What’s so Queer (or Straight) about Blue Gate Crossing: Stylistic Analysis
This report presents some results of my first-year and preliminary research on
“emerging Taiwan cinema,” an on-going project that began in 2006, has been funded
by NSC for 2 academic years, and hopefully will be funded for the next two years and
developed into a 4-year project.
Because of close affinity b/w film studies and cultural studies, and because of
some commonly shared ground of post-structural and cultural theory, the analysis of
Chinese language queer films, in Taiwan or U.S., is often reduced to thematic
readings and conducted along registers of story interpretation and ideology critique.
Issues raised in a politicized reading of a film based upon its story often concern
sexual politics, identity politics, nationalism and trans-nationalism: What kind
portrayals of queer subjects does a film pose—negative, positive, stigmatized or
sanitized? Does a film take part in a hegemonic construction that ostracizes alternative
sexual practices? Or it takes part in a discourse of culture/citizenship that deploys
such practices as integral to politics inclusion? In other words, how does the depiction
of queer subjects resonate with national imaginary, or perhaps transnational flows of
culture and capital, etc.?
While such a reading of the film’s story might be politically productive and
effective in advancing radical sexual politics, a thematic analysis of a queer film
by-passing formal analysis (and disregarding international queer/film history) might
be reductive and sometimes lead to misreadings. Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet or
Brokeback Mountain, for example, got so enthusiastically received and widely
discussed, yet the critical evaluation of which is often isomorphic with the elucidation
of thematic concerns as well as their negotiations with sexual politics. People who
favor the film commend their sculpting of positive or sympathetic gay images,
whereas people who disfavor the film would attack them for universalizing
pretensions, their wreckage of feminist concerns or transplanting of certain
hetero-normative assumptions. But the question my project sets out to ask is: if we
take into account the very issue of formal operation (or re-situate the film in the
history of international or queer cinema), would the understanding of sexual politics
of the film be different? Or if it is the same, would such an understanding take on
more subtleties or be more nuanced?
The purpose of this report is to demonstrate how theoretical understandings of
film should be tied to and founded upon accurate formal analysis and a solid
knowledge of international film history. This preliminary part of my project tackles
two recent Taiwanese productions that take on the epithet of “queer” or “gay and
lesbian film”—Blue Gate Crossing (Yee Chih-yan, 2002) and Formula 17 (Dir. Chen
Ying-rong, 2003). Perhaps because of their lack of oppositional aesthetics/textuality
qua art cinema, or confrontational queer politics (traumatized, alienated queer
subjects,), these two films have been relatively marginalized in the thriving field of
queer film criticism. Yet instead of treating them just as “queer-themed films,” this
part of my project unpacks these two films in terms of their formal and textual
operation, to highlight the ways in which they might be experienced aesthetically (as
film per se) before they are understood as “queer”. Here I tentatively remove the
discussion of the two films from thematic interpretation and politically symptomatic
readings (i.e. the interpretation of the story as it bears relevance to portrayal of queer
subjects, queer identity politics, or the dis/articulation of nationality or
trans-nationality), but bring to fore the very process of cinematic narration (shots, or
sequences) that might be difficult to grasp through merely a consideration of diegesis
and sexual politics. I aim at a formal appraisal of Blue Gate Crossing and Formula 17,
foremost those constituting the visuality (and aurality) of the films—visual style,
compositional principles/staging practices, and temporal design (editing) of the films.
The formal assessment of these two films will pave the way, in a follow-up NSC
project (NSC95-2411-H-003-018, 2007-2008), for the reconsideration of “gaze” in
cinema as formulated by feminist film theorists and Lacanian film theory, exploring
the implications revolving around the gay, lesbian, or queer gaze.
This report excerpts parts of my research on and analysis of the formal qualities
of Blue Gate Crossing (BGC), with the analysis of Formula 17 temporarily eclipsed
here for it would entail a whole different set of debate on the issues of technical
ineptitude and questions of highbrow/lowbrow taste. From BGC, I discern the
perceptual negotiations of the image as seen in three categories: 1) staging practices
that could be seen as an inheritance from Taiwan New Cinema; 2) images that not
only reminisce the stylistics of New Cinema but also abound with implications about
sexualities; 3) point of view shots hypothetically and tentatively identified as “gaze,”
mainly of the female protagonist, Meng Ke-rou.
