Lan Yu (2001)
Directed by: Stanley Kwan
Nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards 2002:
The Stanley Kwan directed documentary Yang and Yin: Gender in Chinese Cinema also meant a crucial stepping stone is his life as he went public with his homosexuality. With that seemed to enter a comfort, perhaps finally, to feature the homosexuality theme even strongly in films. Full Moon In New York many years earlier did come with a lesbian subplot but Hold You Tight from 1998 had Eric Tsang as on openly gay man who acts as a humanistic support in the face of loneliness. With Lan Yu, Kwan brings us an affecting romance between males complete with the understated touches Kwan so masterfully brings to his productions.
Handong (Hu Jun - East Palace West Palace, Infernal Affairs II) is a shady Beijing businessman with a generous tendency towards young men. Picking up and spoiling student Lan Yu (Liu Ye - Postmen In The Mountains, The Floating Landscape) reveals for the first time a genuine belonging with another man. They confess to each other that when the magic is dead, so are they to each other but heartbreak still enters when Handong decides to marry a woman (the character of Lin played by Su Jin). Realizing over time that he's not making the right decisions for himself, Handong continues to go through an inner conflict of confusion, hoping to someday meet Lan Yu again...
Based on the cult novel Beijing Story that was initially published anonymously on the internet (now credited to the synonym Beijing Comrades. Comrades in this instance was in Chinese a greeting phrase between communists but was later adopted as a slang word for gay) and set initially around the time of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, neither the gay theme or the times of turmoil it's set in is what makes Lan Yu compelling. Arguably it's yet another in the pile of well-mounted Hong Kong dramas with many expected traits that comes with a tragic and destructive romance such as this. Take out the male couple and replace with a male/female one and you'll immediately see the conventional familiarity but obviously Lan Yu stands out in a crowd due to the main characters being gay. My point is, those of you that get hung up on this might as well buy a ticket to something else but those of you wondering how this will play out will be pleasantly surprised that it's the story that matters, not the sexuality of the people. Kwan and screenwriter Jimmy Ngai (who also penned Hold You Tight) knows this and decides to rightly worry less about audiences views. Being frank and subtle is the recipe once again and Lan Yu celebrates its greatest triumphs by being true.
As with other Stanley Kwan movies, he always puts forth a challenge of building characters along the way rather than right away do full on exposition of them from conception to adulthood but this time the development is a little bit more clever. The point is that Handong and Lan Yu are the type of lovers that rush into the physical side of their relationship but never sits down to see each other as characters. Kwan therefore injects a slightly unsettling atmosphere because care between the two obviously exists but when the hidden truths inevitably surfaces, the emotional tragedy sets in very easily.
Handong first comes off as the corrupter of love but despite his adulthood is the one still confused about his role and people's view on him. He's not completely in the closet but at the same time shares the heterosexual male's goal of settling down with a wife and kid. Almost unconsciously his decisions steers towards that destructive path, making Lan Yu the greater scarred victim at one point but the character that reaches an understanding and maturity faster.
Thanks to Kwan's understated, realistic and held back natural directing ways (save for a dreamy sequence set after the Tiananmen events), he doesn't have to rely on lengthy exposition at any time (take an example of the shot of Lan Yu's gift in the form of a kimono and the audience will pick up on its meaning within the relationship right away! Kwan's a master of this). He can even jump far ahead in the timeline and still maintain the character's crucial traits in development to an as ever compelling degree (the original novel basically had events in these gaps, something Kwan decided to leave out, much to the dismay of the author). Sure, this isn't a happy movie and probably answers very few questions but despite its bleak ways on the top surface, Lan Yu feels very realized and thoroughly personal for Kwan underneath, without being overbearing.
Lan Yu received a Category III rating which obviously means that some form of "graphic" imagery takes place during the film. As with Hold You Tight, Kwan gets most of the always talked about sexual flavored scenes out of the way pretty quickly and once again makes the audiences immersed in a character drama quickly rather than pondering over scenes to come or ones that are already over. Obviously Kwan will always get detractors for his late 90s films such as this based on the prejudice that is in our world but I applaud that he, Jimmy Ngai and the cast simply let it play out and leave the acceptance up to each viewer.
Mainland actors Hu Jun and Liu Ye therefore will receive their grading based on performance and not purely due to bravery displayed in the intimate scenes. They both share spot on chemistry whether it's of love, hesitance or emotional distance that occurs when they're separated, Kwan brings Lan Yu and Handong to life through performers that respond to the held back direction and a believability sets in very quickly. Arguably sometimes Lan Yu feels like a polished stage play (which is a locale Hu Jun is familiar with) but the acting is enchanting nonetheless. Su Jin's supporting stint is worthy nature as the sexy translator Lin, fitting perfectly the almost laughably clichéd image of a woman out to subtly corrupt. In actuality, she's never portrayed as sublimely evil but simply not a fit for Handong's life and ambitions. The finest performance comes from Li Huatong as Liu Zheng though, the loyal working friend of Handong's. The warmth left behind by Li is one of the more memorable things you'll take away from the film, portraying a character who changes his ways in the face of fatherhood.
Lan Yu shows Stanley Kwan now enjoying his freedom and confidence as openly gay and ever so slightly, he's grown as a filmmaker as well (meaning that great skill resided in him long before already...Rouge anyone?). Kwan and Jimmy Ngai clearly knows the genre of romantic drama and expectedly stands out in a crowd, not just because of the gay theme in question, but due to a sensitive, understated handling that creates the utmost affecting experience. If you didn't enjoy Rouge or any other slow, methodic efforts from Kwan, Lan Yu won't change your mind but followers will continue to build up their respect for Kwan, I'm very sure of that.
Universe presents the film in a 1.73.1 aspect ratio approximately. Colours are fairly dull although I believe it's intentionally designed that way. Softness and slight artifacting is an issue though but overall this is a fairly good and clean presentation.
Main spoken language is Mandarin, available as Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 Stereo options. The latter occasionally opens up the front for score but the majority of the film is about the dialogue, presented in a clear manner. A Cantonese 2.0 Stereo dub is also included.
The English subtitles are well-written and comes with no apparent grammar errors. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also available. Spare Star's Files on Hu Jun, Liu Ye, Stanley Kwan and the trailer are the only extras. The Region 1 release contains the Sundance Channel interview with Stanley Kwan if you're after special features.
reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson