lan yu (2002)


director: stanley kwan

hu jan, liu ye, su jin

If Stanley Kwan's Lan Yu is to be believed, there's a life to be lived in modern China that's not measurably different from the life of ambitious businessmen anywhere else in the world, a life of cell phones and German cars and business class travel and suburban monster homes. It's a world where Tiananmen Square is no more inconvenient than anti-globalization riots, and a hefty bribe will take care of charges of financial wrondoing that, in the absence of a bribe, might lead to a death sentence, the only sign - besides language - that the film isn't set in Atlanta, Vienna or Milan.

Handong (Hu Jan) is a successful businessman whose introduction to Lan Yu (Liu Ye) is simple enough - a starving student who'll do anything for money, and in Beijing a bit of amateur prostitution isn't apparently considered out of the ordinary. The two men become a couple of sorts, and though the relationship is still largely financial, real feelings develop. It ends when Handong decides he should get married and start a family, and starts again when that marriage ends, the older man unavoidably aware that he still has strong feelings for Lan Yu.

Kwan's film is strange, for a lot of reasons. It's uniquely unwilling to acknowledge China's communist past, in favor of the hypercapitalist culture set in motion by Mao's death. It's also a melodrama bizarrely drained of emotional excess, where political upheaval, divorce, bankruptcy, jail time and death all happen at the same emotional level as a car ride or the decoration of a new house. The fact that the love story that pushes the plot forward is a gay one is of almost no significance at all, and no one in the movie gives it a second thought.

Based on an internet novel, Lan Yu has an internet texture - slick but disjointed, where no one detail, plot point, or character motivation is more prominent than another. It happens in half-light, in darkened rooms and bluish light, and ends with a rush of speed that you wouldn't anticipate at its measured, matter-of-fact beginning. It is, without a doubt, a terribly strange film, hard to enjoy in any conventional way, fascinating and boring at the same time and often at the same moment, painfully romantic and utterly passionless.