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Lan Yu
|     review by Kozo    |     analysis by LunaSea     |


Chen Handong (Hu Jun) embraces the wayward Lan Yu (Liu Ye)
Year: 2001
Director: Stanley Kwan Kam-Pang
Cast: Hu Jun, Liu Ye, Su Jin
The Skinny: Director Stanley Kwan's latest is an affecting, unassuming drama. Earmarked for US distribution, the film should play well to upscale arthouse crowds.
Review
by Kozo:
     Stanley 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)
Analysis
Notes: The 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.
Review
by LunaSea:

     While 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.
     L
an 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. (LunaSea 2002)

Availability:

DVD
Coded for Region 3
Universe Laser
Widescreen
Mandarin Language
Dolby Digital 5.1
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles

 
image courtesy of the Hong Kong Film Critics Society
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