WARNING: The following contains spoilers for The Yin-Yang Master: Dream of Eternity, now streaming on Netflix.
2020's The Yin-Yang Master: Dream of Eternity, a recent arrival to Netflix, should make the watch lists of anime, fantasy and wuxia fans alike for its high-fantasy action and gorgeously-detailed aesthetic. But there's also, unexpectedly, reason for yaoi/Boys Love enthusiasts to be interested in it too, owing to an unmistakably homoerotic undercurrent between its two male leads. Interested... but not fully satisfied as, unfortunately, an undercurrent is just about all there is, leaving a question hanging over the end of an otherwise enjoyable romp: Is The Yin-Yang Master yet another example of queerbait?
Queerbaiting is a marketing device used to attract audiences interested in seeing LGBTQ relationships to a piece of media, or entice them into staying tuned to one. A same-sex relationship is teased but never actually happens, hence the 'bait' part. Directed by Guo Jingming, The Yin-Yang Master: Dream of Eternity doesn't quite advertise itself as such (though the poster below leaves room for interpretation) but as the film plays out, the queerness becomes harder and harder to miss. However, true to the definition, nothing ever comes to fruition.
Without wanting to give away too much, the movie's plot revolves around the release of a giant, demonic serpent that is fuelled by humanity's dark desires from a prison created by four masters. This prison is the body of the Imperial City's Empress, and with the serpent's escape from her imminent, four masters once more gather in the City to combat the threat: Hongruo, Longye, Bo Ya and Qing Ming.
Master Qing Ming, the demon-sympathizing Yin-Yang Master, clashes immediately with the straight-laced Master Bo Ya, beginning a typical chalk and cheese working relationship. This is visually signified by their yin-yang clothing: one in white and the other in black, which only plays up the feeling of belonging to one another in the end. In an atmosphere of increasing paranoia and distrust, the pair inevitably come to realize their common goal is enough to make their differences pale into insignificance. The higher the stakes become, the more intense their dynamic becomes. By the film's CG-tastic climax, the two are more than ready to lay their lives on the line for one another, and while this same play is one that two friends could believably make, there are a lot of things that push Qing Ming and Bo Ya's bond over the line of platonic to unrequitedly romantic.
First of all, there's Qing Ming's view of demons, who are outcasted, hunted and used by people like him as weapons through a pact system. This stems both from his own scandalous origin and a more balanced view of the world, in-line with his title's philosophy. In fact, it becomes clear that Qing Ming is not only unopposed to treating demons more humanely but is also open to having any kind of relationship with them.
One night, Bo Ya passes by Ming Qing's chambers to find him entertaining a large group of female demons and the next, a large group of male ones. While there's no explicit evidence that they're doing much more than sharing a late-night drink together, the insinuation -- along with Bo Ya's reaction -- is that some late-night shenanigans are more than likely on the cards. This could be easily interpreted as evidence that Qing Ming swings any way he likes. Beyond this, finding commonality in those cast aside and victimized by society is quite strong coding, also.
The film's final battle is where things really heat up, however. The emotional underpinning of the fight is a heterosexual romance that defies time, body and perhaps even death. Key revelations about this romance are aided by Qing Ming remembering his own Master's advice on how he should access his full power -- by focussing on what he truly cares about. That person was once Qing Ming's mother. Now, it's Bo Ya, and with his fellow Masters' life hanging in the balance, this realization gives Qing Ming the strength to push through a life-0r-death situation of his own, fully willing to self-sacrifice so Bo Ya can live.
Again, this is something two very close friends might be willing to do for one another but bear in mind, Qing Ming and Bo Ya are still relative strangers to each other -- colleagues, at best. Outside of scenery-chewing, only something as potent as love at first sight can adequately explain their emotional attachment. The 'true love conquers all' message present in the canon het pairing also makes it seem as though the narrative is openly encouraging the audience to view its not-quite-canonical slash pairing in the same way. (The fact that a certain portion of this celestial battle involves shirtless men and angel wings is just the cherry on top of the gay cake.)
In the end, Qing Ming sets sail on a boat, vowing the two will cross paths again. As he drifts away, Bo Ya plays a wistful melody to remind Ming Ying of their first encounter, before shooting a glowing, magical arrow to light his path home. As the credits roll, the two men have all but fallen short of openly declaring their love for one another, leaving the bait accusation to hang, unpleasantly, over The Yin-Yang Master as the words left unsaid between them make the nature of their relationship difficult to define.
More and more of the mainstream media we consume on a day-to-day basis is striving towards greater representation of marginalized groups. But the bar is considerably higher than it once was: audiences have been waiting too long for even the bare minimum -- leading to justifiably increased scrutiny. Queerbaiting, when misapplied, is used by fans to vent frustration about unsung, unsupported headcanon. But cases like The Yin-Yang Master, which all too clearly toy with this kind of representation with no intention of providing a payoff, fit the label frustratingly well.
Though it's hard to know for sure without readily-available sources whether or not the film's literary source, Onmyōji, contains LGBTQ characters or themes (fans of the film have claimed it doesn't), the book's manga adaptations are listed as shojo (girl's) and seinen (older boys and men), not Boys Love or damei, as the genre is known in China. This adds more fuel to the bait fire: the queer subtext appears to have been deliberately added in by the filmmakers. But why?
One might look to its country of origin's stance on the subject for greater context. Though the Chinese government remains opposed to legalizing gay marriage, this hasn't dampened the demand for LGBTQ content from creators and consumers, according to Variety. Censorship of these themes nevertheless continues in major film releases, whether Chinese or Hollywood-made, and are effectively banned entirely in television and online streaming.
This comes at a time when danmei is helping to propel Chinese animation to a global stage to compete with Japanese anime, while Boys Love is growing more and more popular among its targeted female demographic no matter where it comes from. Though we can only speculate at this point, it's conceivable that The Yin-Yang Master wants to cater to this audience while not falling foul of the Chinese government's continued squeamishness around LGBTQ issues, hence why this element is largely absent in its advertising, perhaps. Had this impediment not been a concern, perhaps the film could have remained a beautiful and fun fantasy tale that just so happens to be anchored by an explicit same-sex romance.
As it stands, it looks like an awful lot like queerbait. All that's unclear is what kind: an attempt at inclusivity that's visible yet subtle enough to escape removal or, more cynically, cashing-in on an increasingly popular market while crying "no homo" at Chinese censors? And, let's be honest, a lot of Western media engages in the practice without such restrictions in place. Until we know the authorial intent for certain, however, individual audience members will have to decide it for themselves.