So, being a (or 'the') token straight on the gay festival circuit over the last few years (my movie EARTHLING has lesbians in it), I've noticed a few trends. There's pretty much a formula or mold that the vast majority of GLBTQ (I always get that wrong, so forgive me) films fall into. There's, for sure, many provocative and thought provoking documentaries. Powerful stuff of the STONEWALL ilk. There's also straight-friendly "fun" docs like BEAR NATION or PAGEANT. I think every festival CIAO traveled to was showing PAGEANT at the time. Docs seem to get the better end of the deal when it comes to content on the gay festival circuit. Narratives are another story altogether. I think in general (and I'm not purporting to be an expert by any means, so please don't take offense) the narratives tend to pull their punches quite a bit. I've seen some great ones. What I've so far seen of Kyle Henry's FOURPLAY, for example, is really quite amazing (and another time I'll talk about how fantastic Jonathan Lisecki's GAYBY is gonna be). But so many of the others are just light romantic comedies (and that's putting it rather nicely. They're more of sex romps) or "party time" ensemble wacky comedies. If you've been to many a GLBTQ fest, you'll know exactly what I mean. And yes, I'm well aware of WEEKEND.
Regardless of content, there is one thing missing from the majority of gay themed films I've seen. It's a defining characteristic. And by that, I mean, the films LACK a certain something that DEFINES them as anything beyond niche entertainment. I see gay filmmakers who define gay films as a genre unto itself. And perhaps that's completely valid. I'm probably not really qualified to weigh in on that. However, in any genre, there is a defining characteristic. Be it horror, sci-fi, whatever. And to me, sexual orientation alone is not a qualifier. And before you get mad, let me qualify my qualifier. In reality... In the REAL WORLD, I absolutely believe that sexual orientation is, or can be, a very defining characteristic. And it SHOULD be in film. But more often than not, I see gay films in which the characters may as well be straight, as the relationships seem to just be ported over from standard Hollywood fare. It's almost like that trend in action films, where you just give the male action star boobs and a sexy name and suddenly BOOM! You have a "female driven" actioneer. Well, we all know that's horse crap.
So now we come to CIAO. And I think it's a major revelation. And one that should be cherished by anyone involved in the promoting of gay cinema as its own genre. CIAO is a beautiful film. It's amazingly well composed. It has the pace of a poet. And the acting produces tears every damn time. But none of these qualities have anything to do with why I feel this ONE film has so much to say for gay cinema. The importance of CIAO, in my humble opinion, hides inside some very simple mathematics. It's an equation. But it's DEFINING by its uniqueness. The math validates the genre by the very existence of an equation that would be completely absent elsewhere.
Now, I have to give you a little story background on the film. This doesn't need a "spoiler alert" as there is a beautiful inevitability about the story which transcends lesser films' goofy reveals in the third act. Anyhow, so CIAO surrounds three characters. It is a love story. And like most great love stories, this one involves a love triangle. But this is a very special Isosceles. It CANNOT exist in straight cinema. This is pure math, folks. So, we first meet Jeff. Jeff learns that his best friend Mark has been killed in a car accident. It's not long before we realize that Jeff fostered a life-defining unrequited love for Mark. Mark did not reciprocate, so Jeff took what he could get. And that was friendship. We see how deep this friendship went as Jeff makes the rounds, dealing with Mark's family much in the manner a husband or life-long lover might. And once we know exactly where Jeff's head is, we're introduced to Andrea. And we meet him over the internet. Through his messages to Mark. Jeff is so entangled in Mark's affairs, he's innocently set about responding to Mark's emails. Letting friends and other acquaintances know of his fate. And it's here, in Mark's inbox, that he discovers Andrea.
It seems Andrea and Mark had been fostering an internet romance. They'd exchanged the words Jeff only dreamt about exchanging with his dead friend. And part of the missives between the long distance lovers was a plan for Andrea (who lives in Italy, of course) to visit Mark in America. In fact, Andrea has tickets already! After the initial shock Jeff feels at discovering his best friend's essentially secret life, he decides to do the right thing and responds to Andrea. To tell him what happened. Initially, it's to give the man an opportunity to cancel his trip, but as they talk, it's eventually decided that maybe he should go ahead and visit. In essence, to pay his respects. And it's in this exchange that Jeff finds (maybe not fully consciously at first) his way to vicariously decipher Mark's love.
You probably already know where this is headed. Which, by the way, is one of the magical properties of the movie. It's the inevitability that draws you in. Yes, Andrea comes to visit. Yes, he and Jeff get close. Yes, there is something more than mere friendship there. But everything that happens between them, every beat, is hinged on the ghost of Mark. Now, here's where we get into the Algebraic portion of this essay.
If this were a straight film, we'd have a boy and a girl. It really doesn't matter which one of them meets a tragic fate. So let's say it's the girl. The girl dies. The boy was her unrequited love. He does everything Jeff does. And he finds the email. But in this version, since the characters are straight, the girl's Italian internet love is a man. You see the breakdown, right? Let's even say this Italian man comes to visit our boy protagonist. Let's say they bond in some platonic manner over our dead girl. Let's say all of that. But what then? Well, Mr. Italy goes home. Because our characters are straight. And we're making a HUGE leap that jealousy traps do not sully the mix previous to this. A HUGE leap. But when a three-way attraction is involved, things get tricky, and far more interesting. CIAO simply could not exist as a straight film. And although Andrea is a very attractive man, the core attraction between these two men is NOT physical. It's Mark. It's Jeff, able to feel what loving Mark is like by allowing himself to fall into something with Andrea. It's Andrea seeing Mark through the eyes of the man who loved him the most. More than Andrea ever had the opportunity to love him. And it's the mental love-child of these to storm systems converging that provides all the electricity in the narrative.
CIAO is a defining gay film. I'll say it again. It's a genre film that defines, in exact terms, the amazing possibilities of this burgeoning genre. It's a new narrative. I mean, yes, it's a love story and love stories are age-old. But it's also something unique. I feel at this point that I'm just rambling. I made my point at least a paragraph ago. But, yes, it is an important movie. Yen Tan makes important movies. He's about to make another one. It's called PIT STOP. And although it doesn't have the 'SAT question' love triangle of CIAO, it follows many of Yen's themes and interests. His interest are people. People in situations defined by 'the genre.' And Yen never goes for the cheap. I remember my jaded brain's first response to CIAO was, "at least the dead guy didn't die of AIDS." And sure, that makes me an asshole. But it's also important in that Yen wants you to focus on the characters, NOT the politics. Yen's stance is political by default since he's an "OUT" filmmaker. But he's not hiding behind the easy. He's not making the gay equivalent of the Jewish Holocaust film (and jeez, please don't take that out of context. Besides, I'm technically Jewish, so screw you if you do). Yen is saying, "I'm a gay filmmaker. I want to tell regular stories about regular people, who happen to be gay." But he's also making movies that are specially significant in that they utilize every tool in the genre's toolkit. Horror films have their own tools. So do SciFi films. We know what they are. I don't need to rehash them here. And now, because of filmmakers like Yen, we officially know EXACTLY WHAT TOOLS are in the toolbox for gay cinema. It's a matter of definition. It's a matter of math.
I'm not the most eloquent guy. Yen is far more well spoken on his donation page. You should check it out and consider donating a few bucks to get PIT STOP off the ground.
I hyper linked the website above. But it's also here: