Andrew Thomas Huang has a complicated relationship with religion.
The Chinese-American filmmaker grew up in a conservative Christian community that considered homosexuality a psychological affliction. When he came out as gay, someone even pushed conversion therapy.
It was one more battle for Huang, who spent his childhood years in a predominantly white suburb of Los Angeles, where he not only had to navigate being a racial minority, but also overcome the emotional and spiritual shame of being gay.
Huang no longer identifies as Christian, but in his latest short film, Kiss of the Rabbit God, he uses a spiritual, if not religious, icon to come to terms with his sexuality.
“I’m not Christian anymore,” he says, “but I miss having a god.”
Best known for his music video work and animation, Huang boasts an impressive resume. He’s worked with Thom Yorke of Radiohead, R&B artist Kelela, and the iconoclast Björk, with whom he is a frequent collaborator. He’s directed several of her music videos and also developed the centerpiece for her retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
But even with all these accomplishments, Huang was itching to do a project that was more personal. A near fatal accident about two years ago convinced him that he needed to spend more time on himself.
“That’s when I got to thinking, it’s now or never to start telling stories before it’s too late,” he says.
The result was Kiss of the Rabbit God, a highly stylized tale of a gay Chinese-American’s sexual awakening, combined with Chinese mythology.
“It’s the most personal and challenging thing I’ve ever done,” Huang says.
Kiss of the Rabbit God follows Matt, who works at a family-run Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles.
The story is based in part on Huang’s own upbringing.
“I remember being at our restaurant, watching my mom resting her head on her hands,” he says. “She was exhausted, and that image always stuck with me.”
(Read more: A Chinese mother’s letter to her gay daughter)
Part of Huang’s goal with the film was to honor his parents’ experience. If you look closely, you can see some of their family photos in the background.
The titular Rabbit God appears as Matt, burnt out from work, is lifting heavy boxes in a smoky kitchen.
At peak exhaustion, the restaurant’s doors fling open, and a mysterious handsome figure with fiery red hair appears.
He is Huang’s interpretation of the Rabbit God, a deity from Chinese mythology who is said to protect gay lovers.
Huang was inspired to create a film around the character after a trip to Mexico City, where he learned about Xōchipilli, the Aztec god of flowers and patron saint of gay lovers.
“I’m not Christian anymore, but I miss having a god.”
Inspired, he thought there must be a Chinese equivalent, and that’s how he found the Rabbit God, or Tu’er Shen.
“I want to tell the story of Tu’er Shen to honor the experience of queer love,” Huang says. “He’s there for all the gay Asian boys who never thought they were worth anything.”
Savior of men who love men
In Chinese mythology, the Rabbit God first appears in a collection of folktales compiled by the Qing Dynasty writer Yuan Mei during the 18th century.
In the story, Hu Tianbao, a soldier from Fujian Province, falls in love with his commanding officer and professes his affection for him.
As punishment, the commanding officer sentences Hu to death.
But the gods of the underworld, in their infinite wisdom, forgive Hu for his “crime of passion” and transform him into the Rabbit God, the savior of men who love men.
“He’s there for all the gay Asian boys who never thought they were worth anything.”
In Huang’s film, the Rabbit God serves as Matt’s liberator, challenging him to embrace his sexuality. He allows Matt to engage in the physical intimacy that he has been too ashamed to express.
“Sex has always been a site of liberation for queer people,” Huang says, “but let’s be honest, it has mostly been for white, cis, gay men. I never saw myself as part of that narrative.”
For immigrants and children of immigrants, Huang says there is another layer of repression and guilt, and he wanted to represent that on film.
“He’s not whimpering or submissive like how you see Asian men usually portrayed.”
Chinese period dramas often portray the Rabbit God as a sassy and brash caricature. But in Huang’s version, he has a modern edge—stylish, cool, and confident.
“He’s not whimpering or submissive like how you see Asian men usually portrayed,” Huang says.
For the director, Kiss of the Rabbit God has offered an opportunity to reconcile his religious upbringing with his sexuality.
(Read more: Snapshots from Taiwan’s first mass gay wedding)
He recalls the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, and how it was Abraham’s humanity that transformed a wrathful God into a merciful one.
“Humans form who God is,” Huang says. “We think of God as being a lawgiver, but I feel like as humans, we form who gods are.
“If Tu’er Shen is a real god, then I, as a gay, Asian, Chinese person have the right to reinvent this god as queer love.”
Kiss of the Rabbit God is streaming on Nowness.