The Mighty Peking Man/Goliathon/Colossus of Congo (1977) 猩猩王

Country: Hong Kong
Language: Mandarin
Director: Ho Meng-hua
Running Time: 86 minutes
Starring: Li Hsiu-hsien, Evelyn Kraft, Hsiao Yao, Ku Feng, Lin Wei-tu

Theme: Monsters (B-Grade)

Ratings: IMDb.com: 5.1/10 | Rotten Tomatoes: 55%

Film Festivals:
2009 Perspectives Film Festival (Singapore)
1999 Sundance Film Festival
1999 Toronto International Film Festival

Awards: N/A

Nominations: N/A

The Mighty Peking Man (1977) is directed by Shanghai-native Ho Meng-Hwa (1929-2009), who arrived in Hong Kong in 1948 and began a career as a screenwriter. He soon ventured into directing with his debut film Wild Girl (1957) for Cathay. Impressed, Shaw Brothers hired him as a director, and it is worth watching the film to gain a glimpse of how movies produced by the two rival studios in their heyday were like, before their unfortunate respective downfall. Ho has worked in a wide spectrum of genres ranging from martial arts to science fiction and erotica. But The Mighty Peking Man takes the cake for blending all three elements at the same time in a film that was filmed to milk the cash cow that was the 1976 American remake of King Kong that breathed life into the ailing monster genre. The film is cheesy and not as horrifying as it is hilarious, but the list of names that has endorsed the film certainly lends it credence. In spite of the fact it is blatantly obvious here that there is a guy masquerading in the monster suit.

This film does not even attempt to buck the trend of the archetypal B-grade films.  The footage is grainy, the colors of the set are too vivid to be real, and the studio sets look extremely fake. The dialogue is cheesy, as the monster gets melancholically involved in a triangulation among a blonde jungle babe, an adventurer and itself. When left to his own devices to deal with the homo erectus invasion, and to deal with the betrayal of the woman it had adopted and raised into a buxom curvaceous young lady who fell in love with the outsider, the eponymous monster reacts terribly in a chain of events that could only be described as tragic.

I found it worthy to include at least one campy B-grade film within the Fifty Films list, given the massive cultural significance and popularity that the subgenre possesses. This major cult following is not only restricted to Hong Kong alone, but even worldwide. The acclaimed director Quentin Tarantino, who certainly has an eye for quirky films given how he has named Filipino film director Bobby A. Suarez’s They Call Her… Cleopatra Wong (1978) one of his major influences, re-released the film in North America in 1999 so as to bring the classic to contemporary audiences, especially for its eccentric genius. In his Sun Times review, Roger Ebert (1999) also wrote, “I am awarding the film three stars [out of four], for general goofiness and a certain level of insane genius.”

 

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Centre Stage/The Actress/Yuen Ling-yuk (1992) 阮玲玉


Country: Hong Kong
Language: Mandarin, Cantonese, Shanghainese
Runtime: 167 minutes
Director: Stanley Kwan
Starring: Maggie Cheung, Carina Lau, Tony Leung Ka-Fai, Chin Han

Theme: Death

Ratings: IMDb: 7.7/10

Film Festivals:
1992 Berlin International Film Festival

Awards:
1992 Berlin International Film Festival: Silver Berlin Bear for Best Actress (Maggie Cheung)
1993 Hong Kong Film Awards: Best Actress (Maggie Cheung) / Best Art Direction / Best Cinematography / Best Original Film Score / Best Original Film Song

Nominations:
1992 Berlin International Film Festival: Golden Berlin Bear (Stanley Kwan)
1993 Hong Kong Film Awards: Best Director (Stanley Kwan), Best Costume & Make-up Design, Best Picture, Best Screenplay

Centerstage (1994) is a biopic of the efferverscent Ruan Lingyu (1910-1935), China’s first prima donna of the silver screen. Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan pays tribute to the legendary actress, nicknamed the “Chinese Garbo” in her fleeting nine-year career, chronicling her rise to prominence up till the moment of suicide. This film is also credited to be Maggie Cheung’s breakthrough role, and the numerous Best Actress accolades she picked up, including the Silver Bear at the prestigious Berlin International Film Festival, is testament of that. Today, Maggie Cheung has become one of Asian cinema’s most recognizable faces, her oriental porcelain face an expression of stoic calmness in an exquisite tranquility that the seminal Ruan Lingyu once possessed. How befitting that the versatile Cheung was chosen for the role, given their similar aura of being method actresses who embrace the art form by possessing the characters they portray.

