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Defying China's Unwritten Rules

Stanley Kwan took on taboo topics--gay life and Tiananmen Square--in 'Lan Yu'

August 18, 2002|STEVE FRIESS

HONG KONG — 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.

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