review by Kozo | analysis
by LunaSea |
Chen Handong (Hu Jun) embraces the wayward Lan Yu (Liu Ye)
|| Hu Jun,
Stanley Kwan's latest is an affecting, unassuming drama. Earmarked
for US distribution, the film should play well to upscale
Kwan brings us this affecting drama about two gay Chinese
men whose lives intertwine in unexpected ways. Hu Jun stars
as Chen Handong, a semi-closeted gay man who pays for sex
with the younger Lan Yu (Liu Ye). The two make their meetings
semi-regular, but Handong is quick to point out to Lan Yu
that their relationship means little. He means to keep Lan
Yu at a distance, and maintains that people who know each
other too well must inevitably separate.
However, Lan Yu doesn't feel
the same way. Despite taking money from Handong, he feels
real emotion for his older lover. When he discovers Handong
with another man, he's genuinely hurt. At first, Handong writes
off his liason with Lan Yu. But, when he discovers that Lan
Yu may be in danger during the Chinese army's massacre at
Tiananmen Square, he races to find his young friend. Finding
him safe, the two begin their relationship anew.
Stanley Kwan doesn't go for
any lurid cinematic tricks with Lan Yu. The story is
told in spare, unflinching long scenes that unfold naturally.
The sexuality on display is noticeably raw and unfilitered,
and devoid of any sensationalism. He presents Lan Yu and Handong's
liasons matter-of-factly, which is the same way he presents
the rest of the film. Kwan chooses not to moralize or over-sympathize
with his characters. He lets them tell their own stories.
To accomplish that, he wrings
genuine, moving performances from his two leads. Hu Jun, a
Chinese stage actor, brings weight and emotional resonance
to the central role of Handong. Despite the film's title,
it's Handong who carries the film. The film's central conflicts
and changes hangs on Handong's feelings for Lan Yu. Though
Handong initially puts Lan Yu at arm's length, he discovers
through time and trials that Lan Yu means more to him than
he realizes. Their reunion after the 1989 massacre isn't even
their final one. Handong leaves Lan Yu more than once to pursue
the traditional values of marriage and family, but finds that
he can't fulfill his societal duties. Ultimately, he has to
learn to be true to himself, much as Lan Yu has always been.
Newcomer Liu Ye is equally good
as Lan Yu. He manages to convey Lan Yu's emotions through
body language and reserved expression. Lan Yu is an important
force iin Handong's life; in a sense, he's the one thing that
Handong can never escape or deny. The scenes between the two
men (which account for about 70% of the film) detail their
relationship in a realistic, moving way that never feels false.
Stanley Kwan's use of history
as a backdrop proves effective without being obvious or cloying.
The danger in using real history in personal stories is it
usually elevates the drama between people into pretentious
commentary on the human condition. Look at Young and Dangerous:
The Prequel, which tried to use the Tiananmen Square massacre
as commentary for a triad gang fight. Such use was egregiously
out-of-place. Here, the massacre compels Handong to realize
Lan Yu's importance to him. It's an effective and compelling
moment, and their emotional reunion feels genuine.
Lan Yu is supposedly
headed to American theaters this summer, where it will most
likely NOT compete with the likes of Star Wars Episode
2 or Spider-man. It's intruiguing, alternative
arthouse fare that should play well those who find the subject
matter interesting. It's also not for everyone, but I don't
think I have to remind people of that. Stanley Kwan's work
has typically been generous in its intent, though sometimes
a little remote in execution. His touch works better here
since he doesn't attempt to dress up or overdo his subject
matter. He lets Lan Yu tell its own story, and the
film is better for it. (Kozo 2002)
following is LunaSea's analysis of Lan Yu. As such
it assumes a working knowledge of the film - or that you've
read the previous review.
the concept might still be taboo in public, in the last
few years Chinese Cinema has overtly explored gay themes
instead of subliminally hinting at them. Wong Kar-wai's
excellent Happy Together featured a conflicted love
story between Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and Leslie Cheung Kwok-Wing,
and used their turbulent, insecure relationship to ideologically
mirror the 1997 handover. Lan Yu gives us another
very good work concerning gay relationships, but this time
the story is told by someone who knows what it means to
be gay in China: director Stanley Kwan.
