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Development of the New Queer Cinema Movement

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 2580 words Published: 25th Aug 2021

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Since the 1990s, there is a growing trend in the themes of films illustrating the issues about LGBT group, and the movement is called New Queer Cinema. New Queer Cinema, which is a term that initially introduce by scholar B. Ruby Rich in 1992 to describe the movement in the 1990s in filmmaking. This is an essay to introduce a movement in cinema history. To understand this movement, this essay will firstly give a brief introduction of this movement, outlining the characteristics of films of New Queer Cinema. Secondly, some films from different periods that relate to the movement will be discussed in order to understand the movement. After analysing the related films, the comparison of the selected films will be presented in order to illustrate the changes. The emergence of the New Queer Cinema in films, influenced by the social and political changes, make the narrative characteristics and themes differentiate from others. During the New Queer Cinema period, films broke the conventions of the traditional filmmaking that the classical continuity of the narrative is disinterested by the queer filmmakers; therefore, the aim of this essay is to illustrate new film aesthetics, themes, and narrative styles in different films to understand the movement and the changes in some films influenced by the movement. Queer films not only simply explore the sexuality and relations themes but also deal with other issues through the film. This essay will discuss films in two decades, 1990s and 2010s, to analyse the development of the movement in films in different decades.

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According to B. Ruby Rich (2013), New Queer Cinema, is a definition to describe a movement in independent filmmaking related to queer-themed, which most of the theme related films focus on the understanding of sexuality and the lives of the protagonists. The main storylines usually show the marginalisation of LGBT characters, and many of them break the stereotypes of the LGBT images in these films. B. Ruby Rich (1992) claims that New Queer Cinema is a phenomenon since 1990s that films of this movement describe the identity and experience of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender. Before the movement, the main trend of depicting the LGBT characters is to make them into negative images as vicious villains or humiliating clownish figures. When the movement begins since 1990s, queer cinema filmmakers inject multiple voices in the film about the sexuality, and a collection of different aesthetics is also presented in films instead of unifying aesthetics (Hayward, 2006). Different forms of aesthetics enable the themes and narrative in the film to become diversified, which could generate both subject and style in films to become multi-dimensional rather than the simply figure of the LGBT group. Nevertheless, in 1990s, Hayward (2006) illustrates that “lesbian invisibility” is noticeable in New Queer Cinema as male filmmakers are more easily to gather the funding, at that time, most of the queer films focus on the “construction of male desire”. The following two films is the films of New Queer Cinema from different periods of time, which they share some similarities in the theme and aesthetics, while after the development of New Queer Cinema, films in 2010s are differentiated from the previous queer films.

Happy Together (1997), one of Wong Kar-Wai’s films, shows the marginalisation and unsettled lives of the gay protagonists, while the miserable lives of the characters seem to be the main themes of much of the New Queer Cinema. Happy Together tells a story about Ho Po Wing (Leslie Cheung) and Lai Yiu Fai (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), a couple from Pre-handover Hong Kong travel to Argentina to visit the Iguazu Waterfalls. During their trip, this couple gets into argument and finally break up. Both of them are lost and broke during their trip, so they have to stay at Argentina to earn the money back to Hong Kong. However, when Ho injures his hands, Lai chooses to take care of him in his apartment, which is the peaceful and happy time they spend together. After the joyful time they spend together, they start to argue again and then Ho leaves the apartment. Lai meets Chang (Chen Chang) after Ho leaves, and he finally earns the money back to Hong Kong, while Ho fins himself lonely in Argentina.

