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18 Dec 2001

lan yu

Bret Hinsch reviews Lan Yu, the award winning Chinese movie about the tortured romance between a student prostitute and an older businessman.

The film Lan Yu is one of the few Chinese films ever to tackle a gay theme. Moreover, it graphically depicts homosexuality as basically positive and romantic. The affirming spin on gay love, together with sympathetic references to the protestors massacred in Tiananmen Square, will send Li Peng running for his torture implements.

The plot is nothing new: boy meets boy, boy loses boy, boy gets boy back. You've seen a thousand straight movies with the same plotline. But when this classic narrative is reinterpreted in gay terms, the results can be delightful and original (think of the romantic confection Trick.) And when the same plot is transferred to the grubby world of get-rich-quick Beijing, it becomes a revolutionary statement of Chinese gay pride. Gay audiences in Taipei have flocked to the film, attracted by its romantic theme.

Lan Yu (played by Liu Ye) is a poor country bumpkin studying architecture in Beijing. While hustling to help pay his university tuition he meets Handong (played by Hu Jin), a rich and handsome middle-aged businessman. At first their sexual relationship is purely commercial, which is how the cynical Handong likes it. Handong even marries and tries to erase his gay past.

Lan Yu's sincerity eventually melts Handong's heart. He makes an enormous sacrifice that proves his love. Afterwards they build a happy life together, accepted as an openly gay couple by Handong's amazingly open-minded family. Unexpected tragedy eventually destroys their bliss.

Liu and Hu do a fine job playing their roles with great subtlety - there are none of the usual grotesque gay stereotypes. And director Stanley Kwan has given the film a realistic grimy look that rescues the film from its nave subject matter.

Politically correct homophiles will object to the ending which (I'll try not to give too much away) involves sudden and unexpected death. This takes us back to the stone age of gay cinema. For example, The Children's Hour (1962) portrays a lesbian character with sympathy. But in retribution for receiving our empathy, the character commits suicide in the end.

Bleak endings used to be standard for gay films. The Hollywood Production Code allowed movies to portray "sin", but only if the sinner was suitably punished in the final reel. This resulted in a bloodbath of gay characters. Even some fairly recent films (Three Weddings and a Funeral) continue this depressing custom. Lan Yu conforms to the homophobic Hollywood tradition.
The relationship between Lan Yu and Handong's family is far more original. Chinese gay cinema seems destined to give the world its most interesting explorations of the relationships between homosexuals, their lovers, and their families. Ang Lee's The Wedding Banquet pioneered this fertile new ground.

In a touching scene that is surely the ultimate Chinese gay fantasy, Lan Yu and Handong have dinner together with Handong's family, who are clearly accepting and even affectionate toward their son's lover. Most Chinese families can't even talk about homosexuality, much less accept it, which makes the integration of a gay lover into an accommodating family potent fantasy material for the Asian gay psyche.

The movie Lan Yu is based on the anonymous gay novel Beijing Story that mysteriously appeared on the Internet in 1996. Although Chinese police no longer arrest people simply for being gay, homosexual literature is still illegal. Like dissidents in the former Soviet Union, gay Chinese circulated this novel as underground samizdat literature. Filming this dissident story represents a kind of coming out of the closet for gay Chinese culture. Too bad the film will inevitably be banned in China.

Bret Hinsch is an Amercian acdemic who has been living in Taiwan for 10 years. He is also the author of 'Passions of the Cut Sleeve: The Male Homosexual Tradition in China.'




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