'Deconstructing Zoe.' • Courtesy Photo
‘Deconstructing Zoe.’ • Courtesy Photo

Two very different films about gender and sexuality are in the spotlight this weekend.

Featured at Translations: Seattle Transgender Film Festival, the documentary Deconstructing Zoe will be shown at a free screening. Under the direction of Rosa Fong, the movie’s main character, Zoe, narrates her life story of being born with male genitalia, but not being bound by them. As a gender fluid person, Zoe is both her birth self, the male Chowee Leow, and her trans self, the female Zoe, at her own choosing.

Zoe is also a performance artist and divulges an array of opinions about gender identity while reciting passages from her semi-autobiographical play, An Occasional Orchid. While expertly applying heavy make-up to her face, Zoe ironically muses about the West’s exotification of Asian women and portrayal of Asian men as weak and sexually undesirable. A masterful orator, Zoe skillfully presents the case for how those erroneous media images impact world economics and power.

Growing up in an ethnic Chinese family in Malaysia, Zoe knew at an early age that she was different from her siblings. Even her father noticed that his son, as Zoe puts it, was an “effeminate boy.” With ambitions to be a fashion designer, she left home as the male Chowee and began modeling at age 16. As seen in several featured still photos, Chowee soon became involved in “the underground scene.” But, as Zoe discloses, the “mainstream gay” community rejected him as an unappealing Asian male, compelling him to put on a “frock’ and become a “lady boy” in order to be accepted.

Now living in the UK, Zoe is contemplative about the events that led to her current lifestyle. Her multifaceted thoughts about racism, transmisogyny, and other pressing issues are delivered with intelligent pacing as if she’s pondered them during many late night rap sessions. Threaded throughout Zoe’s narrative are the appearances of several friends who add their own views of how she blurs the lines of gender identity. But the spotlight belongs to Zoe, an intriguing personality who’s clear that gender is nothing more than a construct of society.

Meanwhile, adolescent homosexual angst is explored in Doukyusei (Classmates). Far from the typical anime seen in today’s market, this film tackles gay love at an all boys’ prep school. Teenager Hikaru Kusakabe is not only brash and outspoken, but his abundant blonde hair gives him a rebellious aura. One day in music class, he notices a nerdy-looking kid with glasses named Rihito Sajo who’s not singing along with their group. Moved by the boy’s shyness, he offers to teach him to be a better singer so their class can win an upcoming competition.

At first, Kusakabe is merely empathetic especially when Sajo tells him he can’t read the musical notes because of his poor eyesight. But before long, the two regularly practice after school, then, walk home together, often reciting romantic lyrics. One night as they sit closely together following a lesson, Kusakabe has an epiphany. Realizing that he has fallen in love with Sajo, he leans over to kiss him—leaving them both flabbergasted.

Sajo is elusive, but the persistent Kusakabe pushes him to make their budding relationship public. Like silly youngsters everywhere in the world, the two begin making life-altering decisions based on their fluctuating feelings for each other. While Sajo is an honor student with an obligation to attend the same out-of-town university as his father and grandfather, Kusakabe has less formal life plans. A guitarist in a rock band with groupies chasing him, he’s impervious to the girls’ adulation and saves his love for Sajo.

Based on a popular manga, this coming of age story is sensitively told in Japanese with English subtitles. However, it’s not exactly the kind of anime to take very young children to, as some scenes resemble soft porn. There’s even a predatory teacher who tries to seduce Sajo and, later, Kusakabe has a creepy discussion with the same guy about the best way to take Sajo’s virginity.

Like the young men’s ever-changing emotions, the watercolor-like illustrations in the film are fluid; and, the colors appropriately muted to indicate the haziness of their thoughts. Most of the background characters have incomplete faces with missing eyes, making the two lovers stand out. And, in spite of graphic drawings of the boys French kissing, the film is a realistic and tender representation of gay pubescent love.

Catch a free screening of ‘Deconstructing Zoe’ on Sunday, May 8 at Seattle Central Library presented by Pride Asia and Three Dollar Bill Cinema with ACRS, Gender Odyssey Conference, and Seattle Public Library in celebration of this year’s Translations: Transgender Film Festival (May 12–15). Community discussion to follow.

‘Doukyusei’ (‘Classmates’) shows at Grand Illusion Cinema May 7 and 8.

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Editor’s note: The anime character’s name Hikaru Kusakabe was misspelled in a previous version of this story.

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