Well, this is embarrassing: I’m a 23-year-old gay Asian American man and I did not watch a movie with a gay Asian American man as a lead character until about a week ago. Thank goodness for Front Cover, a 2016 romantic comedy that centers openly gay Chinese American fashion designer Ryan (played by Jake Choi) and closeted Beijing movie star Ning (played by Ray Yeung). I had low expectations of the film going in, because a lot of gay romance I have seen mimics the heteronormative, patriarchal narrative of people feeling incomplete until a romantic partner – usually a man – swoops in and saves them. However, Front Cover surprised me. Though its tone stays gentle and sweet throughout, it tackles important themes of internalized racism, classism, and homophobia – and perhaps most importantly, features a gay Asian man who makes genuine progress in learning how to love himself. For the rest of the post I will discuss my reactions to the film, and I will warn you when I am about to reveal major spoilers. If you do not want any spoilers at all, go watch the movie and then come back so you can comment below and fanboy/girl/person with me
unless you dislike the film which is fine too, we can still talk about it as long as you support my queen Ariana Grande.
I really did not like Ryan at first
even though I find Jake Choi’s face so handsome and when Ryan revealed himself to be a top I was like thank goodness because we’re compatible now WHEW. Though Ryan is open and comfortable with his sexuality, he exudes discomfort surrounding so much else about his identity. Early on in the film, he tells Ning that he’s a “potato queen,” or an Asian man who only dates and sleeps with white men (when he said that, I literally rolled my eyes and thought okay well, no wonder you come across as such a boring character if that’s the only company you keep). A minor spoiler: later on in the film, we learn that Ryan lied about his parents’ jobs to Ning, because he feels ashamed that they work in a nail salon. In one very gay scene, after Ryan encounters a profile on a hookup site that reads “no blacks and no Asians,” he lies about the size of his penis to try and score a hookup with a different white guy. Though I disliked Ryan at first, as the film progressed, I empathized and sympathized with him more, as I understood his self-hating tendencies stemmed from internalized racism and classism.
Enter Ning, the openly homophobic, overly masculine Beijing movie star who acts as Ryan’s love interest. While I have a lot of not-so-nice things to say about Ning, I appreciate that he calls out Ryan’s internalized racism in gentle yet assertive ways. In one scene when they go to shop together, Ryan makes a comment along the lines of “there’s a lot more clothing options in America, huh?” and Ning gestures to the clothes and says “made in China, huh?” In another scene, when Ryan chastises Ning for ordering non-French food at a French restaurant, Ning tells Ryan that whenever American people go to China, they order dim sum, so all the restaurants have learned to put dim sum on the menu, a sly comment alluding to imperialism and the power of whiteness. Ning has his issues, but his pride in his ethnic background does play a part in Ryan learning how to love himself, such as when Ning tells Ryan about how great Ryan’s parents are, which perhaps loosens the shame Ryan feels surrounding his parents working at a nail salon.
To no one’s surprise, Ryan and Ning do get together, and I will admit that when they finally kissed I did fanboy scream a little
but with that much repressed sexual tension who wouldn’t scream, like when Ryan stares at Ning’s chest the first time he undressed and when Ning gave Ryan his underwear during Ning’s photo shoot, WHEW. But soon enough Ning’s internalized homophobia rears its ugly head. I will save the spoilers for the next paragraph, but at this point in the film, I felt so concerned that we would head into Call Me by Your Name territory, in which Ryan would disintegrate and lose all of his character development as a result of having his heart broken by a man. Despite my concern, I still felt so much love and protectiveness for Ryan, like in the scene when Ning talks about his future plans to return to China and Ryan gives him this look of utmost hope and desperation and asks “you want me to come with you?” Jake Choi and Ray Yeung’s on-screen chemistry makes this film shine, but where the writers took the plot in the film’s final scenes really won my heart over.
– MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW –
I loved this film because of Ryan’s resilience in the final scenes. As someone born and raised in the United States, I cannot speak to the homophobia Ning experiences as someone who lives and has a high-profile career in China. Regardless of Ning’s unwillingness to out himself though, his treatment of Ryan – how he asks Ryan to conceal their relationship and go back into the closet with him – made my blood boil. Yes, we can detest the homophobia Ning goes through and has internalized, and we can also hold Ning accountable for his lack of communication and clarity in his relationship with Ryan. At this point in the film, when Ning makes this awful request of Ryan, I watched with so much nervous energy, so scared to see if Ryan’s unraveling relationship with Ning would also unravel his progress in learning to love himself.
In a true win for gay Asian self-love, Ryan takes matters into his own hands and displays more courage than he ever had before. At a public event with Ning and his girlfriend, Ryan sits in front of a large crowd, and while he does conceal the queer nature of his relationship with Ning, he proceeds to out himself and openly proclaim his sexuality, even when Ning told him not to do so. While I do not think it is necessary to come out or be out to love yourself, in a tender scene preceding this one, Ryan sits with his mother, and his mother asks him something along the lines of “if you don’t take care of yourself, who will?” Thus, Ryan’s proclamation of his sexuality serves as his way of taking care of himself, through taking ownership of his sexuality and refusing to adhere to the homophobic, toxically masculine forces that want him back in the closet. Ryan tells the crowd, in reference to Ning, “I think it takes someone who’s very happy and confident with himself to be so kind and accepting.” And even though the crowd believes that Ryan refers to Ning in this statement, it is clear to the viewers of the film that Ryan is really – consciously or subconsciously – referring to himself. By the end of the film, Ryan has developed the confidence in himself to let Ning go, all while treating both himself and Ning with genuine kindness and acceptance.
While Front Cover may draw in viewers with its promise of a romance between two attractive men, the film delivers a much more important message through Ryan’s character: how to learn to love and accept yourself. By the end of the film, Ryan may not have Ning, but he does have a more self-compassionate understanding of his racial/ethnic identity and the socioeconomic status he and his parents come from. While Ning may have been Ryan’s first Chinese lover, the final shot of the film shows that even without Ning, Ryan has grown one step closer to loving being Chinese, along with all the other unique parts of his identity.
If you’ve watched the film, what are your feelings and reactions to it? While I liked the film I would love to read constructive critiques too, of the film and/or my take on it. I just stan because of the strong “thank u, next” vibes of the ending – even Jake Choi in an interview wrote about how the film helped him discover his sexual fluidity. Also, how do you feel about the representation or lack thereof of queer people, especially queer people of color in film? When I wrote “this is embarrassing” at the beginning of this post, the “this” refers to the lack of diverse representation, alas. But, thanks to Google, I think I will be able to find more gay Asian films
to watch to fill the void of not having an actual gay Asian boyfriend lol jk I don’t need a boyfriend that’s the patriarchy speaking bye. Until next post!