“There’s a certain urgency in me saying I need to finish this project as soon as possible.”

We’re sitting on the second floor of a Starbucks in the bustling Ximending area, a landmark for popular culture in Taipei. Taiwanese film director Zero Chou (周美玲) sips at her hot coffee while talking about her latest project, Six Asian Cities Rainbow Project (亞洲六城彩虹計劃, unofficial English translation) — a series of six films about LGBT issues shot in six different cities across Asia.

With her short hair and black-rimmed glasses, Chou could have been a college student instead of the recipient of numerous film awards, including the Teddy Award (an official award of the Berlin International Film Festival for films with LGBT topics) in 2007.

“I’m not even sure if I can finish filming this series. I don’t want to go missing before I do,” says the 48-year-old director who is also openly a lesbian.

Her concerns do not come without reason.

Two out of the six films have already wrapped up shooting in China — Chengdu and Beijing — and the remaining four are set to be shot separately in Taipei, Hong Kong, Singapore and Penang. Aside from Taipei and Hong Kong, the other four cities are located in countries where there are strict controls over the portayal of LGBT issues in film.

But Chou is determined to film in these cities, and if possible, finish the project within three years.

“I have chosen to communicate with the greater China community at this stage because I feel like now is the time,” she says. “Politics in China are becoming increasingly conservative and so is the society. In Southeast Asia and the Middle East, it’s religion. I believe the conflict will become tenser in the ten years to come, and when it accumulates to a certain point, I won’t be able to film. So I need to finish this project as soon as possible.”

Aside from the challenges of shooting in these cities, Chou also needs to tackle another obstacle: distribution.

Movies with LGBT topics are banned from screening in theaters in Malaysia, Singapore and China, so the director decided to produce either an online video series or a TV film in these regions.

“The internet has no boundaries. I have a lot of fans in southeast Asia and China that have breached the Great Firewall to watch my films,” says Chou. “It’s not that hard to get past the firewall but it’s impossible to screen in local theaters.”

The two completed films in the project, “The Substitute (替身)” and “We are Gamily (偽婚男女),” are now available on Vidol, iQIYI, CHOCO TV and GagaOOLala, and “We are Gamily” has already accumulated over 500,000 views on iQIYI.

Both films were to be streamed online in China through the country’s leading lesbian app Rela (熱拉), which had over 5 million registered users. However, the app was shut down in late May without any explanation from Chinese authorities. China last month also issued new regulations that prohibit any display of homosexuality in online video and audio content.

“I think it’s impossible for us to stream on any online platform in China this year, but Rela still holds the copyright for the two films and is waiting for the right time [to screen the films],” says Chou. “But China might be onto me if I shoot in the country again. Luckily I have finished shooting already.”

The director adds that the 30-person crew was very low key when filming in China. The names of those who assisted in making the films are also left out of the ending credits.

Chou plans to shoot in Singapore and Penang next but is still looking for investors and applying for government grants. After obtaining sufficient funding, the director says they also require the help of local LGBT organizations because these cities are very sensitive to gay-related topics.

Each of the six films incorporate local culture to draw in the general public; “The Substitute” talks about the booming phenomenon of internet celebrities in Beijing; “We are Gamily” is about the “cooperative marriage” (or “marriage-for-show”) culture in Chengdu; the film in business-thriving Singapore will be about the issues gay people face in working environments; Penang’s segment will deal with one of the most traditional Chinese cultures — ancestry; the Umbrella Revolution will be the focus of the Hong Kong film’s narrative; and Taipei will discuss more progressive subject matters including lust, gender ambiguity and transgender people.

“Each location has its own destiny to tell,” says Chou. “What we’re doing is kind of like LGBT activism, only we’re using art as a soft revolution and creating a film series that reflects the LGBT scene of this era.”

As a film director with a focus on LGBT issues for over ten years, Chou says progress has been made in Taiwanese society in terms of accepting gay people and LGBT rights.

Taiwan’s Constitutional Court on May 24 ruled that laws banning same-sex marriage are unconstitutional. The court gave the government two years to implement the ruling and said if the law isn’t changed within two years, same-sex couples could get married regardless.

But Chou also points out the improvements are closely related to the younger generation growing up and the more conservative older generation dwindling.

“If they want to win [in the elections], politicians need to come up with policies that are aligned with the values of the younger generation,” says Chou. “So it’s about the changing of generations, but can this really be considered as progress?”

To communicate LGBT issues with the general public or those who have little knowledge regarding the topic, the director engages the audience through empathy instead of criticism. A good narrative that is easy to watch is key, and Chou also chooses to use idol actors if her budget allows it — a tactic proved especially successful in southeast Asia.

“We tell these stories to make you feel what the characters are going through and in turn develop empathy for them. I don’t want you to pay to watch a movie and feel like you are being chastised,” says Chou. “It’s also easy for some people to say they’re going to watch a movie with Tony Leung (a famous Hong Kong actor) in it instead of saying they want to watch a film about gay topics.”

Nevertheless, the director still occasionally faces criticism for her work. She deals with it by remaining indifferent when encountering either praise or humiliation.

“I think this is a characteristic one needs to cultivate, especially in the internet era, or else you can’t continue to pursue your dreams and ideals. You can’t avoid public opinion,” says Chou. “If I can’t finish this project in three years, then I’ll spend five years. As long as I’m alive it will be completed.”

Editor: Edward White