The biopic adopts a unique editing structure in how it intersperses original scenes from Ruan Lingyu’s movies (or rather, the few that remain in circulation today given how many of them were lost during the tumultuous years of World War II and the Chinese Cultural Revolution that followed her death, including The Goddess (1934) and New Women (1934)) with present day re-enactments. Maggie Cheung breathes life into Ruan Lingyu’s character in her scenes, along with character interviews where the personnel involved in the show—including Stanley Kwan himself—give their personal opinion about the tragic life of Ruan Lingyu, conveying their respect for her as well as providing insights into what might have been different should Ruan Lingyu be alive in the present era. In fact, such a cross-era comparison is significant in bringing out the tragedy of it all, that the impudence and double standards of the past could have led to the loss of such a brilliant actress whose name will remain in the Chinese cinema folklore forever. Thus, such a non-linear story allows the viewer to see Ruan Lingyu’s flaws, as well as the vulnerabilities and strengths of the dedicated actress.

What rescued Ruan Lingyu from poverty eventually proved to be the downfall of the silent film star who has portrayed a plethora of roles ranging from a war revolutionary, an independent woman and a peasant girl. Some key scenes is how Ruan Lingyu apparently refused to rest on her laurels. She was diligent in her picking up of Mandarin despite being well-versed only in Cantonese, so as to break into the mainstream China and Hong Kong market. She refused to be pigeon-holed as the frail victimized lovelorn character, but rather took the initiative to approach her director, volunteering herself for the role of a headstrong war revolutionary – and excelling at it along the way in what would eventually become a breakthrough role. She was helpful in offering guidance to fellow actresses like the loud Lily Li, when she was unable to grasp the proper emotions required in a scene.

It is beyond me to ascertain whether the scenes in the film are entirely faithful to the goings-on that happened in the past, but some scenes are emotionally affecting. The patriarchal double standard of the Chinese media in the past that unjustifiably vilified the adulterous woman, with Ruan having been involved in not one, but two, extra-marital affairs, but letting the male get away scot-free comes into question, and it is indeed a pity when cultural ethics betray the journalistic demands of the era. Ruan was perhaps an icon of the liberation of Chinese feminism, in charge of her career, in charge of the tragic heroine roles she play, and ultimately in control of her relationships. Not to imply that she was a control freak, but it must have been hard when reality snatches away threefold the things she hold dearest to her. It might have been troubling times for the Chinese movie industry given the imminent onset of the war – uncertain times that might have piled pressure on her career. The psyche of the tragic heroine roles she portray must have dealt a blow to her personal psyche, especially with the scandal enveloping her career. Further, it takes a lot for someone to even engage in extra-marital affairs despite knowing that social and cultural norms dictate that it is taboo and even immoral. She must have loved very deeply. Yet her old flame tries to extort money from her popularity, while her then-boyfriend was hardly supportive at all. With the control of her relationships gradually landing into the hands of the paparazzi that report and sensationalizes her every move, she was devastated and pushed to suicide. Yet her funeral rites as portrayed in the movie, full of glitz and glamour as all the directors crowded around her deathbed offering her last words, and the eventual procession, reportedly three miles long, is indeed befitting of the star that has lost her shine.

The following is a summary of the filmography of works that is captured by the film:

[1930] Reminiscences of Peking 故都春夢. Director: Sun Yu / Film no longer available (06:19, Part 1). A unique misè-en-scène occurs at 06:58 where Ruan’s face is backfacing the camera and turned towards the mirror, but her expression is evident through the three-fold mirror at her dressing table, while the overly white make-up is characteristic of the opera influences that Chinese cinema was once based on in its early days. Of course – the original footage will certainly not have been in color, with color film technologies not having been invented yet at that moment.

[1930] Wayside Flower 野草開花. Director: Sun Yu / Film no longer available (02:29, Part 2). We see the frail Ruan, in character, walking in the snow when she falls down and removes her coat. The camera slowly tracks to a close-up by 03:13 as she caresses her arms as if holding onto her baby. She lies down again and bites her finger to feed baby blood.

[1931] Weeping Peach Blossoms 桃花泣血記. Director: Pu Wan-Chang / Film available. (07:36, Part 3).

[1932] Three Modern Women 三個摩登女人. Director: Pu Wan-Chang / Film no longer available (02:30, Part 6), and it is apparent that this scene was shot in a studio by its backdrop (03:20).

[1933] Night in the City 小玩意. Director: Fei Mu / Film no longer available (03:01, Part 7). An insight is given into the rain-making process of movies here, particularly at 01:03, and it is in this scene that we see Ruan Ling-yu establish herself as a method actress with a strong emphasis on feeling. Despite her director feeling that the take was workable, she insisted on doing the scene once again because she did not feel right.

[1934] Sea of Fragrant Snow 香雪海. Director: Fei Mu / Film no longer available (05:28, Part 9)

[1934] The Goddess 神女. Director: Wu Yong Gang / Film available (00:00, Part 10). We see here an original scene from the movie, the cinematic classic where she walked down the path in a psychopathic swagger.

[1935] New Woman 新女人. Director: Tsai Chu-Sheng / Film available (04:40, Part 10). Ruan Lingyu’s agony is felt through a scene where she emphasized her will to live (“I want to live!”) repeatedly through dialogue, in stark contrast to the tempestuous period of her life at that moment.

The efforts by cinephiles of today in restoring and rescuing films of ages past and that were thoroughly enjoyed by audiences generations ago suggest the timeless nature of a good film. It is indeed humbling watching re-enactments of such key scenes of Ruan Lingyu’s movies that were shot some eight decades ago, and it suggests that a brilliant movie of today will certainly be preserved as a cinematic classic in the decades down the road. But what also ensues is a feeling of bittersweet pity, for the film prints that are no longer available, a sign of a legacy that has been lost forever and never to be recovered again. Hopefully, though, that copies of the scripts have been recovered (such that the re-enactments were possible) and film studios would count it feasible to invest in remakes in the near future.


Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (1972) 愛奴


Country: Hong Kong
Language: Mandarin
Director: Chor Yuen
Running Time: 86 minutes
Starring: Lily Ho, Hua Yueh, Betty Pei Ti, Lin Tung, Chung Shan Man, Mei Sheng Fan

Theme: Women (Suppression & Empowerment)

Ratings: IMDB.com: 7.4/10

Film Festivals:

Awards: N/A

Nominations: N/A

 

As a landmark in Hong Kong cinema, the story of Chor Yuen’s Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan revolves around homosexual prostitutes set within an old world setting.  As a young girl, Ai Nu was kidnapped and sold to a brothel run Chun Yi, a beautiful kung-fu wielding lesbian. Fascinated by the plucky Ai Nu, Chun Yi tries to seduce her on multiple attempts. They eventually become lovers, with the latter imparting her kung fu skills to her protégé. However, this was all part of Ai Nu’s ploy to exact revenge against four wealthy and influential men who raped her previously, and ultimately Chun Yi and the entire establishment.

