Before Lan Yu, his new melancholy gay tragi-romance, veteran Hong Kong filmmaker Stanley Kwan had gone completely undistributed in this country—which is even more anomalous than you’d think, given his empathic temperament and yen for self-mythologizing melodrama. Kwan was the HK breakout’s Orpheus, assembling gorgeous elegies of doomed amour, and his most renowned films (1987’s Rouge, 1992’s Actress, and 1994’s Red Rose, White Rose) were that inflamed quarter’s equivalent to grown-up art films. Kwan’s approach isn’t commercial, but neither is it culturally hermetic. Applying a rhapsodic sincerity to potentially arch structuralist ideas—particularly with Actress, in which the love affair between reality and film loosely manifests as romantic fiction, reflexive documentary, archival reality, and cinema history re-creation, all mirroring each other—Kwan provided metacinema with a fiery human pulse. Movies are merely his window on the dharma of love—a window with a memory, a whimsical fogginess, and a habit of telling lovely lies.
It took Hollywood years to co-opt the neo-Peckinpah branniganism of Woo and Tsui, but Kwan’s brand of mournful sophistication is permanently out of fashion, even for import distributors. His 15th film, Lan Yu, has been brought to us courtesy of its homo hook; much of Kwan’s other work has merely the dubious distinction of being sublime. The new movie is also a relatively straightforward footnote to Kwan’s achievements, beautifully tracing the rise and fall of an unbalanced relationship but often mapping out familiar territory. The predictable narrative arc derives—like the sneakier Korean hit My Sassy Girl—from an online chronicle, by the anonymous “Beijing Comrade.” (The Mandarin comrade has long since swapped its Maoist meaning for the slang equivalent of queer.) Kwan’s protagonists are the eponymous student (Liu Ye), newly arrived in Beijing in 1988 with little more than a backpack, and Handong (Hu Jun), a wealthy, nearing-middle-age businessman-bachelor who on their first meeting lures Lan Yu away from a one-night hustle opportunity and into his bed.
The online story must’ve rocked mainland China, but Kwan’s movie may never be seen there, what with frontal nudity, the use of the Tiananmen Square massacre as an offscreen plot device, and dialogue like the rhetorical post-coital question “Where’d all this cum come from?” (The film was shot illegally in Beijing.) Lan Yu doesn’t lack for passion or precision. Kwan doles out details of the men’s subsequent union with confident jump cuts and elisions—enormous things happen off-camera, and a single suture can leap over months of incident. As in his previous films, much of Lan Yu‘s point of view is refracted through mirrors—a time-honored but still eloquent metaphor for the subjectivity of love and movies. The fissures in the landscape are culturally rooted: Handong enjoys Lan Yu as a boy-toy but believes he is destined to be responsibly married. When he finally meets the right woman, the men’s intimate world of two disintegrates.
For all of its careful realism, Lan Yu is constructed around clichés, plummeting toward a modestly heroic sacrifice and a tearjerking act of fate. But Kwan is a master of shadow, quietude, and room noise, and Lan Yu is a disarmingly lived-in movie. For him, performances are the sum of their pregnant grace moments (you could say Maggie Cheung won at Berlin for Actress simply by how she listens to her co-stars), and though Hu (East Palace, West Palace) expertly rides the roller-coaster bumps of his capitalist hotshot’s confused career, Liu Ye’s laconic country lad is a masterwork of subtle physical acting. Cow-eyed (giving Handong as well as us the idea he’s a bit dimmer than he actually is), slow to react, and slack-limbed (the lazy walk is indelible), Liu makes an undeniable, and curiously irritating, impression. As with a genuine acquaintance, you sense that what makes you unconsciously bristle about Lan Yu is what attracts Handong. Of course, Liu may generate contrasting reactions in as many viewers—that’s movie acting in four dimensions.
Kwan may have been something of an American art-house anti-fashion, but Zhang Yimou has known middle-class acclaim like a show dog knows shampoo. Seen from today’s vantage—from the extremely minor key of Happy Times—it isn’t a stretch to wonder if Zhang’s ascendancy to Fifth Generation maestro in the late ’80s/early ’90s wasn’t mostly due to Gong Li, well-trained cinematographers, and our fascination with historical Chinese misogyny. Based on a novel temptingly titled Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh, Happy Times is also beholden to hoary formulas—specifically, every selfish-curmudgeon-saddled-with-inconvenient-child retread since Little Miss Marker. Zhao (Zhao Benshan) is a poor, love-hungry retiree struggling to marry a duplicitous sow (Leng Qibin), whose wish to unload blind teenage stepdaughter Wu Ying (Dong Jie) becomes a deal maker/breaker. Zhao begins financing his connubials by sprucing up an abandoned bus to lease to horny lovers (one of several plot tangents that must make more sense in China); soon, his concern for the thorny and all-but-unwanted Wu Ying dominates his life. With no eye on the near future, Zhao and his retired buddies trick the waif into thinking she has a legitimate job by fabricating a fake massage parlor—convincing only to the touch—in the middle of an unused warehouse.
That Zhang would make such a strainingly cute film—with a blind orphan at its center, no less—indicates where his ambitions have wandered. The material is broad, but Zhang exercises capable restraint, ensuring that the tender repartee never escalates into vaudeville. (As Zhao’s reluctant buddy and wary financier, Li Xuejian is a quiet riot.) Schmaltz served in a hand-painted cup, Happy Times culminates in a Chekhovian complement of two narrated letters that have a mutually corresponding force the rest of the film only hints at. By then, our hopes have fatally diminished.
Meanwhile, in the Beverly Hills of the American mind, the new hagio-stool The Kid Stays in the Picture is somehow being deemed newsworthy—and releasable. Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein’s showbiz doc isn’t merely based upon Robert Evans’s self-serving autobiography; it is absolutely nothing more than Evans reading his book aloud as narration over digitized publicity shots, film clips, and roving-camera tours of his house. No interviews mitigate Evans’s first-person account of his charmed life, or his laughable tough-guy patois; even Behind the Music does more research. As you’d expect, Coppola and Polanski are pegged as brilliant nuisances who were never as integral to the successes of The Godfather and Chinatown as Evans was himself. The movie’s only discernible purpose is as publicity for the book. An admitted egomaniac, Evans is no Hollywood villain, and yet this grating showcase almost makes you wish he’d gone the way of Don Simpson. Instead, he’ll probably get an Irving Thalberg award.