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Taiwan television made local broadcast history Sunday, airing Penguins at North Pole, a short film that has been billed as the country’s “first gay-themed family comedy.”
“In most Asian countries this topic is still quite a taboo,” said Jessie Shih, deputy director of the international department at Taiwan’s Public Television Service. “And many among the older generations in Taiwan still feel that way.”
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Gay-themed TV programs and films have been produced and broadcast in Taiwan before, but they have typically been characterized by weighty drama and sad endings, such as in Crystal Boys (2003) or Eternal Summer (2006).
Directed by Kassey Huang, Penguins stands out for its light comedic take on the issues young gay couples and their parents face in contemporary Taiwanese society – not so dissimilar in tone from early landmark NBC series, such as Will & Grace, which have been credited with shifting mainstream U.S. attitudes towards same sex couples.
The film stars veteran actress Tan Aizhen as a typical Taiwanese mother whose greatest wish is to see her daughter Helen (played by Nikki Hsieh) happily married to a successful young man. Suspicious that Helen is already seeing someone, she sneaks a look at her Facebook page and is shocked to discover that her daughter is romantically involved with a woman (Zaizai Lin). She then decides to pretend to be open-minded about her daughter’s lifestyle, so that she can maintain her trust and eventually persuade her to drop the girlfriend and start a “traditional family.” Humorous hijinks, foiled plans and miscommunications ensue – leading to a resolution of accommodation and mutual acceptance.
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Huang, 32, says she was attracted to the Penguins screenplay, by Wang Li-wen (Jump Ashin!), because it showed humor and sensitivity towards the perspectives of both the couple and the conflicted, but ultimately well-meaning, mother.
“Especially in Asia, parents experience a lot of pressure, from cultural values or from newspapers and magazines full of discrimination and stigma,” Huang said. “As children and young people, we often wonder why they can’t just understand our generation, but we forget that they are ordinary people who are struggling to get by in this society too.”
The same day of Penguins’ broadcast on PTS, rival groups supporting and opposing the legalization of same-sex marriage in Taiwan held parallel rallies in Taipei’s Freedom Square. The issue has been a fervent topic of debate in the country since a draft bill that would legalize same-sex marriage passed an initial vote in the country’s legislature last in December. If the bill eventually becomes law, all legal references to marriage in Taiwan will be made gender-neutral, with terms like “husband and wife” changed to “spouse” — effectively legalizing gay marriage.
Shih said the timing was coincidental, as the broadcast had been planned far in advance.
Despite an 11:30 p.m. airtime, PTS said the short attracted better than expected ratings for its time slot.
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Shih added that the film’s starry cast likely helped boost its impact — both Hsieh (King Flower, 2013) and Lin (An Innocent Mistake, 2012) are bankable soap idols in Taiwan. And Tan, who plays the mother, had a personal connection to her role that many Taiwanese viewers would register: Her real-life daughter is noted gay writer, model, photographer Gin Oy.
Shih said PTS hasn’t yet received any complaints over the broadcast — from groups such as the religiously affiliated Taiwan Happy Family Alliance, which staged the anti-same-sex marriage protests Sunday — but the film has found a positive reception on Taiwanese social media.
“Doesn’t PTS have guts to air this lesbian film?,” wrote a local film blogger named Daskino.
“We should have our parents watch this before we come out,” tweeted a user by the name mtangolesson on PTT, a popular Twitter-like service.
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