That Obscure Object of Desire
Andrew Chan on Lan Yu
Thinking about Stanley Kwan’s Lan Yu, I find it impossible to separate the film from a memory of adolescence, one that I sometimes take pleasure in glorifying as a key moment in my cinephilic puberty. In the years before I got a driver’s license, I would nag my dad every week to take me to the one video store in our city with a substantial foreign-film selection. Though I was already out to my sister and a few close friends, it never occurred to me, compulsively strait-laced as I was, to be so transgressive as to venture into the gay section of the store—certainly not on my father’s watch. If I ever did have the thought I would have rejected it as a kind of betrayal, especially since my father had lovingly assumed the role of chauffeur just so I might cultivate a deeper passion for movies.
On each visit, though, I would make sure to stroll through the Asian aisle to steal another glance at the cover of Lan Yu, with its image of two Chinese men standing in pre-kiss proximity. Of course I lacked the nerve to smuggle it home, but in addition to being extremely curious about what simulated sex between two Chinese actors would look like, I was tantalized by the sense that this movie would surely contain some hint of a life or a sensibility I could understand, some alternative to the American gay culture I felt alienated from. I imagine Lan Yu will always toll me back to that initial desire.
As the audience of any form of storytelling, we are often pulled between the urge for an encounter with the new and unknown and the partly narcissistic wish to find ourselves reflected in characters with whom we can identify. My memory of Lan Yu provokes the perhaps unanswerable question of whether it’s a right or a privilege to see one’s ethnic or sexual identity represented and taken seriously on the big screen—a question that, depending on whom you ask, may be considered banal, sentimental, or unfashionable. With Harold Bloom having spent at least the past fifteen years lambasting the “School of Resentment” for prizing social concerns over great literature, and Paul Schrader recently blaming the “Nonjudgmentals” for precipitating “the fall of the canon,” is it possible anymore to note that spectatorship and aesthetic emotion are profoundly influenced by our politicized identities without being accused of advancing some uncritical, touchy-feely, anti-art dogma?
Like almost every other moviegoer at one point or another, I had a teenage self that was looking to cinema as both an antidepressant and a romanticization of my own grievances. I had also figured that if I was going to call upon queer movies to throw a pity party in my honor I didn’t want to end up feeling like the lone racial outsider in the crowd. The irony is that, when I finally did catch up with Lan Yu three years ago, it turned out to have as little to do with my experience as a Chinese-American gay man as those edgier, whiter films of the New Queer Cinema or the gay caricatures in Hollywood comedies. Not unlike the communities in which we find ourselves in real life, movies marketed to marginalized demographics try to extend the comforts of sympathy and unity, but usually only end up throwing the viewer’s individuality and separateness into sharp relief. It’s embarrassing to think I hadn’t predicted as much, since Kwan’s movie is clearly entrenched in the political anxieties of a specific time and place I never shared.
Released in 2001, Lan Yu is the product of a pivotal moment in director Stanley Kwan’s life and career, and also of the demands of an increasingly outspoken Chinese gay viewership. Five years earlier, Kwan came out publicly, becoming the first prominent openly gay auteur in the Chinese-speaking world. As if to create a spectacle out of this momentous occasion, he made the essay film Yang ± Yin: Gender in Chinese Cinema (commissioned by the British Film Institute for their series “The Century of Cinema”), which coupled strands of intimate confession and Freudian revelation with an analysis of same-sex themes buried in the movies he grew up with. While I haven’t been able to find the film on video or DVD, the lengthy transcripts and scholarship I’ve read suggest that, despite being an unprecedentedly public examination of its topic, Yang ± Yin often captures a tone of evasiveness—not only from interviewees such as directors Chang Cheh and John Woo, both of whom are famous for their macho male-bonding classics, but also (in the style of reality TV) from Kwan’s mother, who beats around the bush as if to avoid becoming another one of her son’s tearful heroines.
Kwan followed this first foray into documentary with 1997’s Hold You Tight and 1999’s The Island Tales, two muddled, sometimes barely watchable dramas of intersecting lives in which queer desire finally becomes Kwan’s primary lens, even though the gay characters themselves remain—like Maggie Cheung’s wishy-washy lesbian in Kwan’s Full Moon in New York (1990)—little more than sideshow attractions. Outness, it seems, had presented itself as an aesthetic stumbling block in Kwan’s career, but with Lan Yu he transformed it into an opportunity for reimagining the style of melodrama he brought to art-house prominence with women’s pictures like Rouge, Actress, and Red Rose, White Rose. In a time when the disclosure of one’s sexuality is slowly becoming less of a perilous decision even for Chinese public figures, it is important to reflect on Lan Yu as an example of a newly out director feeling his way around his freedom (as well as his ambivalence toward it), and reaching out to embrace an audience he can now communicate with in more forthright terms.
