Berlin Hidden Gem: An Empathetic Look at the Closeted Lives of Elderly Men

Veteran actor Ben Yuen (far left) received a best actor nomination from Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards for his role in 'Suk Suk.'

Writer-director Ray Yeung says 'Suk Suk,' his look at the struggles of gay men adapting to the demands of a straight world, is an attempt to "tell their stories without judgment."

Films about mature romance are hard to come by, and even rarer are the ones that deal with the desires and yearnings of closeted elderly gay men in patriarchal Chinese society.

Hong Kong writer-director Ray Yeung says he didn’t set out to write a story focusing on elderly gay love, but he was fascinated when he read sociologist Travis Kong’s book Oral History of Older Gay Men in Hong Kong: Unspoken but Unforgotten (2014), a collection of interviews with 12 men about how they conformed to society while hiding their secret desires in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. One interview particularly stood out: a closeted man in his 70s who said he had zero regrets about the heteronormative life he had led with his wife and family.

Yeung felt inspired. "When I read his comment, I asked myself, ‘Who am I to judge this man?'" he says. "If that’s how he feels, he should not be compelled to be ashamed of himself. So I set out to write a screenplay about these elderly gay men; to portray their stories without judgments, and just show their dilemmas and struggles. It would be up to the audience to interpret their choices and decisions."

In Suk Suk, which is being repped in Berlin by Films Boutique, two seniors, or "uncles" as they are called in Cantonese, find love and companionship in one another, of a kind they have denied themselves their whole lives in order to fulfill their perceived obligations.

Shot in 21 days on a budget of less than $1 million, Suk Suk, Yeung’s third feature, was produced by Asian industry veteran Michael Werner and emerging local producer Teresa Kwong, among others. Werner, whose former sales outfit Fortissimo repped Yeung’s previous two features, Front Cover (2015) and Cut Sleeve Boys (2006), liked the script but had his reservations. "He was a little worried that a film with an LGBTQ theme plus an old-age love affair would almost be considered box office suicide," Yeung says. "However, he continued to lend his support."

Following preview screenings in Hong Kong in 2019, Yeung received a range of responses from local viewers. He says heterosexual viewers told him the film "opened up their eyes to a community they have never considered before."

To the younger LGBTQ community, the film has offered a rare glimpse at the difficulties elder closeted gay men may still face. "In contemporary society’s more liberal view, many think [such men] should come out, but this film shows their struggles," Yeung says. "It asks for more empathy for this group of elderly closeted men, particularly from the younger generation who might label them as sad or repressed."

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Feb. 23 daily issue at the Berlin Film Festival.