No country for old gay men: Twilight’s Kiss by director Ray Yeung imagines two men already in their formative years and getting another chance at love
“To survive, they’ve had to ignore who they are,” says director Ray Yeung about the older gay men of Hong Kong, the subject of his latest film, Twilight’s Kiss.
For a long time, the future was inconceivable for gay men. Even before the Aids pandemic, social stigma led to the pathologisation and criminalisation of the global community. Gay men lived in the shadows of society, maintaining their veneer of heteronormative stability by marrying straight women at great cost to themselves and their families.
This idea of hiding one’s identity might seem like a distant memory to today’s self-actualised youth. Still, we purposefully leave behind our forebears to carry their trauma alone. “Their sadness and shame” are the story Yeung wants to tell. He says, “We wouldn’t be where we are today without what these men have gone through. They need to be seen.”
Twilight’s Kiss was first introduced as Suk Suk – Cantonese for “uncle”, both in the familial sense and as an honorific for older men – at the 24th Busan International Film Festival. It is Yeung’s best film yet, a meaningful and refreshing portrayal of the inconveniences of ageing and romance, starring two older, closeted gay men. Relationships between older people are a topic rarely examined in the youth-oriented genre of LGBTQ+ films. “Investors don’t see the marketability and commercial value of old bodies, especially in the context of gay films. It’s all about hot young men. There is a lot of ageism in the gay scene,” says Yeung.
And he’s right. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen any film, gay or straight, that focused on senior romance. When it’s portrayed, it’s usually about an older man lusting over a younger one. Or it’s about an older couple who met during their youth and are lifelong partners. Twilight’s Kiss instead imagines two men already in their formative years and getting another chance at love. “Two men, at peace with their age and bodies, hoping to find their soulmates,” says Yeung.
Inspired by Professor Travis Kong’s Oral Histories of Older Gay Men in Hong Kong, the story follows Pak (Tai Bo), a gruff grandfather who swam to Hong Kong during the Cultural Revolution and toiled for years as a taxi driver. After his kids grow up and move away, he starts cruising and eventually crosses paths with a soft-spoken romantic named Hoi (Ben Yuen). Hoi suggests the two “become friends first”, but Pak brusquely rejects the offer, saying, “another time, then”. After a second chance meeting, the two men start opening up, commiserating about being stifled by their families and swapping stories about their granddaughters. Pak’s wife Ching (long-time stage actress Patra Au), perpetually bothered by life, senses that Pak has been led astray. Hoi, on the other hand, is beholden to his strict, humourless, religious son, who has replaced him as the patriarch of the family.
Nevertheless, Pak and Hoi fall into a clandestine, risky love affair. Intimate moments of caring and kindness are thoughtfully directed as the two men go on dates, strolling through wet markets and seeking refuge in a gay sauna. “I wanted to show that two old bodies are still attractive,” says Yeung, talking about the first time the two men sleep together. Afterwards, they talk about their struggles growing up during Hong Kong’s rapid modernisation, and Hoi says, “who hasn’t had it tough in our generation?” as Pak drifts away on his lap, a new beginning in their twilight years.
Yeung affectionately details his characters’ warmth and beauty, showing respect and appreciation for their age. In a lesser film, the nakedness and vulnerability of older people would be a spectacle only to highlight the lack of meaningful portrayals. In Yeung’s film, however, it insists that the genre’s lack of such depictions misses a crucial aspect of gay life.
Yeung looks beyond his main characters to include the perspectives of other older gay men in the community. Dior (Chu Wai-Keung), a sharp-tongued fashionista, dabbles in drag and social justice in the film. Like his character, Wai-Keung is a real-life advocate for the creation of LGBTQ+ nursing homes. In the movie, he reenacts his appearance at Hong Kong’s legislative council, pleading to allow gay elders to “live out [their] twilight years with dignity and freedom”.
“I was so touched by [Wai-Keung’s] speech that I had to include it into the film,” says Yeung. “These men came out 30 to 40 years ago and were rejected by their families and have been living alone. So, there is a real concern about what happens to them. If they go to a traditional nursing home, will they be discriminated against? Will they have to give up their cherished possessions – love letters, or in Dior’s case, his gorgeous dresses? Will medical practitioners be sensitive to their needs? For many of these men, going to a nursing home means going back into the closet.”
The film has been a success on the festival circuit and bolstered the careers of its lead actors. (To the cast’s amusement, Au received a nomination for Best New Performer at the Hong Kong Film Awards – “new,” despite her big cinematic break coming at 66 years of age.) Beyond its success, Twilight’s Kiss is remarkable because it dares to examine some of the most underrepresented lives within a marginalised community. And, in the Chinese-speaking world, gay representation is still sorely lacking (LGBTQ+ content being suppressed in China and Malaysia), and stories about the love between two grandparents are virtually non-existent.
One of the men Yeung interviewed for the film cried when he saw it. “He said he was overwhelmed,” says Yeung. “All the issues and anguish he bottled up for so long hit him when he saw it reflected on screen. He was very touched and happy the story was finally being told.”