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"Beijing Gay Comrade Story: Lan Yu"
Lan Yu, directed by Stanley Kwan ; reviewed by Simon-Astley Scholfield, 6 Aug. 2001
The smoothly handsome Chen Handong (Hu Jun) is a snooker-playing and hard-drinking Beijing entrepreneur with a penchant for younger men. One night, his male colleague and confidante Liu Zheng (Li Huatong) tells him that an impoverished university student has come to the snooker-hall to have sex for money with the owner of the premises. Handong intercepts the student, Lan Yu (Liu Ye), and the two return to his lavish apartment that night for sex. Next morning while still in his bed, Lan Yu receives his first male-male kiss from the far more sexually experienced Handong. The two continue to see each other. While Lan Yu becomes smitten with Handong, the latter continually insists that he only wants some fun and that their relationship will never last. After Lan Yu discovers Handong in a tryst with another young man, he stops seeing him.

Later during the student protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989, Handong rushes to find Lan Yu, fearing for his safety. Resuming their interest in each other, Handong buys Lan Yu a car and the two begin living together in Handong’s new villa. However, such domesticity proves too constricting for Handong. After meeting the sassy Jingping (Su Jin), he soon has plans to marry her and buy another house for them and their future children, while also keeping Lan Yu like a male mistress at his villa. Before Handong and Jingping marry, Lan Yu declares that he will not accept this arrangement and they break up again. Handong insists that Lan Yu keep the villa. The years pass and Handong divorces Jingpin, meeting up with Lan Yu again by chance. Handong moves into Lan Yu’s humble lodgings after the authorities learn of his shady business dealings. Lan Yu sells the villa and pools his savings with those of Handong’s friends to bail Handong out of jail, but fate eventually deals the two lovers an extremely cruel blow...

Lan Yu is based on the anonymous novel referred to variously as Beijing Gushi, Beijing Story, Beijing Comrade, or Someone Likes Lan. This presumably semi-autobiographical account of events in the city from the late 1980s to early 1990s was published on the internet. The first of its three instalments appeared in 1996. As the first candid exposé of contemporary gay male lifestyles, love and erotica in mainland China, Beijing Gushi became widely popular among the country’s growing illicit network of gays. The author called himself ‘Beijing Tongzhi’ (meaning ‘Beijing Comrade’) which is the counterpart of the Australian term ‘mate’ used by Chinese communists. In an interesting twist, tongzhi nowadays colloquially means ‘gay’ in some Chinese circles.

According to the film’s Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan, “the central relationship is quite faithful to the version in the book.” Scriptwriter Jimmy Ngai has added that his adaptation of Beijing Gushi does not include many of the details of the novel’s prolific sex scenes between Handong and Lan Yu. Yet despite and probably because of this, the film offers an extraordinarily sexy exploration of erotic and other intimacies between the two leading male characters. Hu Jun is reputedly the most outstanding stage actor of his generation and Liu Ye earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination in the 1999 Golden Rooster Awards. Their acting is as superb as the onscreen chemistry between them. The lovely glimpses of their nudity and closeness prove thoroughly teasing, and are also remarkable for their setting in the capital of the communist People’s Republic of China.

While making an earlier PRC government-approved film in Beijing, the filmmakers secretly shot the scenes for Lan Yu, using local actors and the homes, office buildings, airport meeting rooms, and streets of the city as backgrounds. After the screening of the film, an audience member asked why the filmmakers went to so much trouble to film this way in Beijing instead of in another Asian city considering that none of Beijing’s famous landmarks are apparent in the film. Kwan and Ngai replied to the effect that filming the narrative in its original location with mainland actors playing the main cast made making the film a more compelling experience and instilled it with an otherwise impossibly authentic ambience.

Like the story upon which it is based, Lan Yu is a landmark underground production. Stanley Kwan breaks new ground in Chinese cinema by filming a recent gay Chinese love story on the mainland using local actors. The gay lovers in his tragic-but-magic story seem at first to be simplistic and stereotypical. The naive farm boy-cum-student Lan Yu appears to be at the other end of the spectrum to Handong--the wealthy, older, more experienced, urban/e, spoilt son of a bureaucratic official. But as these polar opposites attract, each man’s life complicates, enriches, and colours the other’s in different ways. Openly gay Kwan has remarked that he is “not particularly eager to deal with 'gay issues' in [his] films,” but has also added that Lan Yu holds a certain resonance for him because, unlike Kwan himself, his partner William has expressed the desire to marry and start a traditional family. Having lived in Beijing in 1988 this gay re/viewer found that Lan Yu touched him personally and left him nostalgic for the city (and its gay men). Yet anyone with an interest in the film should more than appreciate Lan Yu’s extraordinary presence.

Lan Yu
Yongning Creative Workshop
Director: Stanley Kwan
Producer: Zhang Yongning
Sceenplay: Jimmy Ngai
Editor: William Chang
Executive Producer: Jian Qin
Cast: Hu Jun, Liu Ye, Su Jin, Li Huatong
Duration: 86 minutes

Brisbane International Film Festival screening: Monday 30 August 2001, 2:15pm at the Greater Union Hoyts Regent.

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2001, 2006 © Simon Astley Scholfield