Despite its suggestive name and theme, Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan turns out to be an artistic blend of kung fu with carefully woven elements of mystery, sensuality, grotesque horror and romantic melodrama. While erotic in certain scenes, director Chor Yuen does them tastefully through the use of elegant music and multi-layered colors. Before directing Intimate Confessions, Chor Yuen specialized in melodramas and social realist romances. He had his roots entrenched in the Cantonese language cinema of Hong Kong and these were small scale films that focused on character building and relationships rather than action. Color and lighting were important tools that such movies used to convey or create mood and Chor Yuen brought these ideas and techniques along with him when he directed Intimate Confessions. Furthermore, as opposed to other film makers who tend to make use of grassy hills or mountains to film their fight sequences, Chor Yuen’s films are staged in detailed and lavishly constructed sets, making his scenes highly artistic and visually impressive, overall playing down on any crude connotations or distaste in the nudity or eroticism in several scenes (Keith, 2004). An example of this is the rape scene of Ai Nu – instead of painting the scene with a series of graphically stimulating shots, Chor Yuen puts the scene across rather tastefully by juxtaposing the expressions on Ai Nu’s face with the colors of the silk curtains in the room. The transposition of colors and shots conveyed her thoughts of fear, helplessness and anger.

In terms of the movie’s kung fu choreography, moderation is a good word to describe Chor Yuen’s approach towards the film. Unlike typical kung fu films that tend to overplay or exaggerate their fight sequences, Chor Yuen keeps his scenes realistic by limiting the use of wirework and trampoline stunts. The use of ground level camera work also keeps the melee scenes very real and to the audience perspective.

All in all, Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan was a successful visual blend of action, gore and sexuality, all packaged within the controversial topic of lesbianism. This success factor was further redefined when the film was remade in 1984 – Lust for Love of a Chinese Courtesan.

References

Keith. (2004, November 18). Clans of intrigue. Retrieved November 14, 2010 from http://teleport-city.com/wordpress/?p=715

 

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) 臥虎藏龍

Country: Taiwan, Hong Kong, China, USA
Language: Mandarin
Director: Ang Lee
Running Time: 120 minutes
Starring: Chow Yun-fatt, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, Chang Chen

Theme: Culture (wuxia pian)

Ratings: IMDb.com: 8.0/10 | Rotten Tomatoes: 97% | Metacritic.com: 93/100

Film Festivals:
2000 Bergen International Film Festival
2000 Ghent International Film Festival
2000 Toronto International Film Festival

(Selected) Awards:
2001 Academy Awards: Oscar for Best Art Direction/Best Cinematography/Best Foreign Language Film/Best Music, Original Score
2001 Australian Film Institute: Best Foreign Film Award
2001 BAFTA Awards: Best Costume Design, Best Film Not in the English Language
2001 Directors Guild of America Award: Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures
2001 Golden Globe Awards: Best Director – Motion Picture, Best Foreign Language Film
2000 Golden Horse Film Festival: Best Film
2001 Hong Kong Film Awards: Best Director, Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Cheng Pei-Pei)
2000 Toronto International Film Festival: Best Director (Ang Lee0

(Selected) Nominations:
2001 Academy Awards: Oscar for Best Costume Design/Best Director/Best Editing/Best Music, Original Song/Best Picture
2001 Art Directors Guild: Excellence in Production Design Award for a Feature Film
2001 BAFTA Awards: Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Film, Best Actress (Michelle Yeoh), Best Supporting Actress (Zhang Ziyi)
2000 Golden Horse Film Festival: Best Actress (Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi), Best Director, Best Film
2001 Hong Kong Film Awards: Best Actor (Chow Yun-Fatt), Best Actress (Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi)

Released at the start of the millennium, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a Chinese language martial arts (wuxia) film directed by Ang Lee. It features an international cast of ethnic Chinese actors such as Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi. The movie was based on the fourth installment in a series of novels – the Crane Iron Pentalogy – by early 20th century novelist Wang Du Lun. A multinational production with investments from Taiwan, Hong Kong, China and USA, the film is credited to these four countries although the Oscar for the Best Foreign Language Picture was accredited to Taiwan in the end. But this could prove to be an interesting case study of how countries want to gain co-ownership of a movie that does well in the international circuit, but this urge is of less important amongst co-productions that do not become as prominent on a global scale. [Point in note: I’ve always thought of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as a Taiwanese film, and it is only through my research for these film notes that I realize the involvement of other countries]

Set amid the Qing dynasty, the story revolves around martial arts master Li Mu Bai, who embarks on a quest for revenge in his attempt to recover Green destiny, a seemingly invincible weapon. Along the way, he meets with resistance from a host of people, including his arch-nemesis Jade Fox and Jen.