After outing himself during
the excellent Yang+Yin: Gender in Chinese Cinema,
I expected Kwan to come up with something like Lan Yu
sooner or later, because after his public announcement
some kind of artistic statement surely would come out. The
positives of such a situation are that it's possible for
him to view the story from a closer point of view, and thus
understand the characters' feelings in a better way. The
negative is the danger of getting too entangled in the story
emotionally, thus making it difficult to understand. However,
this mistake is one that director Kwan never makes in this
subdued, understated work.
Yu was created
when actor Zhang Yongning found the short online novel in
1997, and approached Stanley Kwan with a few ideas on the
subject. At first Kwan felt lukewarm towards the novel,
even if he was impressed at the explicitness of the sexual
content. However, the second time he read it, he felt he
could relate to the story in a more personal way, and finally
he decided to shoot the film.
In an interview with Tony
Rayns, Kwan discussed Lan Yu's autobiographical elements.
Like the character of Hangdong, Kwan's partner William wasn't
convinced of his sexual identity and wanted to marry a woman
and have a baby. The character of Lan Yu represents the
younger, confident Stanley Kwan who instead firmly believed
in his instincts and had no problems opening himself up
to his lover.
The generation gap between
the two lead characters is important in viewing the differences
in their mentality, and the changing views on the subject
in China. Perhaps Hangdong is blinded by years of social
upbringing, which taught him to be prejudiced towards homosexuals
- even if he's a homosexual himself. He keeps his homosexuality
a secret, frequents gay bars, and goes from through numerous
one night stands. For him, being gay is a troubling experience
not because he doesn't trust his sexual instincts, but because
he's not confident enough to be open about them in public.
Lan Yu is totally different
in his approach to his own sexuality, and that shows that
newer generations are more confident aand open about their
sexual preferences. He doesn't see the first encounter with
Hangdong as a mere adventure; it's a life-changing experience
for him. One moment that depicts this effect on Lan Yu's
life is the scene where he meets Hangdong again and tells
him the exact time that has passed between their two meetings.
Their relationship initially falls
apart because Hangdong is afraid. He brings Lan Yu home,
introduces him his family, then constantly warns him that
getting too attached is a problem (at least for Handong).
He tries to deny the fact he's getting closer to Lan Yu
by meeting other men. "It's just a one night stand,"
he probably says, "I won't get involved." However,
his feelings come out sooner or later. Hangdong can't escape
what his heart tells him even if his head and his teachings
might say otherwise. Here the director might have used some
contrivance to bring the two characters together, but he
intelligently decides to use the Tiananmen Square student
protests in 1989 as a backdrop for their reunion.
Using history as the backdrop
for personal drama often ruins the experience because the
story is sometimes clumsily connected to the historical
details. In Lan Yu, the use of history seems to be
relevant to the story. And yet, it never becomes heavy-handed,
nor does its presence ruin the flow of the story. It's a
perfect emotional trigger for Hangdong to understand the
nature of his relationship with Lan Yu. It's events like
those that occured at Tiananmen Square that a person realize
the things that are important to them
Going further into the story
would only reveal too much. Stanley Kwan keeps a nice balance
between offering a personal view on the matter while never
getting too close, even during the most dramatic scenes.
You can tell by the atmosphere he creates that this is a
subject that touches Kwan deeply. His subdued, restrained
approach to the theme is what makes the film accessible
and easy to connect with.
Another factor in the success
of the film are the performances of stage actor Hu Jun (seen
previously in East Palace, West Palace) and Liu Ye.
Both create passionate, intelligent, multi-faceted characters
that enrich the film and make it deeper. Hu Jun is particularly
excellent, with his mix of passion and restraint. He carries
the film and makes Kwan's message even stronger. At the
2002 Hong Kong Film Awards, the Best Actor award really
should have gone to Hu Jun, whose performance helped elevate
Lan Yu to a higher level (Instead, Stephen Chow won
Best Actor for Shaolin Soccer).
One could compare Lan Yu
with Wong Kar-Wai's Happy Together, but the two
are different films at heart. While Happy Together
could have just as easily been about a straight couple,
Lan Yu is a passionate work about understanding one's
sexual identity. It's the type of statement expected from
Stanley Kwan: a heartfelt ode to be open about your feelings.
Coded for Region 3
Dolby Digital 5.1
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
of the Hong Kong Film Critics Society
Copyright ©2002-2017 Ross Chen