Sunday, April 19, 2020

Lan Yu

Stanley Kwan receiving the Best Director Golden Horse award

LAN YU                     A-                   
Hong Kong  China  (86 mi)  2001 d:  Stanley Kwan

A landmark film, shot clandestinely in Beijing without government permission, the first open and explicit exploration of a gay romantic relationship to appear in mainland China, taken from the ten-chapter underground e-novel Beijing Gushi (Beijing Story) released anonymously on the Internet in 1996 in three installments, with the author adopting the pseudonym ‘Beijing Tongzhi,’ or ‘Beijing Comrade,’ though the term also has a gay subtext (in obtaining rights to the story, the author turned out to be a woman from Beijing who emigrated to America), pioneering the idea of publishing ‘illicit’ Chinese fiction on the Internet, as homosexuality in China’s authoritarian rule is still forbidden, a taboo subject that most people do not discuss in public, becoming hugely popular throughout the country’s vast underground gay community, evoking a humanist element in all relationships globally, suggesting love has no boundaries.  In America, the timing of the film coincided with the hotly contested political debate surrounding California Proposition 8, a ballot measure designed to outlaw gay marriage (which passed, but was later declared unconstitutional).  Premiering in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes, locally this film played to mixed critical reviews, yet it’s hard not to be enamored by Stanley Kwan’s brilliant, understated film style, where the film cleverly blends the personal with the political, offering a critique of repressive authoritarian force while allowing the first openly gay Asian director to suffuse the film with the markings of his own identity.  According to Andrew Chan, Archive - Reverse Shot, the film was embraced in Taiwan, but banned in Mainland China, Singapore, and Malaysia, further adding that available black market copies of the film edited out the sexually graphic scenes as well as any reference to Tiananmen Square.  While LAN YU is a fairly ordinary love story, a rich man falls for a younger, more humble male novice from the country, and what was supposed to be a one night stand turns out to be the subject of this 10-year film exploration, one has to believe that this story has been told over and over again in nearly every culture, but the way that this story is filmed is anything but ordinary.  Stanley Kwan is simply a superb director, shot by Yang Tao and Zhang Jian, visually stunning, filled with mirrors, windows, and reflections, with layers of rich texture, subtle with very dark interiors, extremely detailed with only glimpses of color, a slow measured pace that examines the psychological inner needs of these characters, both of whom are superb in this film, Hu Jun as Chen Handong, the older businessman and especially Liu Ye as the younger character of Lan Yu, winning Best Actor at the Golden Horse awards, while also winning Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Editing, as well as the Audience Choice award.  The obvious comparisons would be Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung in Wong Kar-wai’s HAPPY TOGETHER (1997), which has much more razzle dazzle and high energy than this film, with both directors sharing the same production designer, William Chang, or perhaps Leslie Cheung and Zhang Fengyi in Chen Kaige’s FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE (1993), which has a broader, more epic subject matter.  Here the film confines itself to two men almost exclusively, and their screen chemistry IS the film, as how they react and what they have to say to one another is remarkably moving in its brevity as well as its honesty.  

Set in the late 1980’s, Handong narrates the film in voice-over, heard in the opening and closing scenes describing his feelings for Lan Yu, who is a much younger architectural student from rural northeast China in desperate financial straits, meeting at a pool hall to hook up for sex, spending the night with Handong, a successful businessman who showers him with expensive gifts, hoping to deflect an emotional connection, whose personal philosophy seems to be, “When two people get to know each other too well, it’s time to separate,” yet the naïve Lan Yu falls headstrong in love, with the film told entirely in flashback sequences.  Handong is a closeted gay man, preferring to keep sex private, the son of a retired high-ranking Communist Party official, with his mother insisting he marry someone that matches his social status.  Lan Yu is presented to the family as a friend of a business associate, where New Years is celebrated with plenty of food and drink.  Handong has created a trading company that does business with Eastern European countries, mainly Russia, importing and exporting state products such as steel and cars.  As the boss, he is among the country’s first capitalists in postsocialist China.  Like Russia, the first in their nation to make successful capitalist transitions were government officials and former Communist Party officials, suggesting their political structure changed very little, as the same operators were in charge.  In the Maoist era, ordinary people were not rich and accumulated little wealth, so when industry and property was privatized, open to the highest bidder, only those in positions of power had access to and could take advantage of these new opportunities.  Like insider trading in the stock market, they were the ones given firsthand knowledge ahead of time, basically monopolizing the wealth.  With growing official corruption, rampant inflation and unemployment (not to mention an erroneous Chinese State TV announcement that Los Angeles is the capital of California), as many as a million Chinese, mostly students, crowded into central Beijing holding massive public demonstrations against social inequalities and injustice in Chinese society, demanding reforms, calling for the resignations of the Communist Party leaders, including three weeks of nightly vigils marching and chanting, all captured by the Western press, who were later removed, culminating with the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 when a military offensive storms the protestors, firing indiscriminately into the crowd, killing untold hundreds or thousands, arresting as many as 10,000, with the Chinese government never acknowledging what truly happened or disclosing the total number of people detained, tortured, tried, or executed, remaining a contentious topic in China, with authorities banning all mention of the protest even today.  Kwan never shows the event, but loud explosions can be heard, where a panicked crowd is racing away from the square, as Handong is drawn to the event for fear of what might happen to Lan Yu, eventually consoling him in his arms, crying profusely.  