Despite its largely ridiculous storyline, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon did a magnificent job in terms of its martial arts portrayal. It was, as Park (2001) so aptly put it, “a rare example of fearless yet thoughtful experimentation by veteran filmmakers”, especially when we consider that this was director Ang Lee’s first experience with martial arts films. The camerawork is artful but not showy. Every shot is designed to sustain the illusion of reality.

One of the film’s features that really stood out was its heavy use of wirework. A controversial issue amongst martial arts movie fans, wirework is traditionally seen as cheesy and over-exaggerated. It dramatizes the characters’ actions and movements unnecessarily and makes everything seem really incredulous. However, in the case of Crouching Tiger, its extensive use of wirework actually came across rather positively and it blended well together with the dance-like choreography of the characters’ movements without going overboard. As Zacharek (2000) aptly says, “the camera work is artful but not showy, every shot is designed to sustain the illusion of reality”. Testament to this was the memorable sword fight sequence between Li and Jen where they were ‘flying’ high up in the lush greenery of tall bamboo trees. Most of this is largely due to the work of Yuen Wo-Ping, a highly revered choreographer who worked on big films such as Jet Li’s Fist of Legend (1994) and The Matrix (1999).

Another feature that struck me was the film’s stunning cinematography – with its breath-taking use of locations such as Beijing’s Forbidden City, the Gobi Desert and stunning shots of snow-capped mountains, all of which play a big part in conveying the epic scope that the story demands. Together with the enthralling soundtrack, viewers are treated to an imaginary China that is both lush and ethereal.

Personally, I felt that the movie was visually and aesthetically brilliant, but it could have been better had it adopted a more consistent tone throughout. I’m not sure if it was part of director Ang Lee’s strategy to create a film that straddled between being an art house film and a kung fu theatrical, but what we got (at times) is a film that swings unevenly between emotional melodrama and physical brawls. This could have been due to director Ang Lee’s background prior to Crouching Tiger, where his films were all built on highly personal levels that dealt with the detailed complexities of relationships and the conflicts that arise from them.

That aside, the entertaining mix of action, romance and the exotic settings gave the movie a very wide appeal and created a highly pleasant viewing experience that will entertain almost all audience.

References

Park, S. (2001, January 20). Review: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Retrieved on November 5, 2010, from http://www.culturekiosque.com/nouveau/cinema/rhetiger.html

Zacherek, S. (2000, December 8). Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Retrieved on November 5, 2010, from http://www.salon.com/entertainment/movies/review/2000/12/08/crouching_tiger/

 

The Way We Are (2008) / 天水圍的日與夜

Country: Hong Kong
Language: Cantonese
Theme: Family/Aging
Runtime: 90 minutes
Director: Ann Hui
Starring: Paw Hee-Ching, Leung Chun-lung, Idy Chan, Chan Lai-wun, Vincent Chui, Clifton Ko

Ratings: IMDB: 7.1/10

Film Festivals:
NIL

Awards:
2009 Hong Kong Film Awards: Best Director, Best Actress, Best Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress
2009 Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards: Best Film, Best Director, Best Actress

The Way We Are (2008) is a docu-drama that is unglamorous but is ultimately reality. It offers a respectful and charmingly tranquil portrait of everyday people set in Tin Tsui Wai, a Northwestern New Territories town that has a notoriously bad reputation, being plagued with widespread unemployment, domestic violence, suicide and triad activites ever since its emergence in the 1990s. In October 2007, a mother and her two children leapt from a high-rise housing apartment block, which sparked off negative attention in both the media and general public. The district was branded the “City of Sadness”, and has been a subject in many films such as Lawrence Lau’s Besieged City (2007). But the latter has also been chided for sensationalizing the city’s woes. As a result, Ann Hui made this film so as to bring out the more humane side of Tin Tsui Wai, focusing instead on the everyday residents who contribute to community. As Kozo (2008) writes, The Way We Are “gives voice to these less sensational residents of Tin Shui Wai, and manages to give their lives weight and depth, while not glorifying their working-class honesty … It is not didactic or moralizing. It’s just real, in all its sense, mundane everyday glory.”

