Looking for Rohmer has made LGBT history in China.
The French-Chinese co-production — about a dancer (Han Geng) mourning his friend Rohmer (Jérémie Elkaim), who died in an avalanche — premiered Friday, becoming the first film with a central gay storyline to be released in the Asian nation.
The film may be a victory for representation, but some were underwhelmed by its impact. Looking for Rohmer received mixed reviews, Sixth Tone reports. A reporter at a Shanghai screening said only three people — all gay men — were in attendance on opening night.
One viewer, a 35-year-old consultant, claimed the film was more art-house than "gay," as the references to the characters' identities were subtle. Physical contact between them was limited to a back rub and hand-holding, cues that "might go unnoticed by straight moviegoers," Sixth Tone notes.
The road to the film's release was a long one. Originally titled Seek McCartney, it was completed in Paris in March 2015, after which it was submitted to Chinese media regulators for review. Due to China's ban on gay media content, the film's future was uncertain. "A film has her own fate, so we can just pray," the director, Wang Chao, wrote on Weibo, a Twitter-like platform, at the time.
Chao did not reveal if the final version of Looking for Rohmer was censored. But its short runtime of 83 minutes has sparked fan speculation of cuts on social media. China's State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television (SAPPRFT) determines if and when films get released. It may censor or ban content it finds objectionable, which has historically included gay themes.
In 2017, SAPPRFT went so far as to ban gay content on online media platforms, but a lawsuit filed earlier this year will force the agency to explain its justification. The issue of gay censorship is currently a hot-button one in China. Weibo announced Friday that it would censor “images, videos, text, and cartoons that were related to pornography, violence, or homosexuality.” But it reversed this decision amid an outline outcry that sparked the hashtag "I am gay."
While there was criticism that Looking for Rohmer wasn't gay enough, there was also praise among some activists for how the film "used clever tactics to avoid excessive censorship," Raymond Phang, cofounder of the ShanghaiPRIDE Film Festival, told Sixth Tone. This understated approach may become a model for other productions seeking to get LGBT storylines past China's media regulators.