Eternal Summer (2006) 盛夏光年

Country: Taiwan
Language: Mandarin
Runtime: 95 minutes
Director: Leste Chen
Starring: Joseph Chang, Bryant Chang, Kate Yeung
Theme: LGBT Issues

Ratings: IMDB: 7.3/10

Film Festivals: N/A

Awards: 2006 Golden Horse Award: Best New Performer (Bryant Chang)

Nominations: 2006 Golden Horse Award: Best New Performer (Joseph Chang) / Best Supporting Actor (Joseph Chang)

 

Eternal Summer (2006) by Leste Chen is a gay-themed movie revolving around the complicated relationship of three high school students. Carrie (Kate Yeung), who loves Jonathan (Bryant Chang), discovers that he has actually been secretly in love with his best friend, Shane (Joseph Chang), ever since elementary school. Meanwhile, Shane falls for Carrie in a bizarre love triangle. The plot thickens as the relationship between the three become more complex and convoluted.

Matthijs (2010) claims that the film primarily centers on Taiwanese visual aesthetics and elements and it is not difficult to see why, through the numerous day scenes that incorporate nature through “vivid hues to blues and greens”. There are several landscape shots, such as green meadows and fields that do a good job in creating the film’s atmosphere and mood. It dives deep into the viewers’ hearts and paints a touching, melancholic picture especially when augmented by the soundtrack that is mainly made up of subdued piano music.

The film is very visually driven. The homosexual theme for instance is conveyed through the use of typical connotations such as the ear piercing on the right ear. The homosexuality-metro-sexuality conundrum is also explored, through the contemporary blurring of the lines of metro-sexuals and homosexuals, especially with the “pretty boy” culture that has been on the rise with Taiwanese, Japanese and South Korean pop. (Meteor Garden (2001) anyone?) Despite being a very subtle indication (15:00), it sets a very early tone for the show. Further, innuendoes such as extreme close physical proximity, everyday acts such as the ruffling of each other’s hair, sharing a drink and lines like “I played badly when you were gone” provide a clear indication that there is more to the relationship than that meets the eye.

The director has a penchant for using mirrors as a form of aesthetic treatment, and I cannot help but suggest that this could perhaps have a special underlying meaning. Mirrors reflect reality, only in an inverted manner. This is further seen in the sex scene between Jonathan and Carrie (19:00) that was framed within a mirror, as well as the slanted mirror scene at 25:12. Further, subtle nuances like a train emerging out of a tunnel could be said to suggest the act of coming out of the closet into the open. Erstwhile, the scene has Carrie and Jonathan captured traveling backwards rather than forwards, seated against the direction of movement of the train. This could represent a shift in dynamics in the burgeoning love triangle. In a separate scene (27:53), the dim lighting in the room where Carrie and Jonathan are studying, the only source of light comes from Shane’s bedroom when he is sleeping. Could this probably symbolize the source of light in his life? This is in stark contrast to the subsequent scene when he was with Carrie, as both their faces were shrouded in the shadows of darkness, suggesting despair of some sort.

Prison imagery at 30:42 feature window grilles, staircase railings and gates that are used to frame the characters. Could this symbolize entrapment in the present status of their relationship, and how it is difficult for them to move on without hurting the feelings of anybody?

The colors in the movie are generally cold and dreary at the start of the show, when Jonathan is with Shane or Carrie. But there is a notable change of colors midway through the movie when Carrie opens herself up to Shane. Here, the warm reddish hue is used, thus presenting the scene in a more humane light (41:00), as compared to the gloom previously. This contrast in lighting is further evident in a later scene with Shane and Jonathan having a conversation in the former’s bedroom before the earthquake occurred (52:40). Shane, with his emotional crisis was cast in cold, harsh, bluish lighting in contrast to Jonathan’s warm lighting. The warm light later disappears with the earthquake, and the ensuing scene is shrouded with the cold, harsh bluish light. Of all the scenes, the scene where Jonathan and Shane finally make out was the warmest in terms of the color scheme and palette. This time round, Carrie was the one cast under the cold, dreary lighting (1:19:00).