Although Wong Kar-Wai is not known for the queer filmmaking, Happy Together could be regarded as one of the best LGBT films in the New Queer Cinema. Mennel (2012) states that breaking the continuity in linear narratives was the attitude that shared in films of New Queer Cinema period. It is unarguably that the discontinuity of the narrative, which is expressed through aesthetics style and cinematography, serves the point that the narration is non-linear in most of the queer films. In this film, the narrative is neither driven by the plot nor the cause/effect, it follows the thought of the protagonist that he is rootless and try to find a place to settle. The opening sequence, despite the passport scene and the scene in the hotel, is in black and white, which contributes to the narration of the film as the black and white sequence is the flashback of the protagonist’s memory. The black and white seems to be a nostalgia and pastiche of the classical Hollywood melodrama film; however, in contrast, black and white indicates that the romantic relationship between Ho and Lai is not happy but turbulent. The repetitiveness and the overexposure in the film also strengthen that the relationship between Ho and Lai is unstable. Rich colours are also used to indicate the situation that the characters are in, for example, warm yellow colour is used in the scenes that Lai and Ho are in a joyful moment when Lai is taking care of Ho. Additionally, when Lai spends time with Chang, the yellow colour also has the same effect while sometimes there will be blue interrupts to contrast the unhappiness of Lai with Chang. The changing colour is presented towards the audience, which aids the narration of this film. Most of the shots in the film make the illusion of voyeurism, creating a sense of marginalisation of the gay protagonists and the unacceptable relationship between them at that time.

Breaking the continuity of the narration is not only the purpose of queer films, getting rid of the stereotypes or replacing them with positive images is also the objective; however, the most important goal is to achieve complexity and diversity in themes and aesthetics (Smelik, 2004). The characters in Happy Together challenges the stereotype of homonormative characters in films, which most of the gay characters in films are depicted in a negative light. The experience of the protagonists shows that homosexual love shares the similarities between heterosexual love. However, despite the real depiction of the love relationship, the social opinion on homosexuality is indicated through the character, Chang. There are some intimations in the film showing the hidden identity of Chang, for example, when he refuses to have a relationship with his female colleague and implies that he has an attraction towards deep voices. Although there are some implications, Chang never reveals his sexual orientation. The unwillingness of revealing suggests that being a homosexual is not acceptable at that time. This film challenges the stereotypes of gay figures by illustrating the relationship between homosexual is the same as the relationship between heterosexual, while it also reflects the social taboo of being homosexual during that period of time.

Apart from the films in 1990s, there are other films that are also influenced by the movement of New Queer cinema, for example, Carol (Todd Haynes, 2015). Carol is a film that depicts a love story between two women in 1950s, and this film is adapted from the 1952 novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith. The film is queer in the narration, which is enhanced by the choices of aesthetics and themes in it. this film depicts a story that a clerk working in Manhattan in 1950s, Therese (Rooney Mara), and a lady, Carol (Cate Blanchett), who trapped in a loveless marriage, fall in love with each other. However, the love between two women is not allowed at that time. One day, Carol and Therese decide to begin a long-drive tour, but their relationship has been known by Carol’s Husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler). When Harge tries to gain the custody of their daughter, he questions Carol with her competence as a mother and her morality of being a homosexual.

The narration in Carol is composed with the flashback and the gaze from Therese who vaguely expresses her feelings and emotions. Despite the fact that there is not many conversations and dialogues between Carol and Therese, this film focuses on the visual effects delivered to the audience, showing the desire of intimacy relationship, exploration of the sexuality, and social conventions that force them to avoid the relationship at the same time. The use of the point-of-view shot in this film to enhance the unspoken desire between Carol and Therese, the female gaze emphasises the focus on the face of two protagonists with intimate close-ups. Nonetheless, the gaze in Carol is unlike the male gaze that Mulvey (2001) states that women are the sexual objectives for the male spectators from heterosexual perspectives. The female gaze is created from point-of-view shot and semi-point-of-view shots, which are mainly composed either in claustrophobically interior or an open and crowded exterior. Even though the unspoken intimacy is existed between two protagonists, the crowded space and claustrophobic atmosphere imply their relationship is not acceptable in 1950s. The use of windows, walls, and corridors in the frame composition further affirming the fact that being a homosexual is unconventional at that time. There is one scene in this film showing Carol is having a meal with her husband’s family. Carol is positioned in the middle of the frame, surrounding by a wall on the left and a lady on the right. The confined space restricts Carol in the middle, symbolising the so-called morality of being a mother and not being a homosexual restrains her. When she looks to the right, the immobilising frame limits her eyesight, which could be regarded as a suppression of her desire.