“Forthright,” though, may not be the precise word to describe what happens within the first few scenes, in which closeted businessman Handong (Hu Jun) wipes semen off the college-aged title character (Liu Ye) before teaching him how to kiss, as the two lie naked in Handong’s dark, cavernous apartment. Earlier Kwan films were cheeky with their homoerotic openings: in Actress (1992), history seems to float right off the steam and sweat in a Shanghai male bathhouse; in the much bolder Hold You Tight (1997), we are greeted with the shock of seeing one of Hong Kong’s most famous comic actors, Eric Tseng, taking it up the ass. But never before had Kwan offered a mix of pleasure, intimacy, and apprehension remotely as convincing as this scene. Noticeably absent is that sense we sometimes get from straight directors venturing into male-on-male eroticism, namely the let’s-get-this-over-with approach in Ang Lee’s unsexy Brokeback Mountain and Wong Kar-wai’s otherwise magnificent Happy Together. Surprisingly for a filmmaker celebrated for his lovelorn melodramas, Lan Yu represents the first romance in Kwan’s entire oeuvre to which we can surrender ourselves completely—and much of this achievement lies in the casual ease with which this sex scene introduces the thrill and risk of two people enjoying the process of seduction, and the way that the rest of the film slowly unravels the initial binary of Handong as experienced predator and Lan Yu as naïve prey. At the same time, the scene reminds us that, despite his reputation as a filmmaker navigating the depths of romantic passion, Kwan has often adopted a chilly disposition, whether in his recurring spectral motifs, his fascination with impenetrable heroines, or—as in all his openly queer films, including Lan Yu—his interest in the anonymity of sex and human connection in urban life.
Also discernible early on are the film’s origins in soap-opera clichés. While much of Kwan’s best work has been adapted from prestigious literary sources, Lan Yu was inspired by a popular online novella called “Beijing Story,” posted in 1996 by an anonymous Chinese woman living in the U.S. Though the men’s one-night stand blooms into a relationship, we can predict soon enough that Handong will try to keep Lan Yu at arm’s length by bedding more young flesh, and that Lan Yu will try and fail to develop a protective shell around his emotions. We can even guess that Handong will buy his young lover a big house, that he will later leave the boy to settle down with a wife, and then finally come running back, crying, “How did I ever let you go?” Based on cyber-literature, the plot is easy to condescend to, and Kwan himself has stated in interviews that it was too melodramatic for his taste. But there’s also something inherently subversive in the choice of material, since it throws a spotlight on how publication on the Internet has served as a means of cultural and political dialogue among modern Chinese readers, filling a gap that the nation’s more distinguished (and more easily censored) literary fiction has often failed or been unable to attend to.
The brand of Chinese melodrama that Kwan has built a career out of revamping has its own distinctly literary foundation; whoever decided to name the genre wenyi pian (or “literature-art-films”) obviously wanted to connect popular cinema to the highest forms of creative expression the culture had produced. This language of long melancholy stares, murmurous voiceovers, and unarticulated sorrows reached an apex in Fei Mu’s 1948 Spring in a Small Town, and several decades later, Kwan and his compatriots continue to revisit these same motifs, often contrasting the old-world nostalgia they invoke against present-day settings, and sometimes fragmenting them through an ostentatiously postmodern aesthetic.
As an example of wenyi pian, Lan Yu is more straightforward than Actress and Hold You Tight, with their playful, slippery narratives. Where quintessentially queer Western filmmakers from Fassbinder to Todd Haynes have delivered queasy renditions of old-fashioned melodrama that gnaw away at the genre’s illusions from the inside, Kwan, for all his postmodern affinities, evinces in Lan Yu’s sturdy, nearly humorless style a deep faith in melodrama’s capacity for verisimilitude. This is surely the least stylistically fussy of all his major films, the one that feels least like it’s located in a fever dream. But Lan Yu also escapes its potential for conventionality by intermittently reminding us how confident Kwan is as a visual stylist. Taking a cue from Happy Together, the film intersperses bits of black-and-white with grainy color cinematography, as if to destabilize wenyi pian’s classicism with a ragged heterogeneity, as well as to locate itself in Beijing’s eternally gray-skied, post-socialist limbo. As frank as Kwan’s approach to sexuality is, he still manages to preserve the sense of a love that dare not speak its name, using shallow-focus shots that loiter behind walls, windows, and doorframes to observe private emotion from a distance.
