Love & Pride Film Festival 2017: Looking For? dir. Chou Tung-Yen (Review)

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Being gay has never been easy, facing disapproval from the likes of family and difficulty in self-acceptance. But that’s the least of your problems when there’s an even bigger hurdle to jump over: the endlessly complex world of gay dating.

Consisting of interviews conducted from 2012 to 2016 with over 60 subjects, Golden Village’s 9th Love & Pride Film Festival ‘s opening film Looking For? is a short, 60-minute film that homes in on the one thing that’s irrevocably changed the gay scene since its inception: dating apps. Director Chou Tung-Yen spent the last four years travelling the world, from London to New York, Seoul to China, seeking out friends and acquaintances to bare their soul in front of the camera to form what eventually amounted to a surprisingly heartfelt and critical study of what it means to be a gay man living in the city in this day and age.

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Set to an evocative soundtrack by Lu Luming and Hsu Chia-Wei, the film initially introduces viewers to the rise of gay dating apps such as Grindr, tracing a couple of interviewees’ experiences with it at the very height of its boom in 2012. At first, Chou’s film feels like a version of the truth scrubbed clean, with his interviewees speaking abut the joys of first using the apps, some even going so far as to recount meeting the man of their dreams on it. Two New Yorkers recall meeting up with each other for the first time and realizing that the other was ‘the one’, as handsome as their profile pics were, while other interviewees are all smiles as they discuss the amount of validation and ease that the apps have granted them, such as a chubby Taiwanese man who’s learnt to accept his body as he celebrates his 35th birthday.

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But as the film presses on, Chou carves away at the shallow exterior of the app to unveil the complicated laws of attraction in the world of gay dating, brutally revealing the immense loneliness and desire for companionship at the heart of each casual encounter. For starters, the unspoken rules of selecting the right profile picture is dissected – not too many, not too femme. Chou’s subjects go from discussing the subject of dating to more uniquely queer topics such as the viability of open relationships, chemsex and usage of party drugs and even S&M (which for one interviewee was awakened after watching a scene in Justice Bao).

Virtually no topic goes unturned in this film, with one subject coming right out and admitting that going to the gym (for some men) is primarily because they know it will get them better chances at finding a hook up on the apps, while another bashes the deeply embedded prejudices against non-conformativity and perceived effeminacy within the community. At one point, the film is even progressive enough to challenge the concept of the need to chase after heteronormativity (such as gay marriage). Even if Chou’s subjects are racially limited to Asian and caucasian men, there’s still a wide range of men, from old to young, twink to jock, femme to straight acting. Altogether, these men represent a certain class of gay men whose issues and stories are nearly universal, and it’s easy to become completely drawn into the film just listening to these endlessly fascinating stories of real people facing the problems of the new queer millennium.

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Throughout the film, these interviews are punctuated with abstract, dramatised scenes taking place on a stage. In these scenes, men in various states of undress are spotlighted as they peer down at their phones in the darkness, searching for some sort of connection, while at other times, we see one man sitting in a corner as the rest of the cast attend a rave, feeling the weight of solitude even amongst company. These scenes help break the  monotony of an otherwise straightforward series of interviews visually, and knowing Chou’s own background as a drama student in his university days, Looking For? feels like a truly personal project. In between interviews with his subjects, Chou also takes to the camera from time to time, and becomes a subject himself. Tracing his interviews documented over the years the film was made, one feels almost as if the project was started partially as a means to fulfil Chou’s own personal mission of coming to terms with his identity and place in navigating the complexities of a queer world, and grants the film a sharp emotional edge.

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Perhaps the most surprising and miraculous thing about the entire film is how these subjects are so open and willing to share their thoughts in front of the camera. The queer scene is mostly a discreet, clandestine affair to those not in the know, and for these men to come out publicly and be so forthcoming with their stories is both refreshing and deeply powerful in its honesty. After sex, one subject makes it a habit to sneak a peek at his casual encounters’ identity cards to reveal their real names, and makes a note of them against the name and story they told him initially, keeping a record of over 200 names in a notebook. Catching up to him four years later, that same man has been afflicted with a terminal illness, and finds it harder than ever to forge emotional bonds in the fear that he’s being selfish, knowing that he’ll likely die before his partner. Another subject recounts his marriage to a woman to fulfil the obligations of his family, and how his own boyfriend attended the wedding, tears flowing as they stood on the altar. Though trapped in his marriage, that same man has since moved to Beijing to be with his boyfriend, and there’s a kind of precarious hope that hangs in the air.

Filled with both immensely heartwrenching stories and surprisingly frank comments on the nature of love between men, Looking For? is an intimate glimpse into an under discussed section of the gay community that those not in the know are rarely privy to. As simple and brief as the film appears, it comes bearing the promise of thought provoking debate over the most complicated issues plaguing the gay community even today, and is perhaps the most in-depth, honest look at how the rise of gay dating apps have changed the world entirely. For director Chou (still single today), the film ends on an incredibly hopeful note, and he re-emphasizes a familiar adage along the lines of ‘I Will Survive’, where love is not yet dead in the era of apps, and firmly believes that the happiness he’s been looking for all these years still lies out there somewhere, someday.

Looking For? now has an additional screening at GV Suntec City on 28th September (7pm) with a Q&A with the film’s editor/assistant director Huang Chia-Wen. Tickets available here

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