From Ossan’s Love to equality

July 16, 2021 09:53
Photo: TV Asashi

Ossan’s Love was an absolute hit in Japan. And ViuTV’s exceptional remake of it – in the context of Hong Kong – has served as an invaluable breath of fresh air given the largely stifling times in which we find ourselves.

There exists a variety of reasons for which Ossan’s Love has proved to be incredibly successful here. The excellent acting, the rather astounding transformations to veteran actors and actresses whose repertoire had hitherto been largely dominated by soap operas and cookie-cutter plots prescribed by the lowest common denominator, and, above all, perhaps, the visual-symbolic resonance of a “groundbreaking” storyline centered around non-heterosexual (non-het) relationships.

Queerness is a rather touch-and-go topic, especially in a society as culturally conservative and repressive as Hong Kong. To flaunt, to exhibit, to openly embrace queerness, is taboo – at most, same-sex couples are expected to keep their affairs to their “bedroom” (an ironically ludicrous and essentialist conception of how non-het relationships could to look like – to paraphrase Patricia Hill Collins, ‘tis an overt case of controlling images being deployed to determine and shape individuals’ lives and choices). For many residing in the city, the open embracing of homosexual relationship and love is akin to adopting a lascivious outlook towards sex.

Setting aside the biological and sociological case in favour of more permissiveness towards sex at large, this equivalence conflates the voices and needs of the sex-positive segment of the population, with those of the entire LGBTQIA+ community. There is no reason to think that sex-positive relationships are inherently or extrinsically justified; analogously, there are few to no grounds to support the misconception that same-sex relationships are fuelled by “carnal desires”, whilst “normal” (NB: employed here to denote the stigma associated with Queerness – whether a relationship involves individuals of the same or different genders, should have no bearing on its normative justifiability or normality) relationships are steered by “higher, better desires”.

This is an absurd proposition. In truth, platonic, passionate love is equally feasible across same-sex and heterosexual relationships – to think that only the latter could have “sex-less love”, or love without biological passions, is not only empirically flawed. It’s also deeply essentialist and offensively demeaning.

The love triangle in Ossan’s Love offers a helpful illustration of the above point. Whilst the relationship between the two younger deuterotagonists (portrayed by Anson Lo and Edan Lui, respectively, of MIRROR fame) could well be beyond platonic (the series leaves it – as with the original – to the audience’s imagination), the “Ossan” (Kenny Wong)’s love for his subordinate is distinctly decoupled from erotic inclinations.

Through the pronounced age gaps between the three leads, the series tactfully and effectively conveys the heterogeneity of same-sex relationships: not all same-sex couples are driven by sex-centric considerations, and it’s certainly not the case that only those blessed by the virtues of youth should “come out” and express their true selves. The Ossan deserves love, and should seek love, as much as his younger co-workers (indeed, the only “dodgy” thing with the relationships here concerns the potential power imbalances at the workplace – and the dynamics that may ostensibly favour the more senior amongst them; though as the plot expeditiously and effectively establishes, the Ossan has gained very little for his status as the de facto boss of the subject of his pursuit).

If we look more carefully at the dramas that have historically been produced around same-sex relationships in Hong Kong, a vast majority of them have opted to recycle tired, bigoted tropes: that gay individuals must necessarily be (or so it claims) sexually or socially frustrated; that same-sex love, even if it ain’t taboo, should be something of which characters should be embarrassed; that those who come out are often just “confused” about whom they truly are. These stereotypes, these narratives, have in turn given rise to the hegemonic heterosexuality of mainstream movies, theatre, and media in Hong Kong.

I’ve had many friends – past or present – who expressed to me in private their reluctance to remain in a city that remains endemically homophobic, and in which they can neither speak out over whom they love, nor transform the socio-political structures undergirding the dogmatic sexual regime of the city. The triumphant popularity of Ossan’s Love certainly highlights the ripe grounds for legislative and policy changes – but whether such momentum could be converted into political capital in favour of more progressive reforms, remains a separate question.

Ultimately, it shouldn’t be the case that the only advocates for the LGBTQIA+ community are members of said community. Individuals can and must serve as allies, as listeners, as friends and companions – even if they cannot, as they should very well acknowledge, empathise with those who have been subjected to harassive and vitriolic abuse for their identities. The struggle continues.

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Assistant Professor, HKU