This film revolves around the lives of Mrs Cheung, her son Ka-On and their elderly neighbor. A simple story about regular people, the director breathes credibility and affection into the lives of the characters by not overdoing things. Even the most mundane of everyday activities such as sitting at the table and having a meal is documented to great detail. There are no obvious attempts to overhype or dramatize the film unnecessarily through deliberately crafted music or scenes. Instead, we get the characters themselves reacting naturally, in what we ourselves will do when we are placed in situations like these, i.e. having a conversation at the dinner table, buying food at the market. The bulk of the film consists of eating and food scenes. But why? What does eating symbolize? The dining table might be a good place to convey certain messages, while most of the crucial conversations among family members also happen around a dining table as people catch up with one another’s lives.

In the film, there is no tragedy, no emotional outbursts, no violence nor dramatic confrontations. Furthermore, diagetic noise, for instance background noises of the market or restaurant, was incorporated in several scenes to enhance the realism of them. You feel like you are actually there, you sense yourself being brought into the lives of the characters. It is jarring. It is in your face. But it is real. Even the colours used are muted, realistic and desaturated. This reflects the mundane but realistic scene of everyday life.

The use of close-up shots add to the realism of the scenes, it almost feels as though we are in the house and at the table with the characters themselves, and this bridges the distance between viewers and the characters. But a lack of a distinct story arc and climactic plot means that “this is a movie in which, by the standards of traditional dramaturgy, nothing happens” (Thompson & Bordwell, 2008).

Thompson and Bordwell (2008) goes further to suggest that “Ann Hui has created perhaps Hong Kong’s closest equivalent to Ozu” in this film that pragmatically presents life in its most down-to-earth form. It engages our sympathies fully. To each his own, each of the directors has his/her own distinct aesthetic. While The Way We Are lacks Ozu’s practice of mirroring situations with an unrivalled attention in color design and auditory motifs, Ann Hui’s straightforward, long takes normalizes the goings-on on camera, as if it is really unfolding before one’es eyes in a “delicate search for human kindness in the commonplace” (Thompson & Bordwell, 2008) that goes back to basics.

References

Kozo (2008). The Way We Are – Love HK Film.com. Retrieved November 4, 2010, from http://www.lovehkfilm.com/reviews_2/way_we_are.html.

Thompson, K., and Bordwell, D. (2008, March 30). Observations on film art. Retrieved November 4, 2010, from http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/?p=2144

Lan Yu (2001) 蓝宇

Country: Hong Kong
Language: Mandarin
Director: Stanley Kwan
Runtime: 86 minutes
Starring: Hu Jun, Liu Ye, Su Jin, Li Huatong, Luo Fang, Zhang Yongning

Theme: LGBT Issues

Ratings: IMDB: 7.0/10 | Rotten Tomatoes: 65%

Film Festivals:
2001 Cannes Film Festival
2001 Golden Horse Film Festival
2001 Sundance Film Festival

Awards:
2001 Golden Horse Awards for Best Actor (Liu Ye) / Best Director / Best Editing
2001 Glitter Awards for Best International Gay Film
2002 Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards: Film of Merit
2002 Vesoul Asian Film Festival: Golden Wheel

Nominations:
2002 Hong Kong Film Awards for Best Actor (Liu Ye, Hu Jun) / Best Art Direction / Best Cinematography / Best Director / Best Picture / Best Screenplay / Best Supporting Actress

It was difficult to determine whether Lan Yu (2001) should be attributed as a Hong Kong or China production. While the movie is made by Stanley Kwan, a Hong Kong director, it was filmed in Beijing albeit without government permission. Such a distinction still remains pertinent in spite of the 1997 merger is proof of the stark difference in aesthetic and cinematic treatment of the films from Hong Kong and China. With very different cinematographic techniques and very different topics broached due to a distinction in acceptability levels of society, we see that Hong Kong films tend to be more aesthetically vivid and packaged, whilst dealing with more contemporary themes and not shying away from controversy scenes that are frequently passed uncut. Thus, primarily for the homosexual themes of Lan Yu, I opted to classify it as a Hong Kong film.