Influence of Taiwan New Cinema
Blue Gate Crossing totals only 312 shots over the running time of 89 minutes. The
average shot length (ASL) is 15.2 seconds, 67% of shots longer than 6 seconds, 37%
of shots with camera movement (including slightly reframing) and 13% of shots with
only slight reframing.1 Although the ASL of the film does not quite measure up to the
minimalist “long-take” stylistics fashioned by Taiwan New Cinema, Chang Tso-ji, or
Tsai Ming-liang, it is relatively a “slow” and “static” film given that the mainstay of
domestic target audience is Taiwan teenagers and youths, an audience putatively
having short attention span as they have grown up watching rapidly cut Hollywood
blockbusters and Japanese animation which employ tightly-controlled/intensified
continuity editing.2 Taiwan New Cinema (TNC) as an influence is most evident in
Yee Chih-yan’s composing and framing of long shots, lensed at times in the scheme of
planimetric framing, and at times in a frame-within-frame or multiple-plane construct.
A. Planimetric Framing
Shot 48: pf
In the project I made an elaborate document annotating each shot of BGC in terms of their shot
length and camera movement (including slight reframing), configuring the percentage of shots with
camera movement and the percentage of shots lasting longer than certain durations (6 seconds, 17
seconds, and 1 minute). Such a quantitative approach models upon David Bordwell and, when put in
comparison with films the audience are habituated, could give a better idea as to whether a film feels
“slow” or “fast,” “static” or “kinetic”. In the document I also specified whether each shot involves
point-of-view or utilizes the staging practices that call the attention of “style historically conscious”
According to Bordwell, the ASL of any typical Hollywood film ran between 3 to 6 seconds in 1999
and 2000. Today, most films are cut more rapidly than at any other time in U.S. studio filmmaking. I
have yet to configure the tempo of Japanese animation or vide games of various national origin.
Shot 61: pf in telephoto
Shot 94: pf in telephoto, with staggered planes suggesting depth, with actors standing
in silhouette in the foreground
B. Long Shots Combined with Long Takes
Quite often the use of long shot in BGC is in tune with its in TNC. That is, rather than
drawing upon the Brechtian principle by which long distance dictates
alienation/distantiation, the blocking of emotion or the provoking of thoughts, long
shots in BGC or TNC, when held long enough, could be utilized to convey a sense of
quiet realism and capture strong emotions, or in David Bordwell’s words “a particular
emotion made possible only by distance” (Bordwell 2005, 206). Example:
Shot 234 Long shot/long take held for 106.5 sec.
Multiple Frames and Queer Desire
While testifying to the heritage of Taiwan New Cinema, the compositional strategies
in BGC also find parallel with the organization of desire and underscore the queer
themes of the film, in ways that compositional principles seem to outline the contours
of queer desire. Quite often we see the frame-within-frame construct that typifies the
works of Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang, yet it at the same time takes on the
metaphorical association of the closet.
C. Multiple Frames
Shot 104: a compositional strategy that typifies TNC. Although Meng Ke-rou’s
mother carries the visual weight in the shot, the view of her is “sidetracked”
by her placement (off-center, background) and the details of the space (the
bike, the door, and the balustrades). Meanwhile she is defined by (and
confined to) the geometrical lines constituted by the contours of the
architecture. This shot epitomizes the kind of quiet realism typifying TNC.
Shot 67: frame-within-frame, actors shot through the doorframe. At the point of the
narrative, Yuezhen “came out” to reveal her obsession with Shihao, an act
premised upon the legitimacy of heterosexuality and indirectly forcing the
“closeting” of Kerou. At the same time, the doorframe seems to screen out
the larger political and social dimensions of the diegesis.