While Lan Yu is completely devoted to Handong, unashamed of his feelings, Handong is skeptical about longterm relationships, claiming it’s just a temporary thing, with Lan Yu asserting his independence by declining Handong’s gifts, though the couple had separated earlier, as Lan Yu was unable to tolerate Handong’s sexual promiscuity.  In an open display of wealth and arrogance, Handong leans towards Western tastes to call attention to his upper class status, driving a Mercedes car, eating at Western restaurants, drinking the finest wine, where foreign-brand material goods point to his newly cultivated class taste, but he also buys Lan Yu his own home, suggesting he’s too big to be confined to smaller places.  Around this same time, Handong is bewitched by the smart and sexually alluring interpreter working with him in the latest Russian deal, Jingping (Su Jin), equally in thrall with foreign brands, going through a whirlwind romance and marrying her on the spot, exactly what his family desires, believing he has reached the pinnacle of success, where consumerism is the new Chinese identity, but throws Lan Yu away like discarded goods, leading to a long separation.  Of course, Handong’s “perfect” marriage soon leads to divorce, as he’s never really comfortable with a woman, thinking they have ulterior motives, finding gay sex much more satisfying, as it’s rooted in love and desire.  This realization, by itself, is a retort to capitalism and the idea that money can buy you happiness.  Once you separate money from the relationship, as Lan Yu routinely declined Handong’s monetary gestures, the relationship can stand or fall on its own merits.  Sometime later, they run into each other at the airport, share lunch together and commiserate over lost time, as Handong reveals he’s divorced, suffered a few financial setbacks, and crashed his car, both drinking heavily, ending up back at home, where Handong finally embraces Lan Yu, uttering “What led me to let you go?”  The answer to each other’s prayers, they finally accept their circumstances together, each significantly better with the other.  But this realization comes at a cost, as the CEO of Handong’s company is arrested and imprisoned for money laundering, making all the headlines, where it’s only a matter of time before they come for him next.  Working quickly, Handong makes all the arrangements for Lan Yu to go to America, getting his documents in order, completely financing the trip, as it’s something Lan Yu always said he wanted to do.  In short order, the police arrive transporting Handong to prison and reality intervenes.  A series of circumstances occur that alter the perspective of the film, where Lan Yu’s power rises while Handong’s falls, inverting an opening scene, with the character’s changing places, where Kwan’s style is very much like the second half of Hou Hsiao-hsien's MILLENNIUM MAMBO (2001), as the energy simply stops and the film crawls into a ghost-like crevasse, a mind-numbing, desolate despair.  Kwan also adds Hou’s ritual of letting his camera hover over a festive table of people eating and catching the power of human interplay in their most ordinary moments, and while some may object to a melodramatic final turn, he also builds to what is arguably his greatest climax in any film, where a surge in dramatic intensity is heartbreakingly effective.  Taking a simple story, infusing it with extraordinary emotional complexity, turns this into one of the better films seen all year, where the final sequence is unusual in combining a romantic pop ballad with a lengthy tracking shot that feels right out of a more experimental, avant garde film made by Chantal Akerman, Lan Yu's OST YouTube (5:35). 

[Engsub] Movie: Lan Yu entire film with English subtitles (1:26:33)

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