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
(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.