As the fight for gay rights escalates in Eastern Europe and in Africa, with the mayor of Moscow Yury Luzhkov banning the city's Gay Pride march at the end of May 2010 and with the 14 year jail sentence dealt out to a gay couple, Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, in Malawi earlier in the month, it seems timely that Suddenly, Last Winter should remind us that, whilst we tend to rest on our laurels here in Western Europe, the battle for equal rights continues in the rest of the world and surprisingly in countries we've always thought were our more enlightened neighbours.

This documentary, made by Italian gay couple Gustav Hofer and Luca Ragazzi, charts a decidedly bitter upsurge in homophobia across Italy's media and, more frighteningly, in public attitudes towards equal rights for gay couples. The rights they are so determined to see enshrined in law are the civil partnership rights that here in Britain we've enjoyed for some years. The film opens with the Berlusconi goverment elected out of office by the Prodi government and the hope that Prodi will fulfill his promise of new legislation.

A draft law is debated in the Senate, one that seeks to recognise domestic partnerships under the name DIritti e doveri delle persone stabilmente COnviventi (DICO) to give unmarried couples (including same-sex couples) health and social welfare benefits, and provide an entitlement to inherit after a couple has been living together for at least nine years (the meaning of the law is wittily explained through a series of cartoons using drawings and toys). The hostile reception to the bill from the Roman Catholic Church comes as no surprise as does the reaction from the right-wing opposition in government. They are all determined that promotion of the family (e.g. heterosexual unions) and children is more important.

Gustav and Luca not only observe how this bill is reported in the media, and the reactions from the homophobes who rant away on talk shows or from the pulpits, but they also journey out into the community to take the temperature of current opinion. What they find is scary. Whilst Gustav is rather confrontational about going out and filming people on the street about their views on same-sex partnerships and the DICO, his partner of eight years Luca becomes less confident and feels exposed as time presses on.

They brave a crowd of teenagers and young people coming back from the Pope's speech about Communion And Liberation and are told roundly that they are against nature when they try to discuss their relationship and the DICO. There's a vociferous young woman sporting a fetching red beret who seems to know what the difference between a real man and a poof is, bless her. Gustav is extremely brave confronting people with his questions and what becomes clear, as Luca says, is that as gay men they obviously 'live in a microcosm of our own, protected by our friends and relatives. And it's merely an illusion'.

They initially start reporting for the film together in the great spirit of citizen journalism and with their own inimitable humour but as Gustav decides to venture into various rallies and demonstrations, including a Militia Christi anti-abortion demonstration, a 'Family Day' in Rome against the DICO, and a procession by Trifoglio, an extreme right wing group, Luca begins to feel very uncomfortable. Gustav's explorations of the pro-family and fascist rallies is the most fascinating, if not downright alarming, part of the film. At one point you actually feel that someone in the Trifoglio procession is going to turn violent and beat Gustav to death there on the street.

Their views are decidedly hostile to gay men and what is equally upsetting is that many of those who disagree with the draft law base their arguments against it on an outmoded, narrow-minded mythology about gay man; gay man = paedophile or gay couple = against nature. That these shibboleths are still being wheeled out by people in the 21st century goes to show that underneath it all society understands little about gay lives and continues to misinterpret what little it does observe.

Gustav and Luca's soundings about the Italian population's opinion of homosexuality in Suddenly, Last Winter were further illustrated by the reportage I watched on ITV's Tonight: Afraid To Be Gay the same week I saw the film. The bile and intolerance that shocked me in Italy was it seemed bubbling away under the surface here in the UK too. Despite all the legislation here, homophobic attacks are escalating and 'out' rugby star Gareth Thomas and the Tonight team uncovered real prejudice out on the streets. Both the ITV documentary and Gustav and Luca's film are journeys into the heart of darkness, into countries that we thought we knew but that we find we hardly recognise at all beyond the comfort of our 'ghettos'. LGBT communities, whilst both secure that legislation has made their lives easier in the UK and that they are supported by their peer groups, forget that outside the 'ghetto' a very different narrative is still playing out.

Suddenly, Last Winter is a wake up call to remind us that whilst we might have laws, public attitudes are becoming less tolerant than we thought. Whilst the film celebrates LGBT equality with some reassuring footage from Gay Pride in Rome with a million attendees (there's a rousing speech from Communist MP Vladimir Luxuria) the passage of the DICO is tortuous and clashes continued amongst anti-gay sentiment. Everything lies in limbo despite the courage of these two charming citizen reporters.

