Love is a many-splendoured thing in Lee Mi-Mi’s Girls’ School, a Taiwanese gem from 1982 beautifully restored just in time for its 40th anniversary. Screened in the UK at BFI Southbank as part of Queer East, an LGBTQ+ film festival showcasing lesser-known treasures from east and south-east Asian cinema, Girls’ School is a time capsule of social attitudes towards homosexuality in 1980s Taiwan at the meeting point between commercial and arthouse film-making.
As a site of surveillance, tempestuous impulses and healing camaraderie, all-girls’ schools can double as a microcosm for society and have a psychological intensity that has fascinated generations of film-makers. Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) views such places as a source of horror and mystery while The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969), adapted from Muriel Spark’s stage play of her novel, dissects the complex patriarchal forces that control young women’s education. Girls’ schools are also ripe for explorations of homoeroticism and burgeoning sexuality. In Mädchen in Uniform (1931) and Jacqueline Audry’s Olivia (1951), lesbianism emerges as the transformative pull that soothes the loneliness of girlhood.
Girls’ School might seem a less subversive work at first glance, but its eye for emotional realism is extraordinary. Revolving around an intimate friendship between two students, Chih-Ting and Chia-Lin, whose closeness draws malicious rumours from their classmates, Girls’ School astutely observes the details of female bonding and school life. In their uniforms of white shirts and black pleated skirts, the students march in straight lines as they gather for the semester’s opening ceremony. They make playful jabs at the teachers or pass each other discreet notes adorned with intricate drawings in class. It is as if the school corridors, and even the camera’s frame, can hardly contain the teenagers’ youthful energy.
The familial neglect suffered by Chih-Ting, who comes from a broken home, has helped to fuel all-consuming devotion to Chia-Lin that alienates peers and alarms teachers. Chih-Ting’s “excessive” adoration is particularly interesting: it embodies the heady volatility of teenage years, with the “too-much-ness” of her emotions constituting the film’s overarching queerness, a resistance to punitive attempts at containment.
Even when the plot swerves towards sudden tragedy, Girls’ School is not your typical queer sob story. Director Lee Mi-Mi weaves a poetic naturalism characteristic of the Taiwanese new wave. The young girls cycle through the city of Pingtung – Lee’s hometown – and their tearful words of separation are spoken on a rocky beach thrashed by the ocean wave; it all aches with the bittersweet fragility of youth. The streak of conservatism that occasionally appears might echo the dominant social ideology of the time, yet for queer viewers then, to witness, through a female gaze, how young girls passionately care for one another is still an intoxicating experience.
• Girls’ School screens on 24 May at BFI Southbank, London.