Because of the cultural-needed community of the LGBT group, New Queer Cinema grows exponentially in changing the activism and innovative form of film (Richards, 2016). The films in different periods New Queer Cinema share some similarities, however, after a few decades, there is a new trend emerging in the queer filmmaking. Setting the two films as an example and comparing the similarities and differences to understand the new trend, the new trend makes recent queer films to become differentiated from the films within the period when the movement of New Queer Cinema appeared. Both Carol and Happy Together break the stereotypes of homosexual figures, which the relationship between the protagonists presented in both films are normal human beings. Before the movement of New Queer Cinema, the LGBT characters in films are portraited in abnormal figures. For example, a 1980 erotic thriller by William Friedkin, Cruise, the gay man in this film is depicted as an aggressive figure who is irredeemably violent. The other film, Basic Instincts, directed by Paul Verhoeven in 1992 received the critics by gay rights activists due to the negative depiction of the LGBT figures in the film as the bisexual woman in this film is portrayed in a fatale and narcissistic psychopath (Leistedt and Linkowski, 2013). The two films of New Queer Cinema from different periods of time break the conventions of the LGBT characters in films, presenting the characters in realistic form. The verisimilitude depiction of homosexual relations in films is also the result of being influenced by the New Queer Cinema.

According to Daryl, the complex work produced by New Queer Cinema is more than the creation of new gay heroes, it ventures into transgressing themes, which challenges the ideas about victims and conquest (2002, cited Haynes 2001).


The conclusion of the trend. Other films not be regarded as new queer films but also be considered has some similarities. How the trend has changed? What will the trend be? (600)

Audio-visual Citation

  • Basic Insticts, 1992. [DVD] Directed by Paul Verhoeven. United States: Carolco Pictures, Le Studio Canal+.
  • Carol, 2015. [DVD] Directed by Todd Haynes. United States: StudioCanal, The Weinstein Company.
  • Cruise, 1980. [DVD] Directed by William Friedkin. United States: CiP-Europaische Treuhand, Lorimar Film Entertainment.
  • Happy Together, 1997. [DVD] Directed by K. Wong. Hong Kong: Kino International.


  • Daryl, C., 2002. New Queer Cinema. Chicago: 1130 West Adams.
  • Hayward, S., 2006. ‘Queer Cinema’ in Cinema Studies:The Key Concepts (3rd edn.). New York: Routledge, pp. 329-333.
  • Leistedt, S. J., Linkowski, P., 2013. ‘Psychopathy and the Cinema: Fact or Fiction?’, Journal of Forensic Sciences, vol. 59, no. 1, pp. 167-174, DOI: 10.1111/1556-4029.12359. [online] Available from: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1556-4029.12359. [Accessed 21 May 2019].
  • Mathews, T., 2013. ‘Cruising with Travis Mathews: The Nightcharm Interview’. Interviewed by M. Adnum. [online] Available from: http://www.nightcharm.com/2013/03/09/cruising-with-travis-mathews-the-nightcharm-interview/. [Accessed 18 May 2019].
  • Mulvey, L., 2001. ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, Media and Cultural Studies: Keywords. Malden, MA: Blackwell, pp342-352.
  • Mennel, B., 2012, ‘New queer cinema, a new aesthetic language’. In Mennel, B. (ed.), Queer Cinema: Schoolgirls, Vampires, and Gay Cowboys, New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 67–93.
  • Rich, B. R., 2013. New Queer Cinema: The Director’s Cut. Durham: Duke University Press, pp. 16-32.
  • Rich, B. R., 1992. ‘New Queer Cinema’, Sight and Sound, 80, pp. 31-34.
  • Richards, S., 2016. ‘A New Queer Cinema renaissance’, Queer Studies in Media & Pop Culture, vol.1, no.2, pp. 215-229. DOI:10.1386/qsmpc.1.2.215_1. [online] Available from: https://www.academia.edu/25159708/_A_New_Queer_Cinema_Renaissance._Queer_Studies_in_Media_and_Popular_Culture_1_2_215-229. [Accessed 10 May 2019].
  • Smelik, A., 2004. ‘Art Cinema and Murderous Lesbians’, in Aaron, M. (ed.), New Queer Cinema: A Critical  Reader. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, pp.72-77. 


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