Stanley Kwan’s gay drama, set in 1980s Beijing, feels more impressionistic than a deeply-felt journey with its characters, though the performances are compelling enough to overcome its rather lean narrative.
Cast: Liu Ye, Hu Jun
Plot: Poor Beijing university student Lan Yu meets the older and successful Handong in what turns out to be a life-changing sexual initiation.
Awards: Nom. for Un Certain Regard Award (Cannes); Won 4 Golden Horses – Best Director, Best Leading Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing; Nom. for 6 Golden Horses – Best Film, Best Leading Actor, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Makeup & Costume Design, Best Sound Effects
Distributor: Golden Scene
Subject Matter: Moderate – LGBTQ
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
Viewed: Singapore Chinese Film Festival – GV Suntec
Perhaps the closest high-profile gay drama from a Chinese filmmaker made around the time Lan Yu was released was Happy Together by Wong Kar-Wai, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival four years earlier in 1997.
It is not difficult to say which had been the more acclaimed or popular film, but that doesn’t take away from Stanley Kwan’s admirable stab at the LGBTQ genre.
Similarly competed at Cannes, Lan Yu is slowly but surely gaining a reappraisal as an important milestone in Chinese queer cinema.
Set in 1980s Beijing, Kwan’s work centres on the eponymous character, a young, working-class student, who befriends and falls in love with an older businessman, Handong.
“You probably won’t believe this… but I really like you.”
In some way blinded by love, Lan Yu is forced to confront the realities of the future and the limitations of a homosexual relationship in a highly-conservative communist country.
The performances by Liu Ye and Hu Jun are believable and compelling enough to overcome its rather lean narrative. Running at less than 90 minutes, Lan Yu feels more impressionistic than a deeply-felt journey with its characters.
Having said that, Kwan successfully develops an intimate atmosphere, set against the backdrop of the sociopolitical context of the time, though with the lack of visual cues, this backdrop seems more interpretive than something that significantly informs the narrative and characters.
It may be an exaggeration to say that Lan Yu is an impressive work, but even if it ultimately falls into certain cliches, there is something enigmatic about seeing it all unfold, right till its final masterful closing shot.