Asian Cinema and the Slash Subtext

When I opened up the arts section of the Straits Times last Saturday I was surprised to read a story there about Hong Kong Actor Ti Lung and his latest film --which has a strong slashy subtext. Here's what the paper reported:

In all of his showbiz career of over 30 years, Hong Kong actor Ti Lung is known for his alpha-male, authoritative roles. Fans will remember fondly his swordsman characters in 1970s martial arts movies like Duel of Fists and The New One-Armed Swordsman or his Golden Horse-winning role as a gangster leader in A Better Tomorrow.

But Ti, 60, as a gay cop?

In his first Singapore movie One Last Dance, directed by Brazilian director Max Makowski, the actor plays a roguish police captain who has a special relationship with an assassin named T., played by Francis Ng.

While there are no intimate scenes in the unconventional mafia tale to indicate homosexuality, Ti felt his character had to be irrationally in love with NG's philosophical killer or he would have arrested T for his crimes....

"Mind you, when we filmed this, Brokeback Mountain was not even out yet. I asked the director, but he didnt give a definite yes. If he had, I would have added more hints in my acting."

What slash does is make explicit the feelings that such films leave implicit? It is, as I suggest in Textual Poachers, about crossing the divide between the homosocial and the homoerotic.

As I read this story about Ti Lung, I was reminded of another story about the rise of Bhaisexuals in Hindi cinema from the Indian Express, which my former student, Parmesh Shahani, sent to me a while back. Here's part of what the story said:

Hindi cinema celebrated the metrosexuals (the smoothies of Dil Chahta Hai). It has paid homage to the retrosexuals (Abhishek Bachchan, with his rugged, awkward macho-ness in everything from Bunty aur Babli to Sarkar). Now, it is seeing the rise and rise of a new breed. Call them the Bhai- sexuals. Unlike the Gucci-sporting, new-age DCH boys, the Bhai-sexuals are macho, retro and raw. And though, like the retrosexuals, they'd rather be sporting the newest gun rather than the latest designerwear, there's one crucial difference that sets them apart.

The Bhai-sexual shares a chemistry with his best pal that often even overshadows his chemistry with his lady love.

Again, these sounds like the kinds of tough but sensitive males who have often been the center piece of slash fan fiction in the west. And indeed, as the story continues, it starts to spell out the kinds of hurt/comfort contexts that lead to some of the most angsty of fan fiction.

If you recall, arguably the highpoint of Lage Raho Munnabhai was not the gently budding Vidya Balan-Sanjay Dutt romance, but the emotional scene where a contrite Munna approaches Circuit to apologise to him for losing his temper. Heart-wrenching drama follows when Munna reveals that the loyal Circuit, who has resorted to kidnapping chefs in the middle of the night to source hakka noodles, had also nursed Munna back to health, cradling him on his lap so that he does not miss his mother.

Then there's Rang De Basanti, which can claim to a more than a few of its own bhai-sexual moments -- not only do Aamir Khan and his friends hang out shirtless in rough fields that set off their own rough and tough physiques, they also pick up the gun for each other and sacrifice their lives. Not since Jai and Veeru, who -- riding their scooter, singing Yeh dosti... -- immortalised male friendship in Hindi cinema forever has Bollywood taken up male bonding with as much fervour.

These celluloid pals do not shy away from being emotionally intimate. It's a trend that's described as "bromance", that is, friendship between brothers, or two heterosexual males or as a "male-ationship". The metrosexuals typically bonded over hair gels and conduct their relationships with both their men pals and their women pals with equal new-age ease. On the

other hand, there's nothing easy about the retrosexual... angst, fury and raging testosterone defines not just all his actions, but also his relationships.

Like the

Straits Times

writer, this report raises but then denies the possibility that this structure of male friendship may have emerged from a western source -- i.e. Brokeback Mountain . These writers use Brokeback to stand in for a more explicitly homoerotic relationship in films and instead pull towards the homosocial. Of course, it may be no accident that Brokeback Mountain had an Asian director, Ang Lee.

Our heroes are straight heterosexual males and Brokeback Mountain is not an inspiration for anybody yet. "Male bonding in our movies has to be taken at face value. There cannot be any homoerotic tinge to it. No Bollywood hero will ever risk his reputation by acting as a homosexual. Actors are very concerned about their reputation. The life span of an actor is too short for such risks," points out Gadhvi.

Instead, the reporter shows the continuities between the Bhai-sexual friendship and more classic representations of male-bonding in Indian cinema.

In many ways, the Bhai-sexual has always existed in Hindi films. While Sholay is a show-piece for the early Bhai-sexual, Yarana, Dostana and Amar Akbar Anthony are examples of films where full-bloodied heterosexuals who wouldn't know a metrosexual from a train station, matching steps with one another, and thinking nothing of falling into hard embraces in moments of high drama.

However, social observers do point to one difference. Whether is it Sangam, Yaarana, Dostana, Qurbani and, of course, Sholay, sacrifice has been the ultimate test and enduring hallmark of the male friendship in Bollywood. According to anthropologist Shiv Vishwanathan: "In the films of the '70s and '80s, the friends were condemned to sacrifice. It was almost a duty relationship. You either had to die for each other or give up your love for your best friend."

Not so, the new age friendship. The 21st century celluloid buddies know how to have a good time. They simply hang out and talk to each other, like the Dil Chahta Hai gang. "You can live for the new age friendship, you don't have to die for it. The punitive aspect of friendship is gone from Hindi cinema. It is now celebratory and light-hearted without being over intense or sacrificial in nature," adds Vishwanathan.

"A lot of the films that we've loved and watched have had male friendship as the eternal theme. There's something universally appealing about male bonding, one can connect with it very strongly," says director Rohan Sippy, son of Ramesh Sippy who created Bollywood's most famous friends, Jai and Veeru. "Everybody wants buddies like Jai and Veeru. Their relationship is playful, emotional, loyal and they're ready to give up everything for each other," adds Rohan. Both his movies Bluffmaster and Taxi 9-2-11 explore the friendships between Abhishek Bachchan and Riteish Deshmukh and Nana Patekar and John Abraham, respectively. For Rohan, the archetype of the friendship is classic, but the setting is modern. "The friendship is as unconditional as it was in the movies of the '70s, but it is packaged for a modern audience," he says.

So, slash may represent an important half-way point as countries around the world edge up to the sexual explicitness they associate with Brokeback Mountain. Implicitly or explicitly, they may be drawn towards the rough and tumble style of male friendship which inspires slash but leave it up to their viewers to connect the dots for themselves.

There's a whole world out there waiting for you to slash, my friends, and thanks to the (legal and illegal) global circulation of content, sooner or later these movies will be accessible to you. We've already seen the influence of anime and manga on American slash fan. What will happen when Bollywood and Singaporean films enter the mix?

Given the international readership this blog attracts, I'd be curious if readers have spotted other slashy films in your countries.