immigrant perspective, ignoring the British Asian experience, I don’t think we are doing the right work. That’s why in our programme we have films directly from different Asian countries but we also have films made by British-Asian filmmakers and Canadian-Asian filmmakers because they have different experiences. I hope the sector can put more effort in in this way, because then I think the sector will be more colourful and more fun.

Where did your love of film come from? What was the first film festival you went to? What film festivals have influenced your curation?

I did politics and media before, and I was working in the theatre industry. They all slightly connect to working with film, but not directly.

But I always enjoyed watching films, since I was very young. It’s a bit cliché but I think films do give you another chance, a window to see things in a way you wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. Film plays a very important point in my life and shapes my understanding towards this world.

When I was Taiwan I attended lots of different film festivals. There’s one I really liked called Women Make Waves that centres female filmmakers. Every year they have an incredible programme of films from all over the world. The first festival I went to when I came to the UK was Fringe. I really like the way they do their programming and how they care about their community. That’s something I learnt a lot from. The first screening of Queer East was actually part of fringe back in 2019. That’s why Queer East is always very community focused, and decentralised in a way. We welcome all different people to work at the festival, and to contribute their creative thinking. Another festival I feel very inspired by is Scottish Queer International Festival which is based in Glasgow. It’s another very community focused festival I really like and the way they make sure their festival is accessible is very inspiring. I hope we can have more festivals like these in the UK. 

Queer East is running from April 17—28 across London. View the festival programme, and book your tickets here:

Photo credit: Still from The Last Year of Darkness

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