Suddenly, Last Winter (Network DVD 7953316 - Region 2 - Exempt - Released 7th June 2010)


Variety were a bit sniffy about this new film from director Simon Chung and although End Of Love does have its faults and is slightly hampered by its 'gay friendly' marketing, it is a fascinating rites of passage story about one young man's struggle with drug addiction and prostitution in the Hong Kong gay community. Fascinating too that, although it is set in that world, the gay characters are not trapped in the closet and this story isn't about coming terms with their sexuality. It is more about coming to terms with their frailties as human beings, the cycle of addiction that vulnerable young men can fall into and has a universal message about love, faithfulness, morality and friendship.

Ming (Lee Chi Kin), a young gay man, aged 22 and living in Hong Kong, is arrested for drug addiction and possession and is sent to a Christian rehab camp where he is strictly monitored by the camp's leader and mentored by a fellow addict Keung (Guthrie Yip). As Keung helps Ming come to terms with what has happened to him and to pass the time in the camp productively, the narrative moves into a series of flashbacks that show Ming's life in Hong Kong, falling in with the wrong group of friends, sharing a house with pimp Cyrus and sinking into drink and drug abuse with Cyrus setting Ming up with a number of male clients. At the same time he strikes up a relationship with Yan (Ben Yeung) whilst working in a clothes shop.

Yan desperately tries to drag Ming away from the drugs, drink and sex, desperately yearning for a stable relationship with Ming. But as Yan puts more and more pressure on Ming, he withdraws from his lover and drifts into further drug abuse. Ming puts aside physical intimacy and love for a twilight world of fleeting sexual encounters and addiction, becoming disconnected and soulless. When Yan tries to visit Ming in rehab it is clear that the relationship is broken and there's a very powerful scene where Ming has to be held back forcibly from attacking Yan.

Back at rehab, Ming soon develops an affection for Keung. Keung is straight and remains unaware of the crush that Ming has for him. But the young man also finds calm and clarity whilst in rehab and things look up as Keung invites him to come and stay with him as soon as he is released. He is however rather annoyed to find that Keung has a live-in girlfriend Jackie (Joman Chiang) and she resents Ming's presence in the flat. She is entirely manipulative and possessive and as soon as she finds out that Ming is gay she once again drags him into wild, drug fueled parties and, in a disturbing twist, practically rapes him. This action sends Keung's world crashing down and, tragically, he too spirals back into heroin addiction.

As the flashbacks continue a final, horrifying twist is revealed in Ming's story that underpins his conflicted attitude and behaviour that we see in the film. The non-linear narrative does pay off with this twist despite some of the story elements being rather predictable. The central performances between Kin and Yip are convincing and enthralling, articulating the loneliness and yearning that both characters possess. Ming is not self-loathing and full of angst, which is a trap that most gay Asian dramas fall into when depicting gay characters, and it is more a study of emotional disconnection between a series of men he encounters - Keung, Yan and Cyrus. It's best represented visually by the erotic yet distant scene between Ming and Yan on the beach.

Jackie sits at the heart of the last part of the film like a big selfish spider and it is to Chiang's credit that she makes the woman so unlikeable and so destructive. She's another element of the film that ensures it isn't sentimental at all about how vulnerable people can be easily seduced by sex, drugs and prostitution and she propels the film to its bleak and tragic ending. The film has a hardness and realism but the relationships between Yan, Keung and Ming do offer a tragic romantic counterpoint to the narrative.

The sex scenes are frank, often erotic, and are again a barometer of Ming's slow withdrawal from the joy of such experiences, the later scenes becoming brutal and mechanical in contrast to the scenes on the beach for instance. Chung fills the frame with memorable images, shooting a drug overdose and a sex scene through the prism of a cocktail glass, capturing the urban decay of Hong Kong as well as the summery glow of the natural world in the beach and countryside. It's a bleak and morally complex tale that shows a director of great promise in Simon Chung.

Special features:
  • Interview with director Simon Chung
  • Interviews with Guthrie Yip, Clifton Kwan, Chi-Kin Lee and Ben Yeung
  • Deleted scenes
End Of Love (Network DVD 7953315 - Region 2 - Cert 18 - Released 7th June 2010)

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