From Moneyboys to The Sixth Reel: These Are Some of the Best Films at the 2022 Mardi Gras Film Festival

The whole theme [of the Mardi Gras Film Festival 2022] is really about celebrating people who have carved out space for themselves. And we’re inviting the audience to explore the queer frontier. It’s like a play on the final frontier of space and exploring the queer experience.

Lisa Rose, Festival Director – https://www.thecurb.com.au/mardi-gras-film-festival-director-lisa-rose-talks-programming-the-queer-frontier-short-films-emerging-queer-filmmakers-and-wordle/

The Mardi Gras Film Festival 2022 is on right now until 3 March, with tickets for cinema screenings and streaming at queerscreen.org.au.

The Mardi Gras Film Festival has always done a marvellous job of showcasing the variety of queer experience across fictional and documentary narratives. And this year is no exception. There are films exploring activism, First Nations identity, trans stories, deaf queerness, and focusing on plenty of people of colour. Over half of the films are available to watch online at your convenience, and there are Sydney screenings in Hurstville, the city, and across the bridge until 3 March after which the festival goes on the road to Canberra and the Blue Mountains.

As a taste, here are six features and two shorts packages to check out.


A Distant Place (2020)

Director: Kun-Young Park, Cast: Sang-hee Lee, Ju-bong Gi, Kang Gil-woo, Writer: Kun-Young Park

A minimalist melancholic tale with final glimmers of hope, worth watching for the power of the title metaphor. The queer imagining of and longing for sanctuary is conveyed in such beautiful speech (when verbalised) that it totally surmounts the barriers of language and possible mistranslation.

Sheep farmer Jin-Woo is raising his niece Seol in a small rural community of South Korea where their only real contact is with a family of dad, daughter, and ailing grandma. But then Jin-Woo’s boyfriend comes to live with them and though he’s lovely and fits right in, his arrival brings in turn Jin-Woo’s estranged sister, Seol’s mother, triggering a series of tiny earthquakes that implode Jin-Woo’s enforced inertia.

This is a very quiet, very still film with minimal dialogue, and what’s said is quite cryptic – until the final act that explodes in so much emotional violence and then resolves with some really lovely conversation. It might test your patience but the South Korean scenery is beautiful and the performances wonderfully restrained, with a particularly moving portrayal of fatherhood.

The Sixth Reel (2021)

Directors: Carl Andress, Charles Busch, Cast: Charles Busch, Julie Halston, Doug Plaut, Writers: Carl Andress, Charles Busch

The more you know of Classic Hollywood and silent film, the more you’ll love this screwball gently satirical story about collectors of movie memorabilia. (I was a little startled to realise I know people like this. And the only thing stopping me from becoming one is that I’m a digital rather than physical hoarder.) From the very first scene panning over figurines and books, the film references fly thick and fast and utterly delightful. Drag artist Charles Busch co-writes, co-directs, and stars as Jimmy Nicholls, a New York collector of movie ephemera, who stumbles upon the final reel of London After Midnight (1927), a lost Lon Chaney silent film that really did exist at one time.

Read Nisha-Anne’s interview with Charles Busch where they discuss classic Hollywood, queer icons, and more…

The dialogue and acting style are a bit arch but so much fun. I really loved the subtle formalism of the cinematography and the soft glow to the colour-grading which is also totally a Classic Hollywood in-joke. When the comic shenanigans recede in the final act, the film becomes very much about the tenderness and community to be found in fandom. There’s a wonderfully sad bit about looking back on a cherished relationship and realising your own toxic behaviour and the reasons for it. I particularly loved how the film tackles the horrible uncertainty faced by queer people as we age and have to deal with the possibility of homelessness. That made the gorgeous Classic Hollywood ending all the lovelier.

As We Like It (2021)

Directors: Chen Hung-i, Muni Wei, Cast: Hsueh-Fu Kuo, Aggie Hsieh, Camille Chalons, Writers: Chen Hung-i, Remmy Sung, Muni Wei

Chen Hung-i and Muni Wei’s film ends with the title “Dedicated to Shakespeare but also to the patriarchy who would not let female actors upon the stage.” It’s a fiery underscore to a film of so much queer and feminist defiance that still manages to be playful and heaps of fun. Even if you’re cursorily familiar with the source text – which I barely am – the elements and characters are quite recognisable. Set in a near future Taipei with cool tech and not a trace of queerphobia, this adaptation is equal parts raunchy and sweet with always interesting production design, some startling fourth wall breaks, animated elements, and a very satisfying ending. A lot of the nuance was lost on me and the score bordered on intrusive, but it was still charming as hell.

Sweetheart (2021)

Director: Marley Morrison, Cast: Nell Barlow, Jo Hartley, Ella-Rae Smith, Writer: Marley Morrison

Nell Barlow’s performance and the writing elevate this queer coming of age love story into a really engaging film that is deliberately mundane and almost anti-drama, and yet there is drama because life. It’s impossible to resist the sarcasm, and the particular blend of earnest and cynical in this kid who’s so worried about the environment and angry at everyone and also wanting so much to be loved.

There’s a great use of voiceover, just enough to not be irritating and always be interesting. Barlow has such a fascinating face, so much nuance of expression, aloof yet vulnerable. She and Jo Hartley really go for it in a thorny af mother-daughter relationship that had me fully tearing up in the almost end.

The cinematography makes good use of primary colours at this stark unpretty beach setting. The gorgeous shoegazey score by Toydrum features an excellent Cigarettes After Sex track. Frankly, I was looking up every song on the soundtrack. I was slightly troubled by the use of a Black man as helper to all these white women, but Samuel Anderson’s performance was so genuine and sweet I almost forgave that reduction. After seeing Ella-Rae Smith as the love interest in the very mediocre boarding school horror Séance (2021), it was a relief to see her character Isla here displaying a lot more rage and liveliness. Writer-director Marley Morrison has done so well in this first feature to capture a sense of family and so much love triumphing over tension and arguments and difficulties.