Running counter to this reticence is Kwan’s usual delight in using up time to linger on an embrace or caress. This rhythmic use of repetition has been pulled by directors ranging from Wong Kar-wai to Spike Lee, but, used sparingly by Kwan, it is pitched at a more intense level of intimacy, as the camera shows an affectionate gesture from one angle and then another, and even places our view right at someone’s neck or shoulder so we feel as though we could breathe the moment in. Since the sensuality associated with wenyi’s elegant sets and soft, gauzy textures is nowhere to be found in the film’s often clinical view of modern-day Beijing, Kwan is led to rediscover the genre’s typically sublimated eroticism in the sight of two people holding fast to each other. Amid the nation’s political turmoil and the city’s physical transformation, the embrace serves as a momentary reassurance of corporeality, as well as a desperate attempt to stanch time’s flow.
Kwan’s experimental sense of screen time pushes against the boundaries of a conventional plot. In the span of a brisk 86 minutes, Lan Yu proceeds through flashes of narrative, as though salvaging privileged moments from a forgotten temporal progression. If this sounds like yet another steal from Wong’s bag of themes, it should be noted that in this film Kwan’s vision of love and lost time is much less lush and mythic; most of the story, in fact, seems fueled by a kind of modern-day gay pragmatism, an awareness of what one has to be and do to maintain a foothold in a homophobic society, and a knowingness about love’s inability to conquer all. Screenwriter Jimmy Ngai (who scripted Hold You Tight and The Island Tales) has chosen to eliminate many of the original novella’s sloppy, overdramatic details and replace them with ellipses. While this lends the banal source material a sense of having been hollowed out to a poetic essence, it also means that, like Yang ± Yin, Lan Yu is both engaging and evasive.
One of Lan Yu’s oddest achievements is how it manages to balance its own matter-of-factness about homosexuality with a sense that the characters are living in a protective silence, letting few friends and almost no relatives in on their secret, and having no opportunity to participate in an emergent gay activist movement that, in China in the 1980s, had yet to fully mobilize. The usual tropes of contemporary gay struggle (at least in Western discourse)—the coming to terms with one’s sexuality, the experience of everyday discrimination, and the denial of civil rights—are not touched upon here. Neither is there a sustained exploration of how homosexuality comes into conflict with Confucian ethics of filial piety, since the two lovers don’t seem to be especially communicative with their families and Handong’s marriage to a woman is treated as a flash in the pan with no lasting consequences or implications.
Perhaps most emblematic of this push-and-pull between private disclosure and political restraint is a plot twist that grounds Lan Yu in modern Chinese history. At the end of the film’s first third, the Tiananmen Square Massacre of June 4, 1989, rears its head in one brief but powerful sequence, demonstrating how one form of political urgency is nested within a persistent cultural trauma. The scene takes a circuitous route around the killings, with frantic bicyclists, spooky streetlamps, and haunted, empty alleyways standing in for the actual violence. But, in a way, the immediate legibility of this shorthand goes to show what a central place the event occupies in Chinese cultural memory.
Throughout his work, Kwan has mastered this effect of conflating sorrows, of having one suppressed voice substitute for (or compete with) another. In referencing the historic demonstrations for Chinese democracy that were led by students Lan Yu’s age, Kwan creates a surprising double effect. On the one hand, through mere association, the film implicitly universalizes the issue of gay oppression for a large audience of Chinese viewers who recognize the Tiananmen massacre (often referred to as “6/4”) as an era-defining assault on freedom. On the other hand, this move deemphasizes the notion that homophobia is its own unique social evil, casting it in a network of other injustices, and perhaps even suggesting the difficulty of maintaining a specifically queer perspective in a nation where individual liberties of all kinds are constantly curtailed. Indeed, the film leaves us not with a call to arms for gay rights, but with a meditation on Beijing’s rapidly changing urban landscape—a three-minute pan across an endless line of construction sites that increases in speed until the screen becomes a frightening gray blur. In an echo of Kwan’s Rouge, a film haunted by the disappearance of Hong Kong’s historical landmarks, Lan Yu finds the director once again memorializing a space in the process of both expanding and vanishing before our eyes.
Pinned down by very real tragedies, the film’s central romance closes with an abrupt, counterfeit one. By the end, one of the men has been sacrificed to the tear-jerking laws of melodrama, and the viewer is suddenly reminded of a scene in Hold You Tight in which a man jokingly asks his date, “Are we in a melodrama?” The sheer artificiality of the ending seems to serve as its own self-reflexive critique, an impulse for which appears throughout Kwan’s most adventurous work. In this admirably lean film, it is also the first time Kwan reveals his anxiety about the story’s excesses, giving the lie to its manipulations by quickly switching to slo-mo in order to capture the remaining lover sliding to the floor of the morgue in grief. This gesture leads one to wonder: is there some inherent connection between melodramatic emotion, meta-cinematic technique, and the queer aesthetic?
