At first glance, this was not Stanley Kwan's sort of material. The novel passed his way by producer Zhang Yongning was smut, replete with constant and graphic sex set against a cheesy soap-opera plot.
"I asked him, 'You want me to make a gay porno?' " the director recalled. "I was known for making small, intimate pictures about female characters. This didn't seem like a Stanley Kwan movie to me."
Zhang was relentless. If it were stripped to its barest elements, "Beijing Story" could be a small, intimate picture, he insisted. This tale about the decade-long on-and-off relationship between a younger man and his older businessman lover could become one of the great Stanley Kwan movies.
Nearly two years later, that love story--rechristened "Lan Yu," the name of the younger character--has been featured at major gay and lesbian film festivals across the U.S. and Asia, including last month's Outfest in L.A. It screened at the Sundance Film Festival. It earned five honors, including best picture and director, at the Golden Horse awards, Taiwan's version of the Academy Awards. (Because of the subject matter, the film has never been released in mainland China). It opens for a theatrical run Friday in Los Angeles.
Indeed, while there is sure to be debate over whether "Lan Yu" is Kwan's greatest effort, there can be no doubt it is his most famous. And by defying China's censors to make a film in Beijing about same-sex love, the openly gay director from Hong Kong has broken significant new ground for cinema in mainland China, where the film has become an underground DVD hit.
"I didn't expect 'Lan Yu' to turn into this," the demure, pudgy 44-year-old said in an interview at a Hong Kong coffee shop late last year. "I did this film because I came to like the story, and it reminded me of my own relationship with my partner of the last 12 years. That is really all I saw in this."
Audiences see more. In just 86 minutes, the film shatters several Chinese taboos. Aside from being an unabashed gay movie and being filmed without permission, it also features full-frontal nudity and the first known use in Chinese cinema of footage of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. The source material itself was contraband, a novel published only on the Internet to circumvent China's censors. That novel, posted in 1997 by a reclusive Beijing woman who now lives in New Jersey, became a cult hit among gays across China who printed it out and passed it along to non-wired friends.
The Tiananmen Square portion itself is a breakthrough even though it occupies just 30 seconds and is rendered mainly with the sound effects of crying and gunfire. In that fast but emotional sequence, the older character, Handong, searches for Lan Yu against a screaming stampede fleeing the violence. The couple embrace intensely when they locate each other, and, shortly thereafter, Handong is seen holding a naked Lan Yu in bed as the boy sobs uncontrollably.
Kwan insisted he didn't use what is known in China as "the June 4th incident" to make a political point but as an emotional turning point in the movie, an event dramatic enough for Handong to recognize his love for Lan Yu. Furthermore, it was true to the time and place for Lan Yu, a Beijing college student in 1989; no American film set in the 1960s, for instance, could ignore the Vietnam War, the director noted.
But as casual as Kwan is about his use of the crushing of pro-democracy demonstrations, it remains such a sensitive matter 13 years later in China that many Internet sites devoted to it are blocked. (In China, the government controls access to the Internet by filtering out illegal sites).
"The Tiananmen Square event gave the world a very bad impression of the Chinese government, so the Communist Party hopes everyone can forget it," said cinema history scholar Mei Fung, a professor at the Beijing Film Academy. "If, even in fiction, you use Tiananmen Square as a plot, you try to recall its memory, so it's dangerous."
Although Kwan eschews the label of maverick, "Lan Yu" is just the latest example of the director working against convention. As he entered film in the late 1970s, Hong Kong cinema was moving into its big-budget action phase. He assisted on several of those films, but his first feature in 1985 was an intimate drama called "Women," inspired by stories told to him by female friends. It went on to earn more than $230,000 at the Hong Kong box office, a large sum for that day.
What followed was a procession of estrogen-charged films with titles like "Two Sisters," "Red Rose, White Rose" and "Rouge," which built his reputation as an actress' director. So when Kwan decided to do "Lan Yu," top Chinese actors lined up for the chance to perform in that rare Kwan film featuring strong male leads. He wound up casting two of China's premier matinee idols, Liu Ye as Lan Yu and Hu Jun as Handong, the older man whose struggle with his sexuality stands in the way of an honest relationship. Neither star had appeared before in films that played outside China.
"I had seen all of his films, and I adored them," Hu recalled of Kwan. "He is the most strict director, but actors respect him because they've seen the results. Strict is not a bad term. It just means he is careful, always trying to be perfect."
Both actors told Kwan they are straight men with little personal experience with gay people, so Kwan described his relationship in detail to school them on the same-sex dynamic. Nonetheless, Liu confessed it took him weeks to start regarding Hu's character as a lover instead of a big-brother figure, and Hu noted that he took pains in scenes that involved nudity and kissing "to not let the audience know this was not natural."
Zhang, a first-time movie producer and former BBC documentarian, is gratified that so many Chinese people have told him they wanted to see the movie on DVD. Although he's not pleased that black-market DVD sales in mainland China do not provide him with revenue, he views "Lan Yu" as an agent of progress for mainland gays and recognizes it could never be distributed legitimately there anyway.
Homosexuality only recently began to seep into China's public consciousness. There's no national law specifically addressing gay sexuality, and the Buddhism and Taoism practiced by many Chinese have no specific objections to it. However, cultural pressures to marry remain intense, and gay issues almost never are discussed in the state-run media.
Yet gay clubs in Shanghai, Beijing and other cities are proliferating, the Internet is allowing gays to meet through chat rooms and the Chinese Psychological Assn. declassified homosexuality as an illness a year ago. Last fall, the Ministry of Health said that it needed to do more to combat AIDS among gay Chinese, the first public acknowledgment by the government that a gay community even exists.
On screen, then, it is not surprising that gay romance has never passed the Ministry of Film's censors. No mainland Chinese film depicting a lesbian relationship has ever been distributed anywhere, and the only other film shot there to deal with male homosexuality was the demeaning "East Palace, West Palace," in which a gay man arrested for cruising in a park is shown as a depraved, pathetic deviant.
" 'Lan Yu' gives a true image of gay people in mainland China, talking their language and showing their ability to love each other and coming across as very realistic," said Mei, the film scholar.
Despite the litany of awards for "Lan Yu," the film is not universally admired. Viewers unfamiliar with the intricacies of recent Chinese history and culture say they have trouble following the timeline and backdrop of the plot because Kwan forces the audience to decipher through the dialogue how much time had passed between scenes.
One high-profile defender of the film is Ang Lee, director of the 2000 box office hit "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" as well as the 1993 film "The Wedding Banquet," a cult comedy hit about the gay relationship between a Chinese immigrant and an American.
"If you're willing to go along with the way Stanley tells the story, you'll have a good time," Lee said. "The audience has to do a lot of filling in, that is true, but this is a very, very well-done melodrama with great emotions."
Kwan, who has moved on to work on a Chinese TV movie since "Lan Yu," is wary of being typecast as a gay director making gay movies. Still, he outed himself in his 1996 documentary, "Yang and Yin: Gender in Chinese Cinema," by interviewing his mother about her thoughts about his sexual orientation.
And, in the end, Kwan acknowledges, he believes "Lan Yu" is important mainly because it respects gay people.
"Some of my friends told me this is a comfortable film about the gay relationship," he said. "They weren't offended by the film or the performance because they said it seemed very, well, natural. That's what makes me really happy."
Steve Friess is a Las Vegas-based freelance journalist who in 2001 reported out of China for various publications.