An absolutely heartwarming film that instantly became part of my Queer Canon list.

Moneyboys (2021)

Director: C.B. Yi, Cast: Yufan Bai, Kai Ko, J.C. Lin, Writer: C.B. Yi

I’m starting to realise I absolutely love Taiwanese queer drama. Or perhaps I’ve accidentally watched the really well-made stuff. What I adore is the exquisite combination of subdued acting (for the most part) with beautiful conscious production design in a steadily unfolding plot. And it’s so nice when I don’t have to force myself to identify with white people.

CB Yi’s film is exactly that, following the story of Liang Fei’s lifestyle as a gay sex worker. At nearly two hours, it’s a long and slow watch but fascinating how Fei transforms from vulnerable to closed off to gradually allowing himself to fall in love. If this sounds clichéd, the difference is in the story details, augmented by often stunning framing and staging of scenes. The few dramatic eruptions are filmed in long unbroken takes that will not let you look away from the emotional and sometimes physical violence (though thankfully that is never as bad as it could be). I really loved the thoughtfulness of the production design, contrasting colourful neon clubs with posh city apartments with semi-urban greenery with the textures of village life in its cosy melancholia and toxic claustrophobia.

None of the dialogue is wasted: there are long periods where nothing is said, but when the words come, they’re powerful and they hurt. The last half hour is when all the accumulated pain and guilt of Fei’s past boils up into his present. A motif of water introduced in the very first shot reappears through the film as bodies of waters to be crossed, a rocky seashore with deep waves, looming thunderstorm, rain that falls heavy and then in the second last scene cleanses and heals. A rich complex film well worth the time.

Rebel Dykes (2021)

Directors: Harri Shanahan, Siân A. Williams

This documentary about a group of lesbian punk activists in Eighties London feels like essential viewing in queer history – reaffirming the importance of community, of sex-positivity, of celebrating and empowering the variety of queer experience instead of confining us into one mode of expression. And of activism, of harnessing spectacle and media to raise awareness and push back against oppression, to make people aware of how damaging conservative policies are. And too the nuances of censorship within queer communities, how we were forced to protect ourselves from legal punishment by suppressing queer artistry.

Yes, this is one very specific subculture in a particular place at a particular point in time but the ramifications and ripples are far-reaching and ever relevant. It reiterates the importance of documenting the past so that oppressive shit doesn’t happen again even though the threat keeps rearing its ugly head in hideous bills debated in senates and parliaments. Mind you, I did wonder who and what had been left on the cutting room floor, but then I do that with most docos.

Made with a flagrantly lofi blend of videotape and animation and collage, Rebel Dykes is soundtracked with equally defiant punk, and features talking heads plus re-creations. I was struck by the realisation that as a queer person, I can watch this record of a lifestyle completely unlike mine and still feel that connection, that sense of heritage and empowerment. I’m free to be who I am in part because of these people. Not something to be underestimated.

Asia Pacific Shorts

In this collection of six short films, my unsurprising highlights are the two Indian and one Pakistani stories. My Mother’s Girlfriend (2021), written and directed by Arun Fulara, would make a wonderful feature with nothing horrible and everything lovely. The sound design is particularly great with ambient noise and street festival music, and the colours become positively magical in a lovemaking scene to directly contrast the ordinariness of public life. Also, the English subtitles for the food are absolutely not what they’re saying and totally cracked me up. They say “samosa chaat”, the subtitles say “mutton sandwich”, they say “pani puri”, the subtitles say “curry puff.” Not the same at all! It’s hilarious and probably quite deliberate on the part of the filmmakers.

The other Indian film, Sunday (2020), also written and directed by Arun Fulara, is a much subtler portrayal of queer longing and the small joy of hiding in plain sight. I loved seeing a gentle fixation and the secret smile that may or may be fooling everybody.

The Pakistani short Kiran (2021), directed by Fatimah Sattar, is about a mehndi – that’s henna design to you – artist who crushes on a bridal client for one afternoon. It’s precise and lingering, exquisitely filmed and subtly erotic. I would like a whole feature of that story but I’m pretty sure it would break my heart.

Also worth checking out is Mother-In-Law (2019), a Korean chamberpiece written and directed by Shin Seung-eun with very static cinematography but a really interesting exploration of two characters at a fraught moment in time. I found myself drawn in despite my frustration with the camerawork, then open-mouthed at the climax, and chuckling at the little post-credits coda.

Shorts About Family Ties

Even though she reckons she shouldn’t show preference, this is festival director Lisa Rose’s favourite of the short film packages. Of the five, I really enjoyed two and loved a third. Boom And Bloom (2021) follows a son and his dad on a hike through the Austrian Alps. The scenery is spectacular – yes, I did have Climb Ev’ry Mountain playing in my head – and the storyline is nicely oblique. There’s a refreshing minimum of drama as the two try to reconnect and deepen their conversations beyond the superficial to a really lovely result.

Sunday’s Child (2020) is a simple beautiful short film about the difference between birth family and found family, the precious gift of finding your community, and the subtext that you can find religion in places other than church. The unabashed sincerity and vivid colours of the final scene are entirely disarming, and you might want to look out for the cinematographer credit.

Borekas (2020) is another short about a father-son relationship, this time centred around a car breakdown just as they’re headed to the airport. If the beginning tests your patience, stick it out because around the halfway mark, the conversation becomes incredibly sweet and interesting, and the acting is excellent. It made my heart happy.

The Mardi Gras Film Festival 2022 is on right now until 3 March, with tickets for cinema screenings and streaming at queerscreen.org.au.

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