A year that had Sony Walkman’s, cassette tapes, telephones with long, green or cream coloured cords, plaid flannel sheets, and AIDS.
It was early days in the AIDS epidemic and there was misinformation, homophobia, family splits, thousands of deaths (including actor Rock Hudson) and a Reagan Government not willing to invest in AIDS research.
The time was similar to now, the political climate was about greed and self-interest, there was confusion and upheaval. So when Director Yen Tan was wondering about audiences for his beautiful nostalgic film, he could see a natural affinity to the present.
Shot in black and white, the film feels more European than American, and Malaysian-born Tan says his inspiration has been more from global films than those of his adopted country.
While black and white gave a nostalgic feel to the film, it also gave it poignancy of being a special film about a special time. Stunningly crafted, it’s a film that’s a pleasure to watch just for its aesthetic beauty.
The movie centres around Adrian, a young Texan man who has AID. He’s recently lost his boyfriend and has come home to spend his last Christmas with his family. His father, Dale is played movingly by Michael Chiklis, as the tough American church-going blue-collar Texan. His mother Eileen is played to perfection by the talented Virginia Madsen.
Adrian (Cory Michael Smith) is closeted and unsure whether to tell his family. His younger brother Andrew (Aiden Langford), also likely to be gay – Adrian sees his struggles and tries to help him. The scenes with him are the most searing. Tan says the character of Andrew is based on himself. He was 10 in 1985 and was starting to feel he might be gay. He says he found it difficult to explain how Michael J. Fox had affected him in Back to the Future. He was too young to fully understand all the implications of being gay and also when reading the newspaper articles on Rock Hudson’s AIDS death, that he found it difficult to separate being gay from dying of AIDS. It affected most of us living through that time, in a way very difficult to convey to others who did not. The fears, and the days, months and years that it manifested cannot be borne by those who did not do the time. However, there is much else that can be conveyed.
Andrew’s character was so raw and real; it showed a vulnerability that we could all identify with from that pre-teenage time. He is a small, yet unformed version of his older brother, even managing matching chiselled cheekbones. When he talks about his music, it brings back a perfect date-stamp of 1985.
Families were split by first finding out that their sons were gay. In areas where the doctrine permeated some society, this was difficult for religious parents to accept. When the then-death sentence of AIDS was added to the confessions, it was almost too much to bear for parents who had no understanding of the lifestyle or the disease. 1985 showed parents who were torn between the love of their son and their societal expectations.
In Tan’s words, he wanted to show that people were not two-dimensional – they were not all bad. Chiklis and Madsen both expressed in their faces the myriad emotions of parents for their children. They were ordinary people thrust into the times they were living in.
At no time in the film is “gay” or “AIDS” directly mentioned. It is clear that they are a focus, but they are not said aloud. There is something so refreshing in this take of that tough time. It’s a simple story, a homecoming – told so many times before and usually followed by a big reveal. In this case, everything was understated. Even the home, although set in the 80s didn’t do 80s in aspic but rather, some curtains, sheets and Christmas gifts that most clearly depicted the era.
I am already looking forward to Tan’s next film – whatever it may be. 1985 opened in cinemas on Thursday 25 April.
Feature image via Variety.