Through an analysis of all the various elements and stylistic treatments such as colors for instance, it is a pretty good way to round up the film by saying that Eternal Summer could really have been more provocative. Aside from the short and restrained bed scene between Shane and Jonathan, there isn’t much to be found either. Perhaps it is the intense hype that always surrounds the release of a homosexual movie – and Director Leste Chen opts to rather buck this trend by focusing on the essentials of the relationship that matter rather than resorting to sensationalist tactics. We see Shane and Jonathan more as human beings who need each other’s love. Underscoring the whole film is a very engaging soundtrack with some beautiful pictures, à la the landscape shots of green meadows and fields that are akin to beautiful scenic photography off a postcard. The atmosphere strikes your heart, and you cannot help but feel touched by the drama that pierces through your soul, the mood created with the natural charisma and chemistry of the actors.

References

Matthijs, N. (2010, January 6). Eternal Summer review. Retrieved on December 1, 2010, from http://twitchfilm.com/reviews/2010/01/eternal-summer-review.php.

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Spring Fever (2009) 春風沉醉的晚上

Country: China
Language: Mandarin
Runtime: 116 minutes
Director: Lou Ye
Starring: Qin Hao, Chen Sicheng, Tan Zhuo, Wu Wei, Jiang Jiaqi
Theme: LGBT Issues

Ratings:
IMDb.com: 6.4/10 | Rotten Tomatoes: 50% | Metacritic: 64/100

Film Festivals:
2009 Cannes Film Festival

Awards:
2009 Cannes Film Festival: Best Screenplay

Nominations:
2009 Cannes Film Festival: Palme d’Or

I thought it worthy to catch this movie in the theatres during its limited run given its numerous accolades at Cannes 2009 serving as a backdrop to the film. There is French investment and support in this film that Lou Ye released in spite of a five-year ban imposed on filmmaking given his involvement in the seminal Summer Palace (2006) which portrayed the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacres in a pro-democratic light. And this is evident through the French subtitles included with the film. Further, it is noteworthy that the film was shot discreetly amidst the drab industrial landscape of Nanjing using a video recorder, and then transferred onto the 35mm format. This nondescript measure is characteristic of the Sixth Generation filmmaking wave that Lou Ye himself is a part of. Using the documentary style of cinema vérité, the film appears to be a biographical story of the lead characters. The style’s jarring nature taking on heightened relevance given the underground and taboo homosexual relationships the protagonists find themselves engaged in. Natural lighting is used throughout the film, which means most of the intense sex sequences for instance that take place are poorly-lit, save for the minimal moonshine that casts a bluish glow within the room. The audience becomes the voyeur—or the peeping tom even—glimpsing into their psyches and peeping at their intimate actions. Lending credence to this whole indie, underground edgy feel is the typography used at the start of the film that is a throwback to Chinese films of the 1960s era, and which fits perfectly with the extreme grain and noise of the shots.

The opening shot is of flower petals in a pond, and the literary allegories are evident. Referencing a 1923 work by Chinese author Yu Dafu, the voiceover regales “Drunken nights without hope, like this one: I spend them wandering outside until the sky grows pale.” The camera cuts away to a shot that focuses on the scenery outside a moving vehicle, the fast-moving trees and the shaky shots creating a jarring nauseating sense right from the start that persists throughout the film. We see the male leads holding hands in the car, peeing by the river as they exit the car, and sharing an intimate smooch in public. This is also perhaps the happiest moment of the brooding film, an instant of unbridled joy and ecstasy at being in the embrace of a loved one. The scene is “dissonant and jarring, the film’s sounds and images oscillate between lust and frustration, and as the past and present are hauntingly blurred, so too are the identities of the story’s characters.” (Gonzalez, 2010). Later, as the couple engages in sensual acts in public grounds like a bookstore, it all appears brief, fleeting and unfulfilling. Allegories to nature are evident, and the handheld camera focuses a lot on rain pattering on the roofs outside, the lotus roots, etc. The first instance of trouble beckons when we see a camera-toting photographer spying on the intimate actions and snapping some shots, and we soon learn that one of the characters are married and he is a private investigator hired by a jealous wife who suspects infidelity, but not expecting it to be with another man. There is confrontation, there is embarrassment, and there is shaming.

