Ray Yeung’s film focuses on what’s at stake when men with families come out in middle age.
One of the most compelling films to come out of Hong Kong in the past year is about the city’s oldest generation of gay men.
Suk Suk tells the story of two closeted grandfathers who are proud of the families they’ve built but feel the pressure of keeping their sexual identities secret.
Hoi is a 65-year-old divorcee who lives at home with his adult son, though their relationship is strained by the generational gap between them. Pak, a 70-year-old cab driver, and his children make sacrifices in their lives and careers to hold each other up.
Their worlds collide when the two men meet and begin a romantic relationship that is still taboo in Hong Kong’s cosmopolitan society.
Suk Suk has received wide critical acclaim since premiering at the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea last year.
It was voted best film of the year by the Hong Kong Film Critics Society and garnered five nominations, including best film, at the Golden Horse Film Awards in Taiwan, considered one of the most prestigious in the Chinese-speaking film world. The movie is now set for general release in Hong Kong in April.
Director Ray Yeung has been making films about Chinese LGBTQ since his 2006 debut feature Cut Sleeve Boys, set in London’s Chinese gay community. His second feature, Front Cover, follows the budding romance between a Chinese-American stylist and Chinese actor in New York.
While his first two films touched on the romantic trysts of young queer men, Suk Suk—named after the Cantonese word for “uncle”—represents a departure by focusing on older gay men and the stakes of coming out in middle age.
The idea came when Yeung was reading The Oral History of Gay Men in Hong Kong, which includes personal accounts of Hong Kongers living in the closet.
He got in touch with the book’s author, Travis Kong, and started discussing the idea of writing a film based on the accounts of these men, who risk losing their families and careers by coming out.
“They spend their lives building up a family. It would be a betrayal, coming out.”
“They spend their lives building up a family,” he says. “You have respect from your children and your wife. It would be a betrayal, coming out.”
On top of that, their generation could not talk about their sexuality growing up. “They were forgoing all these things that they wanted,” he says, building what society viewed as a “proper family” rather than embracing their sexual identity.
Yeung believes the pressure to keep their identity secret was stronger then because people depended on personal ties more so than now, when technology can offer some form of anonymity.
“For people from that generation, that whole network is very associated with their families,” he says. “When they were looking for work, particularly for people of the working class, it’s not like they wrote a resume and sent it to a company and got an interview. A lot of the time, it’s through family relationships or neighbors. ‘My aunt knows someone,’ or ‘my neighbor’s cousin wants to get married. Why don’t you go and meet her?’”
They would have had a lot more to lose even then, he explains. “Break away from the family, and they break away from their whole social circle.”
Putting queer Asian stories on the screen
Growing up in Hong Kong, Yeung considers himself lucky to have had friends and family who supported his sexual identity instead of stigmatizing it.
“I actually came out really early to my family,” he says. “I didn’t have deep-seated shame myself, but I have empathy. I’ve known and dated people who have had that.”
As he moved his way up in the film industry, though, casting actors for his films was difficult. Few people wanted to play LGBTQ roles.
Suk Suk was a particular challenge because many middle-aged Hong Kong actors came from the traditionally masculine action-movie era of the Shaw Brothers, and they were reluctant to be intimate with another man on-screen.
Yeung says he has seen greater acceptance of Asian LGBTQ stories with time. When his first feature Cut Sleeve Boys came out in 2006, reception was lukewarm, partly because he was still a young director but also because the salacious narrative seemed ahead of its time.
When his next feature, Front Cover, came out almost a decade later in 2015, he could feel the tides changing. At screenings with Asian-American audiences, he would receive feedback from them about how the film made them feel represented.
“A lot of kids came up to me and said, ‘You know, I always had these feelings of being ashamed to be Chinese, and only date white guys,’” he says. “On behalf of them, it is important that they have some kind of representation.”
But the narrative, set in New York’s high-fashion milieu, seemed worlds apart from Hong Kong, where the film failed to resonate with audiences the way it did abroad.
“They would see it as like, ‘Okay, okay. I can see the discrimination, I can see that kind of issues,’ but it doesn’t hit home as much,” he says.
So with Suk Suk, Yeung endeavored to create a film that would hit home and tell the story of older gay men with empathy rather than pity.
“It’s not just about LGBT. It’s about how society treats old people as well.”
“It’s not just about LGBT,” he says. “It’s about how society treats old people as well.”
When he screened a preview of Suk Suk to the people interviewed for the book, one of the subjects, an older man who lived by himself, broke down in tears seeing his story reflected in the film.
“For him to see it on screen, what his life was really like, it suddenly hits hard,” Yeung says. “Like, ‘Oh God, I really am lonely.’ In all the generations, they think, ‘I don’t want to be put in an old people’s home.’”
After a career spent making films about overseas queer Chinese communities, Yeung is interested in seeing how Hong Kong-set Suk Suk will fare abroad.
He doesn’t have to be worried, it seems, with the film garnering yet another set of accolades recently—nine nominations, including best film and best director, at the upcoming Hong Kong Film Awards.
For Yeung, who benefited from a supportive environment early on, the public acceptance is a long time coming.
“I had a very different attitude about coming out,” he says. “I knew it was the right thing, and was just waiting for the world to catch up.”