Dan Tangmo , Film Critic
Pai Hsien-yung’s novel Crystal Boys, a classic of LGBT literature, portrays the conflicts surrounding issues of gender, parental authority, patriarchy, and national identity that arose in Taiwanese society after Chinese Nationalist forces retreated to the island in 1949. Yu Kanping directed a film version of Crystal Boys in 1980, Taiwan’s first motion picture to portray homosexuality. In that era, however, martial law was in still effect, and LGBT issues were taboo.
Crystal Boys is set in the period following the Nationalist government’s relocation to Taiwan. A-qing, the novel’s protagonist, is driven from home by his father, who disapproves of the son’s homosexual activities. The youth wanders into Taipei New Park (today’s 228 Peace Memorial Park), where he meets a group of young gay men. Coach Yang, an ageing homosexual and former film director, takes boys in. Thus, two generations of gay men seek paternal approval, family approval, and self-approval in a time of uncertain gender and national identification.
The film Crystal Boys readapted Pai Hsien-yung’s novel, combining two characters from the original – Coach Yang and Grandfather Fu – into one, played by Sun Yue. A young woman was cast as the effeminate Xiao Yu, perhaps because a suitable male actor could not be found. Given the atmosphere of the times, the film treads lightly around sensitive issues, with just a brief mention of the military background of Longzi’s family. Gay sexuality is only hinted at, the plot largely revolving around Coach Yang’s relationship with his female companion. After final editing, Crystal Boys was given a “restricted” rating.
By the first decade of the twenty-first century great social changes had taken place in Taiwan – martial law had ended and the country had elected its own president. In 2003 Taiwan Public Television produced a new version of Crystal Boys, a drama in twenty installments. The serial was a landmark, the ultimate cultural breakthrough for Taiwan’s gay community. Featuring some of the nation’s finest actors, the production was the subject of much discussion in Taiwan’s cultural spheres, arousing a storm of interest within gay circles.
The televised serial’s exquisite visuals recreate the Taiwan of the 1970s, and the twenty-installment length allows for a more faithful rendition of Pai Hsien-yung’s original. The broadcast was a great event for Taiwan’s gay community because LGBT issues had never before occupied such a prominent place in the public arena. The serial’s official website practically turned into a gay forum, eliciting a great deal commentary and criticism from the gay viewers, so much so that it became a kind of “subculture” and the series’ airing a proud milestone in the history of Taiwan’s LGBT community.
In the spring of 2014, serial director Cao Ruiyuan went a step further by bringing Crystal Boys to the stage. In Pai’s novel, Coach Yang is a complicated balance of both masculinity and femininity, but the stage version took a fresh approach, casting a female actor in the role. The coach’s new persona is a combination of masculine perseverance and feminine delicacy; visually, the character became a very different creature. Hence, Crystal Boys paternal/maternal structure gained a great deal of complexity and theatrical diversity.