When first-time producer Zhang Yongning decided to make a film version of Beijing Story, an anonymously published cybernovel legendary in Chinese gay circles for its near pornographic attention to detail, he had only one candidate in mind: Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan, famed for his swooning evocations of disastrous love and, alone among his peers, an out gay man. Kwan recalls that when he first read it, the story (whose author was later revealed to be a woman who has since emigrated to the States) didn’t strike him as particularly ripe for adaptation. “Some elements were clichéd—too much like soap opera,” he says. “And the first few chapters are very explicit; everything is spelled out.”
Looking beyond the obvious plot pit-stops and steamy action (the former tempered by haunting ellipses and the latter handled with erotic economy in the resulting film, titled Lan Yu), Kwan found himself gravitating to the emotional torques in the on-off affair between Handong, a well-connected businessman, and the eponymous architecture student a decade his junior. “The details are not the same, but it reminded me of my own experiences with my boyfriend over the last 12 years, especially during a period when he was considering leaving Hong Kong.” Like many of Kwan’s love stories, Lan Yu details a cycle of cruel imbalances and ironic reversals. “For a long time Handong is in a superior position, but as he becomes vulnerable, Lan Yu becomes more independent.”
As with any project that bypasses the Film Bureau, Lan Yu is deemed an illegal film in China. Kwan won’t get into specifics about the surreptitious production but credits his producer, a Beijing native and part-time actor (he has a small role in the movie), for his “experience and common sense.” The authorities have taken no action beyond issuing verbal warnings to the two leads—perhaps surprising given that homosexuality is not the only taboo the film broaches. The pandemonium of Tiananmen Square is discernible—fleetingly and from afar but charged with significance. After Lan Yu escapes the military crackdown, “that’s the moment Handong decides to commit to him,” says Kwan. “We couldn’t avoid showing June 4 because of the time span, and we need to see the external world affecting the internal world of their relationship.”
Kwan concedes that Lan Yu is his most straightforward work yet—and he considers it progress, of a sort. “Maybe it’s age,” says the 44-year-old director. “I feel I was too serious in my early films, always depressed, always making sure that I’m saying something.” This modest assessment belies the intoxicated movie-love on view in the luxuriant ghost story Rouge, the shadowy diptych Red Rose, White Rose, and especially the prismatic biopic Actress. (Those festival hits, which established Kwan’s reputation as a superlative “women’s director,” arguably remain career-best showcases for Anita Mui, Joan Chen, and Maggie Cheung.) The documentary he made for the British Film Institute as part of its 1996 series on national cinemas is a clear turning point. Kwan’s Yang + Yin offered a sly analysis of homoeroticism and gender fluidity in Chinese movies and a personal coming-out, culminating with an on-camera conversation with his mother.
Since Yang + Yin, Kwan’s movies have grown at once more immediate and emotionally messier (Hold You Tight mapped an unruly but utterly convincing diagram of encumbered attractions). Death, he says, will always cast a shadow, because he’s gripped by “a terrifying fear of sudden loss.” Though Kwan now claims to value a comparatively monastic directness, he’s too much of an aesthete to ever forswear visual beauty—which is, in any case, inseparable from his notion of tragedy. “I’m not a person with great confidence—as an individual, I mean, not as a film director,” he says. “When I put something beautiful up on-screen, somehow there’s also doubt and insecurity.” Often termed a Far East descendant of Sirk, this master melodramatist says he found inspiration closer to home. “I was a big fan of Cantonese opera. My mother used to take me when I was a kid, and those stories had a great impact on me—beautiful women, talented men, tragic endings.”
While at least two previous underground Chinese features (East Palace West Palace and Man Man Woman Woman) dealt with gay subject matter, Kwan’s film qualifies as the first gay romance to emerge from the mainland. It arrives a year after homosexuality was declassified as a mental illness, though the tentative advances from the closet still coexist with strong social pressures to wed—as Handong does in the film. “It’ll be even harder for the next generation because of the one-child policy,” Kwan points out. Zhang and Kwan plan to collaborate again on gay-themed features set in mainland China. Even if the censors never grant these films a release, it’s safe to assume that they’ll find a local audience. “When I got back to Beijing five days after Lan Yu was released in Hong Kong,” says Zhang, “bootleg DVDs were everywhere—and they were being sold for twice the normal price.”