Fast forward to a series of nightclub scenes, and we see a more gritty misè-en-scène with loads of color and campy music. The lead Jiang Cheng (Qin Hao) is a crossdresser who sings in the nightclub, albeit a very bad tone deaf one because his singing was, really, unbearable. The private investigator, Luo Haitao (Chen Sicheng) trails Jiang to the nightclub and unwittingly discovers his bisexual tendencies and falls in love with the protagonist during his moment of fraililty at having undergone a nasty fight with his lover, Wang Ping (Wu Wei) over his wife. We see Luo Haitao engaging in scenes with Jiang Cheng that parallel the original relationship between Jiang and Wang – a shower scene being the most affective with the two characters in the bathroom sharing erotic moments of soaping each other and kissing. But Luo also has a girlfriend, and Jiang chooses to let her come in between the two of them this time round in light of what happened during the original relationship. They share moments of passion when the girlfriend is not around, but is caught in the act. The pop ditty by Pu Shu and covered by Fan Weiqi “那些花兒“ (loosely translated as Those Flowers) is the theme of this movie, with the lyrics bearing a direct reference to the story thread and the frequent flower lotus references made (“The flowers have been blown away by the wind and scattered in the horizon”)

Wang Ping soon commits suicide at the top of a picturesque and deserted hill, much to the loss of Jiang Cheng who ditched him, and to the agony of his wife Li Jing (Tan Zhuo) – how how foolish she must have been that her confrontations would have done good for the relationship. In what is an exceptionally gory scene in the climax, Li JIng attacks Jiang Cheng in public, and the subsequent scene provides an insight into the apparent apathy of the mainland Chinese public as Jiang Cheng lies on the road, bleeding, with nary a soul willing to stop and help, all opting to stare instead.

Au (2010) brings up a pertinent continuity issue in the disparity in tension between the first half of the story that was abandoned in the second half, as Luo Haitao was the single individual who disrupted Jiang Cheng’s first relationship, and the entire guilt or irony this must have encompassed was totally ignored when he himself got involved. Work remains work, one might say, but this argument is, really, tangible at best.

The film is undoubtedly arthouse, and a very disjointed one at that. The ban means that China has cut all ties with the production of this film, and it was registered as a Hong Kong/French co-production instead, despite the director being Chinese. Such a tactic to bypass the Chinese censors is certainly noteworthy and interesting, as this precedent may provide an avenue for future directors to address more controversial topics and be able to work outside the purview of the Chinese censorship board. The film captures the meandering nature of the Chinese homosexual, driven by purposeless eroticism and sex and drifting through the motions of life as they struggle to come to terms with themselves.

References

Au, A. (2010, November 19). Amnesia of the sensual: the film Spring Fever. Retrieved on November 25, 2010, from http://yawningbread.wordpress.com/2010/11/19/amnesia-of-the-sensual-the-film-spring-fever/

Gonzalez, E. (2010, August 1). Spring fever. Retrieved on November 25 2010, from http://www.slantmagazine.com/film/review/spring-fever/4925

Fish and Elephant (2001) 今年夏天

Country: China
Language: Mandarin
Runtime: 106 minutes
Director: Li Yu
Starring: Pan Yi, Shitou, Zhang Qianqian, Zhang Jilian
Theme: LGBT Issues

Ratings:
IMDB: 5.0/10

Film Festivals:
2002 Berlin International Film Festival
2001 Venice Film Festival

Awards:
2002 Berlin International Film Festival: Best Asian Film Prize (Forum of New Cinema)
2002 Berlin International Film Festival: NETPAC Special Mention
2001 Venice Film Festival: Elvira Notari Prize

