Jun Hu and Ye Liu in Lan Yu (2001)


(director: Stanley Kwan; screenwriters: Jimmy Ngai/based on the Internet novel ”Beijing Story” written under the pen name Beijing Comrade; cinematographer: Yang Tao/Jian Zhang; editor: William Chang; music: Yadong Zhang; cast: Liu Ye (Lan Yu), Hu Jun (Chen Handong), Su Jin (Jingping), Li Huatong (Liu Zheng), Lu Fang (Yongdong), Zhang Yongning (Daning); Runtime: 86; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Yongning Zhang; Strand Releasing; 2001-Hong Kong-in Mandarin with English subtitles)

“A gay love story based on an anonymous Internet novel.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

“Lan Yu” is a gay love story based on an anonymous Internet novel published in 1997. This novel galvanized the unrecognized underground gay community of China and established a new way to get its books published. It’s about a torrid romance between two Beijing men, a wealthy older manipulative commodities trader approaching middle-age, Chen Handong (Hu Jun), and a young poor wide-eyed architecture student Lan Yu (Liu Ye). It’s directed by the openly gay Hong Kong filmmaker Stanley Kwan (“Rouge”/”The Actress”), and scripted by Jimmy Ngai. Supposedly, the film eliminated the novel’s heavy reliance on porn-like sex and even toned done the melodramatics. Well-acted and surprisingly old-fashioned, except for the sensually explicit sex scenes, it reminds one of a cheesy pulp fiction American melodrama. The reason for all the indoor scenes is because Kwan shot it clandestinely in Beijing without government approval. Though an American audience might not find it shocking (it nevertheless did not get a wide theater distribution), its candid sexual and political viewpoints have caused the government to ban it in China (which should tell you something about China). It’s a groundbreaking film, as commercial films in China so far have for the most part stayed away from dealing so openly with homosexuality (Wong Kar-Wai’s more chaste gay-themed Happy Together is one such commercial Chinese venture that comes to mind).

In 1988, Lan Yu is a college student just arriving from the country and meets older wealthy businessman Liu Zheng (Li Huatong) for gay sex in which he receives payment. Through him Lan Yu was to prostitute himself out to a gay owner of a pool-hall to get much needed cash, but instead meets Chen Handong there and has a one-night stand with him. Their good sex makes this a life-changing experience for both, but it takes Handong the length of the pic to realize that Lan Yu is his man. The ambitious businessman, doing some kind of shady business with the Soviets that is never explained which will later on cause him big legal woes, takes their relationship lightly, as we follow them through the quickly passing years in their on-again, off-again relationship. The two don’t become a permanent couple as obstacles keeping popping up and Handong has a roving eye which leads to many other men in his life. Then there’s Handong’s impulsive short-lived marriage, probably to find acceptability in a homophobic Chinese society, that keeps them apart. To keep the laconic and passive Lan Yu happy, the unflappable go-getter Handong lavishes expenses gifts on him and buys him an expensive villa, where the two bunk down.

The film uses the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 and the shady dealings of the country’s new rich business leaders as central plot devices. Seemingly without warning, as if there was a gap in the story, it comes to an emotionally abrupt ending that seemed senseless and not presented with enough weight for this viewer to be as touched by it as I should–it’s the only time Handong shows any emotion at all, as he cries out loud over his loss at a time when he’s ready to make a full commitment to the now more experienced Lan Yu.

It’s an intense and credible account of a gay relationship that’s wisely played out in such a time and place where things are in constant change and turmoil. The sparks given off by the lovers and their unfailing attraction for each other is what gives the film its purpose and honesty. To read too much else into this flawed but interesting look at gay sex in Beijing I think would prove fruitless.