Critics have been quick to compare Lan Yu (2001) with another Hong Kong gay release, Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together (1997) starring heavyweights Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung. But there is a huge disparity in the genre, with the latter being more comedic and the former more brooding and morose. The film confines itself to the two men, Handong (Hu Jun) and the titular character Lan Yu (Liu Ye) almost exclusively, and the introduction of any other character is deemed to be an intrusion to the private sphere the two characters share more than anything else. Handong, being older and more traditional, insists that his relationship with Lan Yu is nothing more than a fling. He insists on the virtues of the traditional marriage, on the needs to follow social conventions of marriage and having a baby. But his love for Lan Yu inevitably runs deeper than shallow water. When he first wanted a clean break from Lan Yu, he found himself constantly pining for him, culminating in the 1989 Tiananmen Square march that Lan Yu was a part of. Handong worries for Lan Yu, especially given the massacre that occurred during the protest. The marriage eventually fell through as well. But in a bittersweet tragedy, it is Lan Yu who abruptly passed on at a time when Handong was finally accepting of his sexuality — the moral impetus being the fact that one should always cherish his/her loved ones. The energy stops, the silence disquieting, and the film meanders into a crevasse as Handong’s mindnumbing despair is captured on screen. Tears flow uninhibitedly, and the camera hovers over his loss. Such profound emotional complexity is easily the highlight of the film.

A lot of hype always follows the release of a gay film, and the more artistically-inclined and recognized it is, the heavier the burden as more awards and accolades are washed upon it. Furthermore, a lot of attention is placed with the release of this film given how Stanley Kwan is one of the few openly gay directors in Hong Kong, having come out of the closet with the seminal Yang±Yin: Gender in Chinese Cinema a few years earlier. How would the treatment of a homosexual story by an openly gay director be like? Will he over-indulge in sensitivities against homosexuality in mainstream society, thereby painting a sob story that plays back to stereotypes? Or will he over-indulge in personal pleasures, having the chance to embrace an issue that is close to heart via a medium that is personally favored?

Stanley Kwan does neither of these in Lan Yu, a brilliant understated film without any lurid cinematic techniques, opting instead for a “language of long melancholy stares, murmurous voiceovers, and unarticulated sorrows” (Chan, 2007). While the title takes on the name of the pivotal protagonist in the story, it is also phonetically similar to 藍雨, the Chinese term for “blue rain”, and this adds another sullen veil to the morose nature of the movie. Lan Yu plainly centers upon a fairly ordinary love story that probably would have worked as well should it be a vanilla heterosexual romance. The sex, raw and unfiltered without any sensationalization. The movie in fact normalizes the sex sequence – that sex is something part and parcel of any love relationship, gender regardless. A rich closeted businessman pays for the services of a younger, more open student in a one night stand, but what ensued was a whirlwind 9-year romance that ends tragically. Kwan does not flinch from portraying visceral sex scenes, as well as subtle innuendoes. Thus there are many scenes of the couple in tight embrace, lying naked in bed, French kissing, or engaging in coitus with full-frontal nudity as well. Adapted from the anonymous 1996 e-novel Beijing Story, one cannot help but wonder whether the story struck a resonance with Kwan given his sexuality. The visually stunning film embraces color with rich texture, while remaining subtle and playing with shadows in dark interiors. The timeline is confusing, however, as there is no demarcation of a time lapse, though mostly the story meanders on at a slow albeit measured pace that helps in the audience identifying with the psychological needs and emotions of the characters – both of whom are very much straight unlike the protagonists of Li Yu’s Fish and Elephant (2001) of the same year.

The pop song used is Huang Pinyuan’s 你怎麼捨得我難過 (Loosely translated as: How Could You Bear To Make Se Sad?). While I frown upon the use of pop ditties and familiar tunes within a movie soundtrack, this track surprisingly works. The movie being pared-down realism, makes the popularity of the song pertinent given how it is something a typical person would probably listen to.