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9 May 2007

Eternal Summer

It's the most intense gay film ever to come out of Taiwan, and one of the most beautiful. In Eternal Summer, young director Leste Chen captures the loneliness and confusion of gay youth with such intoxicating intimacy, you can almost smell the bodies on screen.

Director: Leste Chen

Starring: Bryant Chang, Joseph Chang, Kate Yeung

In Mandarin with English subtitles.

Taiwan's given us a number of gay films over the years - Lee Ang's iconic The Wedding Banquet (1993), Yee Chin-Yen's summery Blue Gate Crossing (2002), and Chen Yin-jung's deliciously fluffy Formula 17 (2004) come immediately to mind, not to mention the television series Crystal Boys (2003).

Middle pic: Bryant Chang, Kate Yeung and Joseph Chang (from left to right)
None of these, however, can compare in sheer emotional intensity to Eternal Summer, released last year by 25-year-old emerging director Leste Chen. Based on Wang Chi-Yao's novel of the same name, the movie follows the troubled relationship of three young people from childhood to university, as their friendship shifts between troubled lust and love and hatred.

The plot's fairly conventional - Jonathan Kang (Bryant Chang), our protagonist, is a model student who is assigned by a teacher to befriend the troublemaker Shane Yu (Joseph Chang), hopefully acting as a positive influence on him. Naturally, as the boys grow towards adolescence and Shane becomes a hunky basketball player, Jonathan begins to want to be more than friends. Throw in Carrie Tu (Kate Yeung) as the Hong Kong fag hag who's attracted to both of them, and you've got a classic queer love triangle going on.

And yet from the film's first image, we can tell that this is more than just another gay movie. We open with a wide-angle shot of the three friends, dirty and disheveled in a dingy school corridor - and it's right here, right away, that Chen introduces his aesthetic of blending the ugly, gritty landscapes of contemporary Taiwan with the sheer beauty of his actors. The camera adores their faces, lingering on them with close-ups to a level rarely seen since the days of the silent screen, and blends them with colours and compositions that complement their sculpted features.

Chen allows the story of the friends to unfold at its own pace, without melodrama or camp - almost without words, in fact. It's in a silent moment that we experience the moment of Jonathan's first inklings of sexual confusion, and thereafter it's his silences that count more than his words as he struggles with his love, tortured by his inability to voice his feelings, turning against Shane to prevent himself from speaking the truth ruining their friendship.

Eventually, we come to realise that all three characters - the sullen Jonathan, the gregarious Shane and the subdued Carrie - are all slaves to their own loneliness, too dumb to reach out and pluck happiness for themselves although it grows so close. It's not being gay that ruins Jonathan; it's his not daring to admit his love, and the universal angst of urban youth - although [spoiler alert!] he does eventually get to fuck Shane, in a scene that's extremely pleasant to watch. There's nothing vulgar about the eroticism of this movie, really - even reaction shots are placed so intimately close to the lens, you can practically smell the salt on the actors' skin.

One of the most compelling aspects of Eternal Summer might in fact be the familiarity of its setting for local audiences. The Taiwanese schools, bleak institutions of uniforms, corporal punishment and examination pressures, but alive with the headiness of youth, should be familiar to almost any Asian viewer; much more so than the fluorescent drama of the American high school in Hollywood gay films. Likewise, the apartments of damp brick and peeling plaster, the twisty streets criss-crossed with telephone wires and the smoky discos, could all be found in China, Malaysia, Indonesia or the Philippines. It's these settings that Chen captures in patterns of gloriously ingrown disorder, making this film not only one of the most heartbreaking, but also one of the most beautiful of Taiwan's gay films.

This sweeping tale of loneliness and growing up has been praised by viewers gay and straight alike, most tellingly at the Golden Horse Awards, where it garnered four nominations, including one for Jeffrey Cheung's subtly haunting score. The scrumptious Bryant Chang ultimately nabbed the Best New Performer award, proving that it can pay to act gay on screen in Chinese cinema. Try and catch this one on the big screen if you can - grab a friend or better yet, a lover, hold his or her hand, and be glad you're not alone.

Reader's Comments

1. 2007-05-09 19:40  
I watched the Taiwanese movie "Eternal Summer" and thought the acting by all 3 principal actors was excellent.
But, the theme of the movie was idiotic, redundant and disparaging!
How many times must gay people be portrayed as confused closet-cases who cannot admit themselves to people they love??? Haven't we beaten this idea to death already?
If Chinese gay people wish for their culture and families (with their antiquated and homophobic idea about relationships) to wake up and start treating their gay sons and daughters like equal human beings, then we must start portraying ourselves in an open and positive light in all aspects-not cloud our portrayal of relationships as confused, 1-sided or compromised in any way! Even if these same situations occur, we do not need to promote this incessant closet-case mentality by blurring the boundaries of gay and straight. Society already does enough of that. We even believe the crap friends and family tell us about ourselves. Are they gay? Do they know what "gay" is???
It's none of their f____ing business who we love and they need to stay shut about something they don't know about.
They also need to accept us the way we are without pressure for heterosexual relationships and marriage...just so they can save their pathetic homophobic faces.
It is gay peoples' fault for this-NOT straight families and friends! If you are too weak to stand up for yourself and your natural orientation, then you deserve the life of hell you are about to allow yourself to experience.
This is 2007 AD, not 2007 BC!
2. 2007-05-10 23:45  
When is it out on DVD? Anyone wanna send me a pirate copy?
3. 2007-05-11 09:17  
This movie review is informative & well written. It makes me want to see "Eternal Summer". I hope Fridae.com will add this movie to their Online Shop when it's released in DVD format. RJTech DVD players can play international DVD's from regions 1 through 6.
4. 2007-05-11 10:06  
Shame on you, swimchamp, for supporting piracy.