It’s a question that can be theorized without end, but the answer will probably be “Yes” for anyone alert to how the performance of emotion onscreen parallels that in real life—and particularly for those who know the acting skills required in gender or sexual passing, or the theatrical hysterics involved in a nasty coming-out experience. But in this case, Lan Yu’s awareness of its own histrionics—hinted in both its overt suppression and indulgence in emotion—does not make its conclusion any less unsettling. Many will rightly ask why gay romances made with the intention of “crossing over” must always end unhappily. Others, including myself, will admit that there’s a certain masochistic satisfaction in seeing one’s fears and torments pushed to the very limits of melodramatic fantasy and unleashed on gay and straight viewers alike in one final blast of despair.
More than almost any other contemporary Chinese filmmaker, Kwan has shown a career-long commitment to crossing borders, particularly into Chinese-speaking communities around the world. His earlier films have included multinational characters and highlighted the anxieties of postcolonial Hong Kong returning to Chinese power. By contrast, his most recent, primarily Mandarin-language work has set its sights on the experience of mainlanders. This reaffirmation of the Chinese heritage many Hong Kongers have (particularly post-Tiananmen) wanted so desperately to disown seems, in Kwan’s career, as vital and ambivalent an enterprise as his coming out. Begun in his ostentatiously polyglot films of the early Nineties, such as Full Moon in New York and Actress, and further mined in the use of accented Mandarin in his late-Nineties documentaries, Kwan’s insistence on highlighting Hong Kong’s kinship to China and Taiwan is a bold act of transnational self-definition, fraught with the pain and fear of insoluble cultural ties. As his first all-Mandarin film set in the mainland, Lan Yu represents a clean break from the dream of a self-contained Hong Kong cinema, which reached its peak in the Eighties, and sought to build a local identity onscreen through the exclusive use of slangy Cantonese dialect.
Given its negotiations between gay and Chinese politics, how has Lan Yu traveled? Engaging concerns about the sexual and the transnational, the film seeks to articulate both communities into being, and then to normalize (or, as some might charge, bourgeoisify) their coexistence. But any hopes Kwan might have had for a unified pan-Chinese audience would have been dashed by Lan Yu’s fragmented reception. In Hong Kong—where social conservatism lives side-by-side with liberal Western ideas of sexuality, and where the popular cinema had long been permeated by comic or freakish representations of sexual variance—the film became a modest hit, though it left the Hong Kong Film Awards empty-handed.
It was Taiwan where Lan Yu was greeted most warmly by both critics and audiences, and where doe-eyed Liu Ye and deep-voiced Hu Jun first became sex symbols. The openness of the Taiwanese market to gay themes has been reflected in its own history of diverse, homegrown queer cinema, ranging from popular movies like Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet (1993) to the period piece Fleeing by Night (2000), the innocent youth dramas Blue Gate Crossing (2002) and Eternal Summer (2006), and the art films of Tsai Ming-liang. As Chinese-language cinema increasingly becomes a scene driven by cross-pollinations and coproductions, the queer subgenre is one area in which Taiwan maintains some local distinction.
In China, Lan Yu’s reception has been quite different. Two major films with male homosexual themes—1993’s Palme d’or–winning Farewell My Concubine and 1996’s East Palace, West Palace (also starring Hu Jun)—had already come out of the mainland, but they had both been banned by the censors, a fate that Lan Yu would also experience. (Singapore and Malaysia, both of which are home to large ethnic-Chinese populations, have also banned the film.) The last time I visited China, I was surprised to learn that DVDs of Lan Yu could easily be found on the black market, but when I bought a copy, I discovered that both the sex and the entire Tiananmen scene had been edited out. Conversely, the film’s gay themes have been its selling point in the U.S., where it was distributed by the queer-friendly Strand Releasing, and remains the only Kwan film available on American DVD.
Reflecting on this, my mind travels back to my teenage years, when part of the allure of Lan Yu was how forbidden it looked, sitting there on the shelf in that video store, and how foreign and familiar it seemed to me as a Chinese American who had never stepped foot in China. I think about how strange it is that this elegant but also quite modest film should have been so important to me, and about how, for a large portion of its potential audience, the full cut of Lan Yu remains not only inaccessible but illegal, looming indefinitely as an obscure object of desire. It is in such cases that what we wish cinema could give us becomes perhaps even more overpowering than what it does.