By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
“I’m so glad that you’ve found a way to feel good in spite of all the fucked up sh** we deal with. But you think that if you’re vulnerable for just one second, that it’s all going to come crashing down; and maybe that’s true for you, but it’s not true for me. I want to be vulnerable.”
So says Howie (Bowen Yang) to Noah (Joel Kim Booster) during a trip to Fire Island, New York, the “Gay Disneyland” where every day might not necessarily be your happiest day ever.
Based on Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” the film “Fire Island” deals with five gay friends that have a tradition of periodically meeting on the island to cut loose. They stay with Erin (Margaret Cho), a lesbian whom Cho describes as the “mom of the group” and also “the unintentional creeper. The weird third wheel—or [sixth] wheel.”
The story goes that Booster once read Austen’s seminal novel while on Fire Island and declared he would write a gay version—and so he did. In the movie, instead of five daughters, there are five friends. And instead of striving to get them all married, the goal is to get laid. In particular, Noah, the “hot” one, vows he will help bestie Howie, the “mousy” one, lose his virginity, even if it means that Noah will not have any sexual adventures himself.
Of course, both end up falling in love, Noah gets heartily chastised for being a busybody, and we all find out that, even among our inner circles, or our “safe spaces,” we can be dang mean to each other.
Booster has observed to the media that while reading “Pride and Prejudice,” he realized that Austen’s way of showing people being “awful to each other without being awful to each other” is another version of what gays call “shade.”
“People will say things that are coded insults,” director Andrew Ahn explained. “It’s something we feel a lot as queer people, as people of color in this world.” The movie is full of microaggressions based on body image, race, and income that the gays in the movie direct at each other, which highlights how even “Fire Island” is not an entirely inclusive place for the gay community.
According to Cho, “…within the queer community…we can have bias and we don’t acknowledge it because we’re already oppressed in other areas…This film is really about the complicated relationship of being queer and being Asian and what that means within the community at large and in some place like Fire Island, which is steeped in a lot of privilege, even though everyone is gay there.”
In the movie, Howie, Noah, and their friends come upon Will (Conrad Ricamora), the Mr. Darcy of the film, a wealthy doctor, who in Noah’s view is the “token Asian in a sea of white friends.” While Noah begins a love-hate relationship with Will, Howie falls for Charlie (James Scully), rich and white, whose friends take exception to his hanging out with those they consider trash. Howie, shy, retiring, and not body-obsessed, opens his heart, only to be hurt by the shallow machinations of Charlie’s tribe.
“It’s not just about Charlie. It’s a lifetime of Charlie’s,” moans Howie.
The shade is brutal, and familiar.
“Can I help you?” irritatingly posed every time Noah and gang enter the rich kids’ sanctum, means, “You should not be here.”
“We don’t play games,” uttered by stuffy Will means, “You are all children.”
“One of his parents is white,” tossed off by Will’s snobby white friend, means, “That’s why he’s good looking,” and “That’s why it’s okay for me to like him.”
The relief is Noah (even though he also causes a lot of the stress) because he blithely—and correctly—calls out every offensive comment and action made. And the relief is Howie, whose willingness to be real provides a balm to all of the artificiality. The relief is the entire gang of impoverished friends, who rejoice that if one of them dates a doctor, “it will be just like having health insurance again” and who learn that the only permanent thing in life is change.
“The queer community is living in an age where we are out at some points, closeted in others, because we don’t feel safe,” Ahn shared. “We are open about our sexuality to some people but not to others. It’s a really difficult thing to navigate…that’s reflected in how our films are made.”
“Bros,” a predominantly white film, is coming out in the fall and has touted itself as “the first all-LGBTQ-casted” film for a “major studio.” “Fire Island,” put out in collaboration with Hulu and Disney+, seems to fit this category already, and casts multiple people of color. Ahn strove diligently to make it so.
“I love giving queer actors opportunities that we haven’t always gotten.” Ahn told the Weekly that when they were searching for Mr. Darcy, people told him to just give up and find a straight actor. “I was like, ‘No, I think we can find the person.’…The more we can cast and give opportunities to queer actors, the happier and healthier this industry is going to be.”
“We’re doing really well in terms of telling stories that haven’t been told and going past identity into a place of allowing time to share who we are,” said Cho.
I wish everyone would watch this movie, though I know that won’t happen. It’s so funny and charming and clever, so heartfelt, and so revealing. I know, especially, that there will be heterosexuals who cannot stand to watch two gay men kiss (or more). As the Weekly discussed with Ahn, gay people have been watching straight movies for generations, like it or not, so why can’t straight people get onboard with considering gay cinema just one more genre? Ahn has said that he made “Fire Island” for himself and his gay friends, and he’s okay with that, for now.
“I would love it for a general audience to watch this film and be super excited about it and find something that moves them, but…I’d love for queer Asian American people to see this, to see themselves in some way onscreen and feel excited and inspired to tell their own stories.”
“Fire Island” world premieres June 2 at New York City’s NewFest Pride, and streams on Hulu and Disney+ from June 3.
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.