Country: Hong Kong
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%
2001 Cannes Film Festival
2001 Golden Horse Film Festival
2001 Sundance Film Festival
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
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.