LAN YU

Directed by Stanley Kwan

Written by Jimmy Ngai, based on the novel BEIJING STORY, written anonymously by "Beijing Comrade"

With Hu Jun, Liu Ye, Sun Su and  Li Huatong

Distributed by Strand Releasing

***1/2

(Note: if I've screwed up any of the Chinese names, please let me know.)

LAN YU is  pretty subdued, but under the surface, it's a  ball of contradictions: a stately  melodrama,  carefully framed and photographed but apparently  shot in natural light. Stanley Kwan has often been attracted to melodrama, while embracing it without irony. At the same time, his sensibility is too  distanced to make a real tearjerker: I can't imagine him making a crowd-pleaser like Pedro Almodovar's ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER. (Perhaps his 1987 breakthrough ROUGE comes closest.) He's fallen off the map even on the festival circuit, so far that that the  gay love story in LAN YU is undoubtedly the main reason queer cinema  specialists Strand  have acquired it.  Even so, they made a fine choice: Kwan has made a real comeback.

The thirtysomething Chen Hangdong (Hu),  is an extremely rich man, the owner of an expanding trade company. However, he keeps his homosexuality a  secret. He meets Lan Yu (Liu), a younger man who's come to Beijing to study architecture.  Someone suggests that he work as a hustler to support himself. Instead, he meets Chen, who takes him in and spends a great deal of money on him. However, Chen keeps insisting that their relationship won't go on forever:  the specter of constant change and loss  haunts the film. Chen  really does care about Lan, buying him a house and warning him away from Tiananmen Square. Lan wants a life partnership, but Chen is far more materialistic (he can afford to be, both figuratively and literally). Eventually, Chen caves into the demands of a heterosexual facade and marries a translator.

Wong Kar-wai has been adopted  in North America and Europe  as  the arthouse director  from Hong Kong.  Films from a greater range of action directors have reached cult - and even mainstream - audiences , but it's very difficult to see Kwan or Fruit Chan's films here.  As far as I know,  the superb DURIAN, DURIAN is the only Chan  film to play New York.  The DVD of ACTRESS, which Jonathan Rosenbaum has called one of the 10 greatest films of the 90s, is available all over Chinatown, but the full, unedited version has never been released on video.

It's tempting to read foreign films through the lens of insta-sociological/political analysis. American culture is filled with reflections and allegories of our own history and present, but it's often difficult for us to see them  unless they're as blunt as the satire on consumerism in JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS or the post-AIDS celebration of monogamy in EYES WIDE SHUT. After years of political repression, there's a real charge to recent Asian films' excavation of the past and willingness to view the present as history. At worst, the films themselves offer examples of such facile analysis.

Nevertheless, here goes my interpretation. LAN YU, shot in mainland China without government sanction, reflects obliquely on Tianamen Square and - more directly - the rise of capitalism in China. While it's about the on-and-off relationship between two men, it takes their sexuality for granted, even as it acknowledges the pressures of the closet. Its real agenda is more complex than a simple denunciation of homophobia or celebration of gay self-esteem: welding together a love story and (you guessed it) a depiction of the ups  ups and downs of Chinese life over the 90s. Through the power of money, Chen and Lan Yu eventually wind up changing places. Since LAN YU is based on BEIJING STORY, a 3-part, 10-chapter novel published on the Internet by the anonymous "Beijing Comrade," its twists and turns may stem from the novelist's need to preserve suspense over several installments. That said, I haven't read BEIJING STORY, which has never been translated into English, and could be wrong about the source of these plot twists.

The plot of LAN YU is elliptical: a marriage begins, lasts and ends  in about 90 seconds, a corpse is shown  before the cause of its death is revealed. On one level, these are familiar tropes of current Asian art cinema. On another, they're indications of the speed of Beijing capitalism. (Amidst them, he takes the time to concentrate on the details of a love story. ) Zipping by in 86 minutes,  it covers about 10 years. Kwan  acknowledges this acceleration with  a finale that reaches into the structuralist avant-garde to depict it. This dizzying scene, shot from a moving car, also serves as a grace note: a way to end the film pessimistically but not tragically. Kwan's characters live fast and die quickly, but he  depicts this speed with a somber grace that  never fully embraces their attitudes.  Time passes, progress may turn out not to be so progressive, power fleeting, and the present perpetually under construction.