Boo Junfeng’s film is a cry in the dark, a howl against the insidious homophobia of the Singaporean Government, who in November 1993 entrapped 12 men in a coastal cruising ground called Tanjong Rhu. The victims were charged with 'outraging their victim's modesty' and punished with prison sentences ranging from two to six months, along with three strokes of the rotan cane, which leaves permanent scarring on the buttocks.
For the then 10 year-old Junfeng, the events left an indelible impression. ‘I remember my teacher in class telling us not to go there because there were perverts lurking in the forest’, he recalls, speaking from his Singapore bedroom.
The film Tanjong Rhu was banned in its own country just days before its premiere ('I still haven't received any official response why', says Junfeng) the film is now seeing the light of day as part of the latest instalment of the ‘Boys on Film’ DVD series, which is titled ‘Pacific Rim.’ Pun intended, presumably.
Still from Tanjong Rhu
The facts are ugly, but from them Junfeng weaves a beautiful and meditative film about love in the face of institutional homophobia. His 19-minute short focuses on a young man named Kelvin and his reflections on Tanjong Rhu a decade after being arrested there by a plain-clothes police officer. The clincher: Kelvin was not just looking for sex, but returning to the place where he met his dearly-missed ex-boyfriend David.
‘I’m actually quite a romantic,’ Junfeng tells me. ‘I wanted to suggest that a relationship beyond just sex that could have come from a place like Tanjong Rhu. Especially in the pre-internet early 90s – these were the only places that gay people knew how to socialise and communicate.’
Shockingly, gay sex is still criminalised in Singapore. 'In the Seventies, Bougis Street in Singapore was well known for its drag culture, but now it's just a shopping street,' Junfeng says sadly. 'They're trying to project an image of being a progressive world-class city, but they're desperately making all these symbolic gestures that really don't mean anything.' Tanjong Rhu counters this, showing the film’s titular cruising ground not as a place of illicit sex, but as a locus of desire in the face of a society dominated by tradition and conservatism.
In the film, Kelvin's flashbacks show the romance and physical intimacy between him and his ex David. While happily accepted by Kelvin's grandmother in her home, theirs is a love that cannot be communicated in public. Particularly heartbreaking is a close-up of the lovers' hands as they walk down the street. They brush fingertips, longing to touch but unable to. The image speaks volumes about the Singaporean attitude to homosexuality: don't ask, don't tell.
'But I feel most at home in Singapore,' Junfeng says, his love of his home city clear. 'If you come here, you have to come to the gay district - on Sunday it's Boys' Night!' For now, it seems, Junfeng is happy where he is. 'All we need to do is constantly challenge the authorities and hopefully things will get better.'
And with the tenderness of Kelvin and David's relationship as memorable as the beauty of Tanjong Rhu's frames, it might just be that love can save the day.
This article appears in the May issue of Attitude, on sale now.