cast: Chowee Leow, Steven Lim, John ‘Ebon-Knee’ Campbell, Gareth Rhys Davies, and Neil Collie
director: Ray Yeung
86 minutes (18) 2006
widescreen ratio 16:9
TLA Releasing DVD Region 2 retail
[released 14 May]
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Cut Sleeve Boys takes its title from a poem written by the Han dynasty Emperor Ai about cutting off the sleeve of his robe in order to sneak out of bed without waking his male concubine. I assume there’s more to the poem than that as, to this day, the Chinese word for homosexuality can be translated as ‘cut sleeve’. With such a lyrical title this comedy drama about the gay Anglo-Chinese community promised much. However, the film actually says very little about being Chinese in Britain, gay or straight.
Ash (Chowee Leow) and Mel (Steven Lim) both live in London and are approaching the age of 40. Following the death of an old university friend they both find themselves re-examining their lives. Ash is flamboyantly camp, prone to luxuriating on his bed lip-synching to Chinese opera and searching desperately for a non-camp gay man to settle down with (effeminate men are evidently the lowest rung on the gay shaggability ladder). Meanwhile, Mel is tattooed and toned and obsessed with sex, drugs and haute couture. He is also getting older and has been saddled with a young Welshman (Gareth Rhys Davis) he promised a home to during a night of E-fuelled revelry.
Frustrated by his inability to find a butch man, Ash decides to start cross-dressing in the hope of finding a tranny-chaser (an otherwise straight bloke who sleeps with trans-gendered women). Initially successful in bagging the rugged Ross (Neil Collie), Ash soon discovers that it is not him that Ross is falling in love with, but the frock as Ross is actually a cross-dresser too. Meanwhile, Mel struggles with his conscience as he attempts to reconcile his desire to hang onto the sex and drugs lifestyle of his youth with his fear of being left on the shelf by a gay scene just as shallow and narcissistic as he is. By the time he realises that he is ready for a monogamous relationship, Todd has moved on and taken Mel’s place on the circuit.
The initial and most glaring problem with Cut Sleeve Boys is that it is simply not funny. There are few actual jokes and those that do appear are frequently weak and lazy. The strand of the film focussing on Ash fares better in this respect, particularly the moment where Ash tries to go all butch, in order to meet someone online only to discover that the butch man he has managed to seduce is, just like him, a mincing queen in army fatigues. Conversely, Mel’s thread is nothing short of a comedy black hole. In part this is because of how fantastically un-likable Mel is as a character.
Indeed, both of the film’s threads depict their respective characters denying their real identity and trying to deceive others in order to suit their own selfish desires. Mel only decides upon monogamy because he is reduced to shagging balding middle-aged men and Ash realises that he is not a cross-dresser but then ends the film cross-dressing anyway purely in order to be with the now properly trans-gendered Ross. By not only showing the characters in unflattering lights but putting them both through an emotional mincer from which they learn nothing, Yeung suffuses the film with a markedly bitter aftertaste that further undermines the already weak comedy.
Despite a moving performance by Chowee Leow (who is really quite amazingly pretty and feminine in drag) and a competent performance by Steven Lim, the film struggles to find any kind of arc for the characters to fit into. This is partly because both characters have quite a lot on their respective plates. Indeed, Ash’s strand deals not only with the plight of camp gay men in a scene that prises masculinity but also the issue of whether to force himself to become a cross-dresser in order to find love with all the associated elements of self-denial and self-loathing. Meanwhile Mel’s strand deals not only with the question of whether gay men are best suited to a monogamous lifestyle but also the issue of what a pretty and narcissistic gay man should do when he starts losing his looks. Simply put, any of these elements could probably support a film and Yeung is not a good enough writer to bring all of these disparate elements together into a coherent narrative.
The final strange aspect of the film is the extent to which the lives of Ash and Mel are completely generic. Despite boasting about offering an insight into the gay Anglo-Chinese community, Cut Sleeve Boys’ characters are so unrefined that they are nothing more than gay stereotypes with Mel as the sex and shoes phenotype popularised for straight people by Samantha in Sex And The City, and Ash seems to come straight out of La Cage Aux Folles (1978).
Cut Sleeve Boys should have done for the Anglo-Chinese gay community what My Beautiful Launderette (1985) did for the British Asian gay community but instead it struggles with the tasks it sets itself and comes across as nothing more than a mean-spirited procession of stereotypes. There is, I’m sure, a great film that needs writing about the Anglo-Chinese gay community and the trans-gendered experience but, sadly, Cut Sleeve Boys is not it.