LAN YU: Drama. Starring Hu Jun, Liu Ye. Directed by Stanley Kwan. (Not rated. In Mandarin with English subtitles. 86 minutes. At the Castro.)
“Lan Yu” is a sexually frank film based on an anonymous Internet novel about a torrid romance between two Beijing men. But it’s really just old- fashioned melodrama, dressed up with lustrous cinematography and a few nods to history.
Pulpy and mesmerizing, the picture follows a tortured, decadelong affair between a young student and a rich businessman who wines, dines and disillusions him. Though the story touches on Tiananmen Square and homophobia, the backdrop falls away so Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan can focus on the men’s unshakable, if dysfunctional, bond.
Kwan lends a dark, smoky look to the movie. He shot it without government approval, which might explain the preponderance of indoor scenes and resulting motif of mussed beds and steamy bathrooms.
The businessman’s colleagues know about his sexuality, and he’s not shy about picking up joggers at a park
The film sometimes grows so dark that people’s faces are unreadable — either due to poor lighting or a rather enthusiastic attempt at noir. Even this misstep fuels the sense of gloomy intimacy, enhanced by the striking physical chemistry between Liu Ye, as student Lan Yu, and Hu Jun, as the older man who hires him as a rent boy and then strings him along.
This guy’s a player. He showers the young man with lavish gifts and wants to snuggle after their first encounter. Yet he warns the young man not to get too close. You know the kind.
The student is encouraged enough to think they have a future together. Liu plays Lan Yu as pouty but determined to snag his fella. He’ll take the clothes and the money, Liu’s shrug says, but he really wants something more.
The older man would have been a creep were he not played by the marvelous Hu, who imbues his character with an inner life missing from the script by Jimmy Ngai (from the Internet novel). Beneath the corporate-slick exterior lies guilt and yearning, which Hu shows when the businessman visibly stifles his affection for Lan Yu, or when he brightens at finding a woman to marry.
Playing with a young man’s heart isn’t enough; he also wants to dupe a woman. This is where the movie should have gone further, into disapproval of homosexuality in Chinese society. But there’s no indication, outside of Hu’s conflicted portrayal, of why this guy suddenly would feel a need to hide.
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Tiananmen Square is introduced, it seems, as a device to reunite the lovers after a separation; the uprising is depicted from within the businessman’s office, via distant sirens and shouting.
Just as facile is the portrayal of Lan Yu as a country bumpkin. He supposedly hasn’t kissed anyone until the businessman. Yet this beautiful young man, in his tussled mod haircut, drapes himself luxuriously across the older man’s bed after their first tryst.
Stanley Kwan 26th San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival (HANDOUT PHOTO) HANDOUT
If Lan Yu were indeed such an innocent — unlikely, since they like guys like him in the country, too — his maiden experience would be infinitely more awkward, and nothing like the Calvin Klein ad it’s portrayed as here.