Spoiler alert: The following article reveals plot details and themes.
I’ll admit it: I’m a sex fiend. As a sociology major studying sexuality and gender in modern society, I seem to have sex perpetually on the brain. And with a minor in, and love of, film studies, my enthusiasm for the topic always seems to finds its merry way into my viewing experiences.
Sex is not an easy topic to broach in any context – except in film. You know why? Because we have dirty-fied sex. I don’t think that’s a word, but it’s the best way to describe our social conditioning which has led us to view sex as something dirty, wrong, or shameful – something only to be explored in private. Perhaps it’s a little like film as well – society has also conditioned us to watch films silently, in a dark cinema, alone with our thoughts. Although others may physically surround us, it is essentially a private experience. Cinemas are one of the only places where we can become voyeurs and expand our experience of sex, free of condemnation or shame. Therefore, it is unsurprising that three films in this festival explore universal sexual themes and experiences.
Le Bao’s film Taste confronts audiences with a decisively unapologetic, surrealist experience of sex. His story of a Nigerian football player reduced to working in a sex parlour portrays the rather gross and disturbing nature of sex. As much as we would prefer to associate sex with romantic notions of true love and flowers and slow dancing in kitchens, we all know that it can actually be fairly awkward, messy, and raw. Bao’s use of textual elements such as sound and mise-en-scene, reflect these very truths. For example, in the scene where the football player is obliged to stick his hand into an enormous sardine’s gullet is quite clearly a metaphor for manual sex. The trepidation on the man’s face, his tentative insertion of an arm, and finally, the loud squelching noises that accompany his exploration instantly alerts us to the undeniable carnality of sex.
Wregas Bhanuteja’s In the Year of the Monkey appears to take a much lighter approach to sex with its rather cheeky tale of two colleagues who show each other their genitals. Whilst the idea of bribing someone to delve under the kitchen table and glimpse the unglimpsable will cause audience titillation, the film is actually touching on a far deeper and more controversial idea: people’s love of voyeurism. Deep down, we love to do (and watch others do), forbidden things – and never more so than when it is associated with sex. Indeed, the feminist film writer Laura Mulvey has spent her entire life pointing out that films satisfy provide us with, and help satisfy, our subconscious and ‘primordial’ scopaphilic desires* (as shocking as it sounds, we all know it’s true). Bhanuteja is clearly aware of this phenomenon, and his script deliberately teased us with the prospect of a fleeting glimpse of female colleague’s genitals. This cinematic carrot seeks to titillate and engage the audience in the story, and we are excitedly curious to observe the outcome. And yet, the prolonged shots of the genitalia left little to be (literally) desired. In fact, the eager twitch of the male colleague’s penis sent shivers of disgust down my spine. I realised I had been tricked; the thrill of sexual voyeurism is often found in the chase, rather than in the kill. By manipulating the audience’s sense of the profane and sacred, Bhanuteja suggests that for all its hype, sometimes sex leaves us high and dry, and wondering what all the fuss is about.
Yes, there’s no doubt that sex is a confusing business. Never more so than for children, as PR. Patinol poignantly points out in his film Still Hilom. The story explores three children’s first encounter with sexual norms and attitudes, after two of the boys are found asleep holding hands. Their behavior is violently subjected to adult scrutiny and the children are left confused, humiliated and hurt. Patinol’s choice to stage such a story amidst the backdrop of a relatively untouched island visually alludes to the naturalness of the boys’ affection for one another, and we are left despairing at adults’ incessant need to assign moral judgment to physical expressions of affection. The father’s hostile reaction to the boys’ affection challenges us to consider what our actions explicitly and implicitly teach children about sex. Furthermore, the children’s subsequent brawl on the beach warns us of the consequences of these lessons. Although Patinol’s film location creates a distinctly Asian flavour, the choice to employ identical twins highlights the universality of this incident; this could be anyone’s child with whom we need to find a way to educate about sex, affection and intimacy. The final scene in which the brothers are seen peacefully falling asleep holding hands encourages the audience to reassess our strict policing of sexual morals and encourages us to see intimacy through the eyes of a child.
These three films illustrate what most of us already know: sex is incredibly complicated. It has undoubtedly divided people, societies, nations, and cultures across centuries, and will continue to do so for years to come. These films touch on some of those very tensions surrounding sex; they play on every single subconscious fear, anxiety and insecurity we have regarding sex and, as a consequence, they are difficult to watch. However, as with Hamlet’s famous words: “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” The only way to challenge our assumptions, interpretations and fears surrounding sex is to be cognisant of this fact and start actively engaging in alternative ideas and attitudes. Lucky we have these films to give us a good head start, eh?