To be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love

Emily Hashimoto
ANMLY
Published in
6 min readJul 25, 2022

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The cast of Fire Island gather together on a dock. Boats are in the background.

Spoilers for Fire Island.

This review of the new movie Fire Island begins here: talking about the television show PEN15. I keep thinking about scenes of middle-schooler Japanese American Maya Ishii-Peters (played with startling accuracy by 35-year-old Maya Erskine) staring into the mirror. She prods her eyes to be wide and round like Sailor Moon, yanks the corners of her eyes back to what racists think we look like, then gives herself a double middle finger, all while tears rim her red, vulnerable eyes. While Maya cries on-screen, I cry to the laptop screen, because I was her, and on my worst day I still am.

What I know for sure: Asian American bodies are not immune from being objectified or vilified. In Fire Island, a new film written, executive produced by, and starring Joel Kim Booster, and directed by Andrew Ahn (Spa Night), queer Asian male characters are subjected to a recurring white male character with a fetish. “Are you Korean? You look Korean? I have a sense,” he says to one character. “Are you Filipino? You look Filipino” gets another. (The white character in question has five anime tattoos; I will not be elaborating.) But much of this complex movie — which is also about chosen family, romance, and comedy, inspired by Pride and Prejudice — is about other attention, or lack of attention, from white cis men.

Fire Island, the real barrier island between Long Island and the Atlantic Ocean, has a reputation. The gay neighborhood on the island is called Fire Island Pines (FIP), and as Booster put it on Fresh Air, its reputation precedes it as an unwelcoming, exclusive bubble for rich cis white muscle gays. (Siri, play that “Party in the USA” parody/artifact, “Party in the FIP.”) The movie makes a meal of depicting these caricatures, like the judgey white gay man who coldly asks Booster’s character Noah “Can we help you?” three separate times, because he can’t be bothered to remember him. Or another judgey white gay man, when talking about his ex-boyfriend Charlie and Booster’s Asian best friend Howie, played by Bowen Yang: “You think Charlie likes that little Asian guy?” Little Asian guy. I could write three angry volumes unpacking these three words.

But let’s talk about Charlie. Charlie looks like a Disney prince of yore: big wide eyes, healthy swoop of brown hair, toned arms, and white, white skin. He’s a doctor but kind of dim. He’s friendly like a Golden Retriever. He and his friends think Amy Schumer is the peak of comedy. And he has a mutual attraction to Howie, the aforementioned ‘little Asian guy.’ I’d much rather watch Noah fall in love with hot public interest lawyer Will (played by a delightfully stuffy Mr. Darcy stand-in, Conrad Ricamora), but Charlie and Howie don’t exist in a vacuum; despite being in a romantic comedy, they’re of the real world where men write in their online bios: No Fats, No Femmes, No Asians. As much as I don’t want it to be true, Charlie’s attraction to Howie is noteable, and a curative of sorts, for the real world in which Asian gay men are often dismissed by default. In one of the film’s last scenes, Charlie chases Howie down before he can head back home to California. He commandeers a boat, confessing his feelings. He says that Howie is beautiful. They kiss. Crane shot.

There is an implicit message here about what white desire and acceptance means. It means Howie was successful at love, to have won a hot white doctor’s heart. In some ways we are still working with an old framework that means nothing to our liberation. Then again: Charlie isn’t like other white men in the film who are interested in Asian men. Howie isn’t a fetish to him. The movie establishes that they are both romantic dorks with chemistry and a lot in common. I think there’s an implicit message to white gay men, actually; you can like an Asian man in and of himself, not as an accessory or object but because of who he is: incredible, interesting, funny — and beautiful. It is a ludicrously simple concept that apparently bears saying.

Despite my better angels I swoon over Charlie and Howie’s reunion when I watch the movie, because I love love. (Feel free to start cringing.) Though its failings are legion, I love When Harry Met Sally, and wrote a novel that was once summarized as ‘lesbian When Harry Met Sally,’ following two queer Asian women over the course of 13 years as girlfriends, exes, friends, roommates, and enemies; one of them was named after a Jane Austen character. I spent five years with these characters because I think love and romance in literary novels is something that we Asian queers deserve and don’t get enough of. When I think about the queer Asian romantic comedy film canon, it’s similar; it’s Fire Island and two brilliant Alice Wu movies, 2004’s Saving Face and 2020’s The Half of It, and that’s about it, folks.

It is so infrequent that you come across something as special as Fire Island, with a cast that feels more like my own community, that lacks the homogeny of movies and sometimes real life: four Asian characters, one of whom is biracial, and one of whom is played by the fabulous queen of my heart Margaret Cho; Max (played by Torian Miller), who is reserved and bookish, fat and Black; Keegan, who is femme, Latinx, and doesn’t have time for people who don’t know who Marisa Tomei is; and token white guy Luke. The writer, director, and cast are all queer on screen and in real life, and you can feel that in every inch of the film’s landscape; there are no false notes or cringey missteps. We are telling our own stories.

That matters, and it matters when we’re in the spotlight, in every kind of film, including this genre. Within the metaphorical walls of Fire Island, queer characters of color love fiercely, weep openly, beef with best friends, move through pre-judgements, and fall in love. The full breadth of our humanity is on display, all the bad and the good, and it matters to see that reflected back to us, and it matters that non-queer Asian people can see it, too, that are stories must be told.

Because apparently some people need to be reminded. Writer and head of New York Magazine’s podcasts Hanna Rosin tweeted what she probably thought was a clever hot take, that the movie “gets an F- on the Bechdel test in a whole new way. Do we just ignore the drab lesbian stereotypes bc cute gay Asian boys? Is this revenge for all those years of the gay boy best friend?” Immediately the people of the bird app asked for vengeance, and Rosin offered a mea culpa (and soon after Alison Bechdel herself weighed in), but the nasty sentiment had already been revealed: that Cho was seen as drab (… do you remember when I said she was the fabulous queen of my heart?!), and that Asian men in their thirties were “cute Asian boys.” Never mind the fact, as I have previously discussed, we never show up in movies like this, and in this way. Baseless, off-the-mark critique like this, from someone who likely considers themselves an ally, is exactly the reason why we need Fire Island and the dozens of movies that I hope follow in its wake.

This isn’t where I want to end. The start of the end of Fire Island is with that Charlie-Howie kiss, music queue, camera up and up into the sky, but that’s not where it ends. On Fresh Air, Booster followed what he said about the island neighborhood’s reputation by saying that in reality, Fire Island is a place for everyone, and it’s about who you go with, and who you surround yourself with. Just like life. The film’s final moments give way to Noah and Will slow dancing and making out on a pier as the sunset burns gloriously orange and pink behind them, but the last moments before the credits roll are of the movie’s main characters dancing and flailing to Donna Summer’s “Last Dance.” For all of the romance, dashed hopes, and fervent dreams, the heart of this story is about the family you choose.

Every time I watch the film, I see that Fire Island marina, then “directed by ANDREW AHN,” and I am so moved by what I’ve just seen. I feel like I’m waking from a hazy fever dream, one in which people like me but not exactly like me got to exist and love joyously, with their friends and newfound loves behind them every step of the way. Maya Ishii-Peters would be thoroughly proud.

Fire Island is streaming on Hulu.

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Emily Hashimoto
ANMLY

Writing about queerness, dreaming about pizza. Wrote A WORLD BETWEEN. @emilyhash on Twitter and Instagram. emilyhash.com