Pass your copy to me when you're done, will ya.
5. 2007-05-11 11:32  
great movie
Joseph Chang is HOT haha.
6. 2007-05-11 15:40  
Hey makethebest, I'm the author of the article and I agree with you - there is something universal about their loneliness, but also something very specific. I just couldn't find a graceful way to work this idea into the review.

Of course, Formula 17 had a happy ending, but that was between teenagers. What we need is a Chinese movie in which studly 40somethings fall in love and adopt a baby.
7. 2007-05-11 22:19  
But does that character Shane sleeps with Jonathan because he likes him or he needs a place to release his need?
I totally dun get the ending of the show.
8. 2007-05-12 00:34  
its a beautiful movie. i watched it here in the UK recently and thought it was one of the most engaging gay films that i've seen. Excellent work by Leste Chan and the leads.
9. 2007-05-12 03:08  
would love to see this film
10. 2007-05-12 20:04  
my favourite movie ever!
Comment #11 was deleted by its author
12. 2007-05-16 11:55  
I'm just wondering, the bed scene in singapore's version seemed and sounded like it's been cut. is it? Cos it's already R21, dun think it should happen. In fact, '20 centimetres' which by the way is an excellent movie, has far more explicit scenes. Also, am I right to say that Shane's straight, who loves Jonathan (as a buddy) so much he's willing to do anything for him to keep him, though he's really in love with Carrie? Beautiful movie anyway. Stereotyping. but still beautiful.
13. 2007-05-16 16:16  
I will buy this dvd after watchin in in Spore last 2 wks..yes, peterbeevers,u r rite! I was told by my Tw fren, some of the scenes was cut..
14. 2007-05-17 18:31  
I agree with Peterbeevers. Shane 'seems' straight, but loves his fiend so much that he can even sleep with him. But this also implies that he already realizes and accepts his friend's homosexuality. So it's quite pointless that Jonathan confesses with him at the end!?! Or he still thinks that he needs to disclose such hidden secret ...
Anyway, anyone read the book? The story is quite different and ... even more painful. Any comment?
15. 2007-05-23 08:21  
Lotusroots why should people adopt a baby to "cement' their love??? Let the straight siblings do that and we can do uncle roles very well. We should not mimic straight roles. Makethebest I am with you. I feel sorry for any Asian or other person who labours under a fear real or imagined of family disapproval of his failure to marry. Get it out in the open and then maybe the Fartland will wake up and stop the intense stigmatising and demonising that keeps people like Vivian "Family Values" Balabullshit in power.
Can't wait to see this film Lord knows how and when. In Sydney it will probably be on at a queer film fest and cost twenty dollars for a one night showing. Where's the DVD available now, uncut version please? (the only uncut thing I will take home)
16. 2007-05-26 01:07  
In my opinion, I think Shane is a confused BI, Jonathan is a confused gay and Carrie is the only non-confused POOR straight girl who fell in love with a gay at the beginning and towards the end a BI.

I have the empathy for the girl (esp. when she cried in one of the scenes), who wanted to find a good straight man for life but in the end (like in real life) being deceived by gays and BIs. Complex world...SIGH.
Comment #17 was deleted by its author
18. 2007-06-11 13:32  
Truth to be told, the ending left me more than just a little confused. I know that the movie was intended to end open-ended, and to allow the viewers freedom of imagination which in my case is that they all resolve their problems and Jon magically ends up with Shane. But on the whole, not much was done to give that close up feeling. When Jon finally confesses to Shane, who responds "You really are my best friend" the porbably the worst possible thing to say. After all that quiet suffering he went through, Shane gives him a slap in the face with the " you are just a friend" thing. In my convoluted and hopeful opinion, I had hoped that Shane meant "you are the closest person to me" and not necessarily meaning friend.
The relationships with the characters are also quite long-winded, each taking part in their made up matyrdom- Jon the confused gay guy in lvoe with his best friend, Shane the boorish and most sexually unknown character who does his best friend, and Carrie, the only straight character who knows about Jon's sexuality but doesn't do anything about it. But the acting was extremely done well, despite the cliched characters.
The ending was extremely weird. If Shane had known Jon loved him, why didn;t he do anything about it earlier. And more than anything, Carrie seemed to be the one who resolves, inadvertently or purposely, Shane and Jon's deteriorating friendship. The ending left me with a menage and mess of emotions, ranging from relief, happiness, awesome, sadness, and the occasional "wtf?"
19. 2007-08-24 14:25  
I saw this movie recently at the Queer Film Festival in Vancouver and it was my favourite. Beautiful cinematography and thought provoking. I thought Shane was really straight and his love scene with Jonathan was just a "mercy fuck" though. What I really wanted to know was, did Jonathan finally make it into university after all that futile studying? The poor boy's life would be left in a total shambles if he didn't at least achieve that goal. This movie is well worth seeing anyway, even with the open ended ending.
20. 2007-09-04 01:20  
Pick a dvd version there are some deleted scenes that explains all confusing stuff of the storyline.
Shane didnt cry for the 'friendship' thing before he got an accident but for the Jon as he saw him and Carrie on a bed.
Also, that was not a pity fcuk as he knew that he wanted to have it with Jon. (this really make me uneasy for couple of hours after I finished the movie for 1st time)
21. 2007-11-05 05:26  
Where can I get the book in English? I loved the movie. Those boys are blessed to have each other. Wo yao yi ge nan peng you!!!
22. 2009-07-15 01:17  
Is it safe to say that when Shane made love to Jonathan, it was purely out of affection and intimacy as a person closest to him (and subconsciously have feelings for Jonathan) but he couldn't tell him in the end he loved Jonathan because he was already in love with Carrie? Kinda confusing...

And how different is the plot of the movie to the book?

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