There are different kinds of queer stories out there. A Lock with No Key (把風, literally “Lookout”) isn’t about love, exactly, or the prettier, more progressive side of Taiwanese society that the country likes to showcase to the outside world. The 2019 short film, recently released on GagaOOlala, is about a group of restless young punks who revel in mercilessly, violently bullying a high-school classmate, Ch’ien Wan-ta, and about the eponymous lookout of the group, Ch’en Chen-k’ang, who is drawn to this tight-lipped target for reasons he doesn’t quite seem to understand or accept. His various attempts to reach out or get closer to Ch’ien Wan-ta are almost always translated into the vernacular of taunts, the only language his friend group speaks, and thus fall flat. While he repeatedly intervenes to lessen the punishments doled out to him in ways that no one else can see, Ch’en Chen-k’ang never stops them—that is, until it’s finally the enabler’s turn to hit or get hit.
Online, the little buzz garnered by the short, which is wisely paced and reasonably well shot, seems to revolve around objections to the relentless physical, emotional, and even quasi-sexual abuse depicted—a sad-but-understandable byproduct of moralistic calls for “positive representation” that leave no room for the ethical ambiguities of actual queer people and experience. The film is not a traditional romance but instead a more realistic portrayal of simmering desire and unnamed fascination, and about the difficulty of unlocking better ways of getting close to someone at the tender, restless age of seventeen when the only tools one has are at one’s disposal are those provided by a culture rife with toxic masculinity.
It’s a tough watch, to be sure, but it’s also one with recognizably real characters and social realities—at least, that is, to those of us in Taiwan—and one that rewards attentive viewing. If you want another fluff film about impossibly good-looking guys who fall in love and live happily ever after (which, hey, I’m all for too), this isn’t it. If, however, you want a studied look at the messiness of longing and the difficulty of human connection in a dog-eat-dog world, then A Lock with No Key is for you. Its protagonist is hardly heroic, but as we learn by the story’s end, what we were told at the beginning is true: sometimes, it’s either him or it’s you.
Translator: Andy Liu