Shot 101 + 113: composed through other frames (also plainimetric framing)—the
window and the flat surface of the pillar. It is not until the end of
the film do we find out what Kerou scribbled repeatedly on the
pillar: “I am a girl, and I love boys,” a statement that bespeaks the
suppression of her homosexuality and her state of being closeted.
Queer or Lesbian: Woman as the Looker
Centering upon Meng Kerou’s constant struggle with her confused/shifting sexualities,
the narrative of BGC gravitates toward her gradual bonding with Zhang Shihao. At
the moment, we hypothetically take point of view shots (POV) as visual correlative of
the gaze. The film is curiously replete with shots in which a female (mostly Kerou and
to a much lesser degree Yuezhen) poses as the looker and a male (Shihao) constantly
connotes “to-be-looked-at-ness,” yet it is not always clear whether Shihao is
mobilized as the object of desire or just an object of “affection”. Despite Kerou’s
claim that she is in love with a girl/Yuezhen, at the level of textual operation, shots
featuring Kerou’s point POV at Shihao far outnumbers her pov shots at Yuezhen.
D. Kerou’s POV shots at Shihao abounds throughout the film
Shot 15-17, Kerou’s POV precedes… Shot 18, her looking
Shot 136: Kerou looks at Shihao, followed by her POV in shot 137
Shot 291 and 292: POV and looking patterned upon shots 15-18
E. shots that clearly characterize Kerou’s gaze as queer/lesbian, which are rare in the
film despite the diegetic emphasis that she is in love with Yuezhen
F. Shihao’s POVs at Kerou. They are mostly mobilized as and placed in
shot-reverse-shots as he and Kerou exchange looks.
Shot 113-118: exchange of looks between Kerou and Shihao
The purpose of this report is to demonstrate that a purely formal reading could also be
fruitful in enacting a queer interpretation of the film, or in how “shot consciousness”
(as advocated and explicated by David Bordwell) could contribute to a “queer”
reading of the film. Unpacking Blue Gate Crossing in formal terms better explains our
visual (and aural) experiencing of the film, and at the same time arrives at a queer
critique of sexual identity as stable and coherent, or as dichotomized between gay and
straight. On one hand the film abounds in a girl’s pov shots at a boy, which might
conjure up a straight, female spectatorial identification (it is said that Taiwan teenage
girls accounts for a large proportion of the domestic audience). Yet Kerou’s pov shots
at Shihao are more or less laden with emotional ambivalence, and could not be easily
pigeonholed as sexual or straight. Meanwhile, the film carefully steers clear of
sexist/scopophilic mechanism (long disputed by feminist film theorists) in which the
male poses as the looker and the female as the object of desire, in the sense that
Shihao’s pov shots at Kerou are usually carefully placed in the exchange of looks
between him and her. In a word, the textual operation of the film to a large extent
evidences a “queerness,” debunks the “polarization of male gaze versus female body,”
and denotes the (post-structuralist) deconstruction of anticipated categories of gender
The final part of this report “Queer or Lesbian: Woman as the Looker” will
anticipate a major theoretical strand in a subsequent/current research on emerging
Taiwan queer cinema, in which a recent film Spider Lilies (刺青, Zero Chou, 2007)
will pose as another significant text in my theoretical probing of “the lesbian gaze”. In
emphasizing that theoretical understanding or ideology critique of a film shall rest
upon a keen consciousness of its formal qualities, this report tentatively anchors the
gaze in the physical movement of point of view shots in BGC, mostly embodied in
Kerou’s looking. The equation of gaze with pov shots constitutes the ground on which
Laura Mulvey formulated cinematic scopophilia in her seminal and ground-breaking
essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (Mulvey), this equation, however, will
need to be reviewed and re-negotiated by 1) tracing the development of feminist film
theory, particularly where it intersects with queer theory and Lacanian psychoanalysis
and 2) examining the recent re-reading of Lacan and re-assessment of its application
to film theory (Todd McGowan). Both will be the tasks of my current NSC research
(2007-08) as a follow-up and expansion of this analysis (2006-07).
又、本計畫部分研究成果，用於“Queering Chinese Language Cinemas”，將於 2008 年
初投稿 Quarterly Review of Film and Video。
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