Jokes, dancing, drag: hit short film honours Taiwan’s defiant queer scene

An award-winning Taiwanese film was shown on Saturday to two very different audiences One, at the Beijing Queer Film festival – an event cautiously held inside the French Institute – had little public promotion. The mostly young crowd was sombre and serious, even unreactive, as they watched Tank Fairy, a 10-minute musical comedy about a dancing, dragged-up, cigarette-smoking, magical figure who delivers gas tanks.

At the same time in Sydney, Tank Fairy’s director Erich Rettstadt was accepting the Asia-Pacific Queer Film Festival award, after a screening during which people laughed and cried. The event was part of the two-week WorldPride celebrations. “There are rainbow flags everywhere and it does feel very gay,” said Rettstadt.

The film has now been selected for more than 100 film festivals across 32 countries. Those involved say it has cemented Taiwan’s place on the queer cultural map and shown that Taiwan is more than just a geopolitical flashpoint.

Local drag queen and trans performer Marian Mesula plays the eponymous heroine, who inspires a young boy called Jojo to follow his dreams of dancing, drag and colour.

The local market pork seller, played by Yolanda Mesula.
The filmmakers are expanding the film into a series focusing on other figures from Taiwan society, including the local market pork seller, played by Yolanda Mesula. Photograph: Manbo Key/The Observer

Tank Fairy plays on a uniquely Taiwanese cultural trope: older buildings often aren’t connected to mains gas supply, so tanks are hand-delivered, usually by motorbike. Delivery people, according to the film, are “usually male, pot-bellied, and lacking in glamour”. Marian’s character inverts the stereotype in a whirlwind of glitter and skintight leather, accompanied by sequined rats as dancing support characters.

Since a screening at SXSW, where it won an audience award, Tank Fairy has won accolades at the Los Angeles LGBTQ+ film festival and the UK’s Iris prize. It has been shown at New York’s Lincoln Center and San Francisco’s Castro theatre; its Pakistan premiere just took place in Lahore.

When filming Tank Fairy’s opening sequence at a Taipei market mostly frequented by the elderly people, they anticipated capturing some surprised reactions. But when no-one batted an eyelid at a drag queen carrying gas tanks through quiet city streets, the team had to request local residents to do some acting. Even the photoshoot for this article was interrupted by an octogenarian couple inviting Marian and the team for tea.

Tank Fairy director Erich Rettstadt
Tank Fairy director Erich Rettstadt. Photograph: Chelsea Lauren/Shutterstock

“Taiwanese are used to doing their own thing,” Marian says. Yet, they say, Taiwan is far from a queer utopia; cultural and religious conservatism remains common outside the big cities. But Marian says drag artists are a force that’s propelling Taiwan – and the region – forward.

“Drag performers are at the forefront of Taiwan’s LGBT community,” Marian says. “A lot of people in Asia can’t be themselves. But when they see us, they feel braver.”

Ryan Lin was just 10 when he played Jojo in Tank Fairy.

“After I knew about the film, I was really moved,” says the now 12-year-old from his home in southern Taiwan. “Jojo works so hard to prove that he’s talented.”

“There are so many kids like Jojo in Asia,” says Marian. “But now Taiwanese drag performers are seen more, it’s like they’ve found a new hope.”

Since decades of martial law ended in the 1980s, Taiwan has become a trailblazer for equality in the region. It was the first place in Asia to legalise same-sex marriage in 2019 and hosts one of Asia’s biggest Pride festivals.

“Taiwan’s queer culture has a vitality because it’s changed so quickly,” says local queen Yolanda Mesula. “Taiwan is still young [when it comes to LGBTQI rights], but it’s full of life.”

The difference now, Tank Fairy’s creators say, is that Taiwan feels more confident telling the world of its successes.

Local drag queen Honey Ji Mesula
Local drag queen Honey Ji Mesula as a character from Tank Fairy’s spin-off series, Fanteasia. Photograph: Manbo Key/The Observer

“Taiwan has been limited by politics and other burdens,” says Anita Tung, Tank Fairy’s producer. “In the past, Taiwan has not been as unimpeded. We didn’t know how to tell the world that we can accept all these ideas.”

An expansion of Tank Fairy into a TV series is now in development, titled Fanteasia (a double-entendre on the “fantasy” genre, and “spilling tea” – drag lingo for gossiping). Like Tank Fairy, each episode would put a queer twist on a uniquely Taiwanese social identity, including funeral pole dancers, traditional market butchers, and betelnut sellers at neon-lit city stores.

“My style comes from that local Taiwanese culture. The way I do drag is like the women who dance on the electronic floats,” says local queen Honey Ji Mesula, referencing the erotic dancers often appearing at Taiwanese religious and cultural events, including funerals. “I’m a signature Taiwanese drag queen.”

Fanteasia’s characters have already made their public debut at a Taipei Pride event last year. One performance – representing Taiwan’s famously soundtracked garbage workers – quickly went viral.

“To see the way [Taiwan] is now, I just could never believe,” says Dr Wang Newton, a Taiwanese-American drag king who is set to feature in Fanteasia. Wang was born in Taiwan, but is now based in the US.

“To have that kind of Taiwanese representation. It’s not just China. It’s us; it’s the Taiwanese queer community. It’s the me that I never could be.”

International awareness of Taiwan has increased dramatically in recent years, primarily because of the growing risk of conflict over Beijing’s threat to annex it. Rettstadt, who has lived in Taipei with his Taiwanese husband for five years, wants the project to reflect his experience on the ground: “I want to collaborate with the Taiwanese drag community, to build a new platform for local queer artists here, to create a project showcasing Taiwan’s unique cultural identity on the international stage.”

He emphasises Tank Fairy’s success with audience awards. “The response was mindblowing, but it’s also not. Because I believe queer joy is truly transcendent.”

There is a sense of urgency in Taiwan’s promotion of its equality and freedom.

In China, government crackdowns have targeted queer communities and activists, making celebratory events more difficult to hold openly. At the Beijing screening, one of the Chinese directors told the crowd that Tank Fairy stood out against their more solemn films, because “we can’t yet afford to discuss things in such a lighthearted way”.

Should Beijing forcefully make Taiwan a Chinese province, many Taiwanese queer people fear their hard-won rights to free expression could be eroded, or eradicated completely.

“Of course I worry about it,” says Alvin Chang, the 51-year-old owner of Café Dalida, the Taipei drag bar where Erich first saw Marian perform. Chang grew up during martial law when Taiwan was less accepting of queer people. He says being ruled by China would be tantamount to going back into the closet: “It would be like going back to the environment of my childhood.”

Honey tries not to think about China. “I want people to know that Taiwan is more than the pressures we face,” she says. “Just because we have these limitations, we won’t change. We’ll continue to innovate and become who we are supposed to be.”


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