I find myself short of comprehending Lan Yu, especially with regards to recent and current Chinese legal and political practices, as becomes strikingly clear near the end of the film when, viewing it, I literally gasped aloud “Death penalty!” at the revelation that this is what the protagonist, Chen Handong, the head of a trading company, faces from the state because of some questionable business practices. Perhaps this is the Communist Chinese government’s guilty exaggerated response for having allowed capitalism within its borders in the first place; before the revelation, let me tell you, I thought Chen was facing, at worst, hefty fines and a few years in the pokey. At least, though, the legal system there isn’t overly self-righteous; after a few days in jail, Chen takes happy advantage of the prevailing level of systemic corruption and buys his way out of everything but the monetary penalties. If only the rest of his woes could be so smoothly resolved.
Chen is a homosexual—and, as we know from Yuan Zhang’s East Palace, West Palace (1996), as repellent a film as Lan Yu is an appealing one, this isn’t a good thing to be in China, where, although homosexuality isn’t illegal, gays are brutally targeted both by street gangs and the police. It’s a cultural madness that gays in China are regarded as “unnatural,” although, I’m sorry to say, communism’s own puritanical streak may also be contributing to the cruelty and violence. (Goodness knows, the European thinkers who invented communism weren’t puritans.) Indeed, I wonder whether the makers of the film intend that we suspect that the state’s financial ruination of Chen is motivated, at least in part, by official distaste for his sexual orientation. Kwan, who is gay himself, directed from a screenplay by Jimmy Ngai, who in turn based the script on an anonymous e-novel. (This time, I don’t think the author is Joe Klein.) In any case, it makes sense that Kwan would be reflecting on his own vulnerability as a highly visible, openly gay person in a nation hostile to gayness, which it identifies with effeminacy. This would explain the admirable sense that the film conveys of a deeply personal statement—one whose single note of self-pity, a blemish rather than a bruise, arrives only as the film is about to make its exit.
The film, which is set in Beijing, covers a period of about a dozen years starting in 1988. It proceeds by vignettes, most often with substantial gaps of time in between as they separate and reunite, charting the course of the relationship between Chen and Lan Yu, who begins as a teenaged college student, a financially struggling, impoverished boy from the country. Chen is older, and, by comparison, a sophisticate. In a pool-hall, Lan, who will claim to be sexually inexperienced, is nevertheless about to prostitute himself for money with the establishment’s owner when Chen, a patron, intervenes and takes the boy home. Thus Handong begins as Yu’s protector. He showers his new lover with money and gifts, while all the while insisting that their relationship be kept short of a life-commitment. On the occasion of the Tiananmen Square massacre, Handong searches frantically for Yu, but in the end it is Yu who finds him, asleep from exhaustion behind the wheel of his parked car. Handong shatters Yu twice. Forgetting his date with Yu, he beds with another pickup, and Yu walks in on this. But the worst beating is to come. Believing that this is the proper thing to do, Handong marries, severing all ties with Yu, with whom he had been living in the suburbs in a seemingly deepening and mutually loving relationship. Indeed, the night before their parting, each confesses his love for the other. After Chen divorces, he and Lan meet by chance again; and, although Lan is terribly wary, their love affair—marriage, really—resumes, with Chen moving into Lan’s tiny apartment. It is the money from the sale of the suburban house that the two had shared that spares Chen the ordeal of prison. Another separation follows, however, when Yu, about thirty now, is killed at his job at a construction site. In the last of his numerous voiceovers, however, Handong confides that he feels that Yu’s spirit is with him always.
Yu’s death seems, certainly on first reaction, a bit of melodrama; it is the blemish to which I earlier referred. Yet I must be ambivalent in some sense, because I don’t regard Handong’s seemingly ridiculous final comment in the same way. On the contrary, it’s psychologically precise. After all, it is only now, now that he has the consolation of Yu’s abiding spirit, that the seesaw of Chen’s life—the separations from and reunions with Lan—has been put to rest. Yu wanted love most of all—to give it and receive it; Handong, comfort and stability. One introduced the other (we presume) to gay love; but it was the inductee who opened his heart to this mentor, prying more and more tenderness from him, but also, always, unintentionally shaming him with his own greater devotion and capacity to love. Implicitly, this reflects Chen’s tethers to the past, with its emphasis on a prescribed way of living. Lan was the future, with which Chen could never quite catch up. In retrospect, then, Yu’s death may be dictated by the film’s core argument.
Mirrors, reflections: the frames are full of these, and in part they visually convey the varying degrees to which neither of the lead characters can completely relax into his own life. Our seeing them so often in reflection is correlative to this fact about their separate existences and mutual existence. Indeed, four things are dominant in the impression that Kwan’s film makes, one of them being the intricately fascinating nature of the mise-en-scène, to which the use of mirrors and reflections in particular contributes. Another is the narrative discontinuity I’ve mentioned, the lurching ahead over gaps of time as brilliantly correlative to the personal, social and even political impediments to the integrity and continuity of the central relationship. A third is a fact about Handong that constantly moderates our view of him, shifting our attention from any issue of his behavioral flaws to the larger context of a narrow culture and oppressive system that are limiting his human capacities. This fact is the loyalty and love he draws almost universally, whether from employees, his sister and her spouse, whoever. Finally, one must note, in addition to Yu’s sweetness and vulnerability, the unexpected emotional complexity with which the superb young actor who plays Yu, Ye Liu, invests his personality. This isn’t an “everything-on-display” performance such as Johnny Depp or Sean Penn might give; on the contrary, Yu is more private, even more mysterious, than Handong. We’re not sure he is as innocent as he initially claims; we’re not sure, when Chen re-enters his life after divorce, whether he, Lan, really has the new lover he claims, the one who is constantly “overseas.” Ye’s eyes, so open one moment, seem bottomless at other moments. “I’m just a simple boy from the country,” he says, in effect, at one point—like Clifford Odets’s “the country girl.” He, too, now finds himself in the city, where his alleged innocence can be a means of negotiating a daunting, unfamiliar environment. Anyhow, the reach of Ye’s acting is so extraordinary that something critical arises from it that I presume wasn’t a part of the script. We are left wondering just a bit if Yu’s worksite tragedy is in fact a suicide. I cannot praise Ye’s acting enough; both its openness and not-so-openness, its revelations and its secrets, suggest a depth of human reality that readjusts whatever else in the film seems borderline schematic. Jun Hu, from East Palace, West Palace, is very good as Handong.
Lan Yu was named best film at the 2003 International Gay Film Festival. At the Golden Horse Film Festival, Kwan, Ngai and Ye were named best director, best scenarist and best actor. (Ye—yes!)
Kwan is a prolific filmmaker. Lan Yu was imported strictly because it’s a gay love story. It’s a pity that works of Kwan’s that are reputedly of greater interest to those who care about films aren’t likewise allowed into America, which remains the world’s greatest bastion of film censorship and suppression. What the marketplace accomplishes in the U.S. (by allowing so few films in that people aren’t free to choose to see what they want to see), China accomplishes, on its much smaller scale, by committee fiat. We can see Lan Yu here, but it has yet to be shown in China.