Asian Cinema Steams Up

Sex is stepping out from under the bedroom sheets in movies all over Asia.


Asian cinema seems to have come out of its hijab, stripping away the customary inhibitions that have put a lid on its steamy side for decades. While Western cinema made sexuality a part of its principal narrative a long, long ago, Asian producers were far more inhibited. Not surprising for a society where sex had been strictly put under the bedroom sheets until the winds of globalization, MTV, AIDS, and pornographic MMSes swept the pretentious covers off.

Not long ago, dealing with themes of sexuality was taboo, at least non-mainstream, in Asian cinema. Sexuality was shown through the exchange of furtive glances and the silhouetted couplings. Bollywood even developed its own code of depicting sex on the silver screen: wet saris, heaving bosoms, oblique kisses and the bawdy pelvic thrusts. Not any more. No more shadows in the shade. Now Asian cinema celebrates and critiques sexuality.

Of late, there has been quite a flurry of films exploring sexuality in the Asia. Films like Shunyo E Bukey (India), Navarasa (India), Beautiful Boxer (Thailand), Iron Ladies (Thailand), One Night (Iran), Borrowed Bride (Turkey), In the Mood for Love (China), 2046 (China), and The Wayward Cloud (China) have stirred debate and controversies in their respective countries.

Bengali director Kaushik Ganguly’s Shunyo E Bukey (Empty Canvas; 2005) raked up a storm in Calcutta upon its release recently. The film deals with male sexual fantasies and how women are bound to live up to them in an orthodox society. The movie is about a man who is unwilling to accept a flat-chested woman as his wife. Remarkably, the film is anything but lewd or suggestive. Nor does it moralize about the protagonist’s obsession with breasts.


In Navarasa (Nine Emotions; 2005), director Santosh Sivan deals with the theme of the third sex and their place in society. The film has been shot in a documentary-meets-feature film style to give it a realistic feel. It is the story of a young girl, searching for her “cross-dresser” uncle, who goes to an annual get-together of the eunuchs and transvestites in a South Indian town. However, exploring the third sex is not new to Hindi cinema. In the recent years three films have dealt with this theme: Daiyra, Darmiyan, and Shabnam Mausi.

Fascination with the lives and dreams of transvestites and cross-dressers is not limited to India. They have also been charmingly portrayed in recent Thai films such as Iron Ladies (2000; 2003) and Beautiful Boxer (2003). Based on a true story, the Thai film Iron Ladies is the hilarious depiction of a team of transvestites and cross-dressers who become hugely successful as volleyball players. Similarly, based on the true story of Thailand’s famed transvestite kickboxer, Ekachai Uekrongtham’s Beautiful Boxer is a poignant action drama of a boy who wants to become a woman. Believing he’s a girl trapped in a boy’s body, the protagonist begins a journey to “master the most masculine and lethal sport of Muay Thai (Thai boxing) to earn a living and to achieve his ultimate goal of total femininity.”


Far from Thailand, who would have thought that Iranian producers would tackle sexual themes? The heart-warming and soul-stirring Iranian films thus far have shied away from exploring sexuality on screen. However, Iranian actress-director Niki Karimi has bucked the trend with One Night. Though the film is not overtly sexual, it obliquely portrays transgression and infidelity in Iranian society. The film, set in Teheran, revolves around Negar, who in the course of a night encounters three men who have three disparate stories to tell her. The three men reveal their relationships with the women in their lives. The first lives in Teheran, away from his wife and son, and makes an advance at the protagonist. The second, a soft-spoken doctor, lives with his mother-his beloved has left for the US for good. The third story has a man who has murdered his unfaithful wife and is driving around with her dead body in the car.

Turkish director Atif Yilmaz goes a step further in Borrowed Bride and shows the liberal side of Islam. The film deals with the little known practice of borrowed brides, prevalent in Turkey till the mid-30s, wherein women “instructors” used to “prepare” young boys for marriage. The interesting point about the film is the tradition of sex education that was practiced freely through a respected institution at a time when strict Islamic codes were in force in Turkey.

If sexuality can be used to portray or break cultural stereotypes, it can also be used to convey a sense of loneliness and alienation. In Wong Kar-Wai’s intoxicating 2046 (2004), sex becomes a metaphor of time, memory and melancholia. It is a brilliant essay on a man’s fear of failure “to become an artist in the most materialistic of societies” as much as on the longing for love and the inability to find it. Set in a futuristic Hong Kong, the protagonist, a writer, moves from one woman to another, giving or borrowing time and memories to and from each other, and in the process, causing agony and alienation. It is an extension of his previous film, In the Mood for Love (2000) in which he explored the lives of two married neighbors who fall in love with each other while grappling with the infidelities of their respective spouses, whom they discover are involved with each other.


Another Chinese film that directly tackles the subject of sex is Tsai Ming Liang’s The Wayward Cloud (2005). Though the film is about alienation in society, it also critiques sex and pornography. It shows how sex has become mechanical, like everything else in our lives.

Not too far behind its Chinese counterpart is Bollywood, the world’s largest film factory, which has undergone a transformation in the morality department. While the bawdy pelvic thrusts are still intact, now there are more films in the market that openly discuss sexuality such as Aitraaz (Objection), Khwahish (Desire), and Murder. The recent trend started with movies like Ek Chhoti Si Prem Kahani (One Small Love Story), Julie, Market and Oops. While Aitraaz (2004), a Bollywoodian take on Berry Levinson’s Disclosure, dealt with sexual harassment, Khwahish (2003) and Murder (2004) were about love and lust. In both the films, the promotional claims touted “the lovemaking scenes featured bare backs, cleavage and passionate kissing”-marking a major departure for Bollywood’s cinematic approach to onscreen depiction of sex. The success of these two films have won its heroine Mallika Sherawat the sobriquets of “the kissing queen of India,” “international sex symbol,” and even “Indian post-feminist icon.”


“Sex has been pulled out of the closet and actors have become more willing to experiment with their images. The latest Bollywood heroines seem to be taking a page out of Mae West’s book: When they are good, they are very good, but when they are bad, they’re better,” writes Anupama Chopra in her article “The Bollywood girl: From virgin to vamp” published in The New York Times (July 22, 2005


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