Taiwan proposed a draft law in February to legalize same-sex marriage, shedding light on the LGBTQ communities fighting for equalities. This is Asia’s first bill of marriage equality, blazing a trail for the neighboring countries. The conservative Christian groups are still trying to entice discrimination and bigotry. Whereas the LGBTQ communities in Taiwan are waiting for the day when justice finally prevails.
One might wonder, why is Taiwan the first country in Asia legalizing same-sex marriage? Cinema might just be the answer. Cinephiles can easily find a lot of LGBTQ-related films from Taiwan. In these films, one gets a glimpse of the diverse society embracing differences and tolerance despite the relentless religious bigotry. Alifu, the Prince/ss is a colorful manifestation of this film genre.
Based on a true story, Alifu, the Prince/ss is a film that crosses boundaries of gender and race in modern Taiwan. Alifu is a young Paiwan man who is to become the chief of the Paiwan tribe. However, the young heir’s real dream is a sex reassignment surgery, which would contradict the tradition of his aboriginal roots. During the day Alifu works in a hair salon in Taipei where his lesbian colleague/roommate gradually falls for him. When night falls, he works in a drag bar where he grows affection for a cross-dresser named Chris. Will Alifu be emancipated through the chaos of love and still manage to find a way to his tribal roots?
The protagonist Alifu is in the center of the racial and gender struggle. As the heir of the Paiwan tribe, he is expected to become the chief. His yearning of becoming a woman contradicts the patriarchal tribal culture. The director brings us into the Paiwan tribe so that we get to see a slice of minority tribal life in Taiwan. Would Alifu stay in the city and turn his/her back on his heritage? Or should he stay closeted and become the chief of the tribe? His struggle has so many levels: sexual identity, tribal roots, and generation gaps. It is not the combat against nature in the mountain. It could be a losing battle that would eradicate his origins. Only through reconciliation triggered by enormous courage could Alifu complete the journey of crossing borders.
There are three couples presented in this film. Their stories and fate intertwine, bringing the narration of the film to a more sophisticated level. The dilemma of each couple represents the spectrum of sexuality. Gender seems to be the source of trouble. Perhaps with love and acceptance, these three couples could pull themselves out of their predicament. When gender reaches emancipation, it is not troubling anymore. It could be the beginning of a new era, where people could open their hearts and accept each other’s differences.
Perhaps the most interesting role in Alifu is Sherry, the drag bar owner. She is a transvestite longing for the love of Wu. Unrequited love has a twist when Sherry is diagnosed with deadly cancer. Bamboo Chen plays Sherry, Wu Pong-fong plays Wu. Their story sparkles with fine delivery of lines and physical interactions. Bamboo Chen won the best supporting actor at the 54th Golden Horse Awards. His portrayal of a drag bar owner is full of subtlety and tenderness, bringing great flavors to the film.
The sex scene between Alifu and the lesbian roommate triggers some controversy in Taiwan. Many found this scene disturbing. They believe it is on the verge of becoming a rape scene. Is there any mutual consent in this crucial scene that changed the course of the story? Is sex between lesbian and a man yearning to be a woman so unimaginable that it is destined to trigger some alarms? The director eventually apologized for causing some traumatic reactions to the cinema. With or without consent, this scene was a daring choice that could have been done with more delicacy and consideration.
The storylines of Alifu are riveting enough to generate discussions on gender and boundaries. And this is a realistic representation of gender struggle in modern society in Taiwan. The film does not try to give a definite answer to the struggle. The end of the film calls for tolerance and understanding, which is what the Taiwanese LGBTQ communities need.
Taiwan is bound to be the trailblazer of same-sex marriage in Asia. The new law will be a groundbreaking chapter for the island itself as well as its neighbors. Venomous hate from the churches is always ready to strike back. In the face of hostility, the government has to put its foot down. Love can prevail over hate if we tackle hate. By the time Alifu arrives in the cinema in Berlin, Taiwan should already legalize same-sex marriage. Alifu is a stunningly-acted film that celebrates humanity. In reality, the LGBTQ communities in Taiwan can open bottles of champagne and celebrate the victory of diversity.