The Sixth Generation of Chinese cinema is an “edgy underground film movement” that is characterized by quick and cheap filming processes, thereby creating a documentary feel akin to Italian neorealism and cinéma vérité techniques than the lush everyday realism of the Fifth Generation films. Names like Wang Xiaoshuai, Jia Zhangke and Lou Ye have been bandied around, but here’s a question: can Li Yu be considered a Sixth Generation filmmaker as well? Yes, she is new, with Fish and Elephant (2001) being her debut feature film. It bears certain aesthetic trademarks of a film by a Sixth Generation filmmaker, with a pseudo-cinema vérité technique that involves amateurish, unpolished cinematography. There are many long takes with a motionless camera. Many scenes, like the dinner scene around [29:00] appear underexposed, the minimal lighting casting low light on faces, as the two leads secretly clasp hands under the table. Li Yu is also plucky and audacious in her movie themes. Fish and Elephant (2001), for instance deals with the still-taboo topic of same-sex relationships. In fact, it is the first Mainland Chinese film to broach the topic of lesbian relationships, thus casting a spotlight on this marginalized group of society that is affected by their own personal disorientation away from social norms, and that mainstream society casts an unapproving eye on as an evil brought about by Western imperialisation and globalization. Further, the film was an “underground” production filmed on 16mm and that was made without any official support, and which was not submitted to the censors for approval. Further, Li Yu casted non-professional actors whom she found from visiting lesbian bars (Kraicer, 2002).

The only tangible link to the animal references in the movie title is the animals under the care of the two lead protagonists, Xiaoqun (Pan Yi) and Xiaoling (Shi Tou). They are two single women. Xiaoqun is an elephant keeper at the zoo keeps a tank of fish in her tiny apartment. The fish die later, but allusions to relationship changes are difficult to draw. After all, why did something happen to the fish but nothing to the elephant? Meanwhile, her mother, clueless to her sexuality, tries to matchmake her with a string of eligible bachelors and even spins a positive light on her chain smoking to the ills and stresses of everyday life. Many of the bachelors were actually recruited via fake ads placed by the director, says Li Yu. This implies that the conversations were unscripted and partially improvised, and the pseudo-vérité technique an indication of such a drama might unfold in reality. Xiaoling is a clothes designer and she sells her own clothing at a stall in an indoor market. She chooses to hike up or lower the prices of her clothes at her own whim and fancy, depending on whether she likes the customer or not. The two women meet, and they fall in love. The mother can only struggle to accept the sexuality of her daughter, and her favorite song by retro Chinese star Cui Jian ironically goes “It’s not that I cannot understand, it’s just this world that’s changing too quickly”.

It is very unfortunate that Li Yu tries to over-achieve in the movie rather than stick to a single thread as that of East Palace, West Palace (1996) by Zhang Yuan – China’s first homosexual film that made it to Cannes Film Festival 1997 as part of the Un Certain Regard competition. We see the sudden introduction of an ex-girlfriend who is on the run from the authorities, presumably because of robbing a bank but in actuality because of murdering her father who raped her during her teenage years. The final climactic scene is not so much between the two lead protagonists, but involve a police stand-off with the ex-girlfriend wielding a gun. Admittedly, though, credit has to be given where it’s due – Li Yu managing to pull off such a big effort despite being an underground production.

Li Yu divulges in an interview that the pair was in actuality a real-life couple who split following the completion of the movie. Whether or not this bears testament to the closeted nature of Chinese society and how homosexuality issues remain taboo begets debate, as we do not know whether it is because of the pair succumbing to societal norms within the puritanical state.

After Fish and Elephant, Li Yu went on to direct her sophmore film Dam Street (2005), a film that involves French collaboration that broaches yet another controversial topic of underage sex and pregnancy. Erstwhile, her third and latest film Lost in Beijing (2007) deals with prostitution, blackmail and rape in the modern-day Beijing context. But one thing is for sure – Li Yu’s films have been wildly popular in the film festival circuit. All of her films have featured amid the Top Three Film Festivals of the world, with Dam Street (2005) premiering in Venice and Lost in Beijing (2007) premiering in Berlin. Fish and Elephant (2001) however even manages to buck the trend of being featured in a single Top Three Film Festival screening, having been shown at both Venice in 2001 and Berlin subsequently in 2002.

References

Kraicer, S. (2002). Fish and Elephant: review by Shelly Kraicer. Retrieved November 2, 2010, from http://www.chinesecinemas.org/fishandelephant.html

 


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.