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With: Hu Jun, Liu Ye
Written by: Jimmy Ngai
Directed by: Stanley Kwan
MPAA Rating: R for strong sexual content, nudity and some language
Language: Mandarin with English subtitles
Running Time: 86
Date: 05/18/2001

Lan Yu (2001)

3 Stars (out of 4)

What 'Lan Yu' Did Last Summer

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

While his contemporaries were off making slick, action-oriented films, Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan went in another direction. He concentrated on picturesque, ornate, slow-moving weepies about beautiful women in distress -- films like Rouge (1987) with Anita Mui, Actress (1992) with Maggie Cheung and Red Rose, White Rose (1994) with Joan Chen.

In fact, Kwan shared an affinity with George Cukor, a director who was forced to hide his gayness during Hollywood's golden years, while working with top actresses like Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, Audrey Hepburn, Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Ingrid Bergman and Judy Holliday. Cukor's reputation caused Clark Gable to fire him from Gone with the Wind, as Gable didn't want to be associated with such a "feminine" director.

But unlike Cukor, Kwan eventually was able to stand up and speak out.

In 1996, Kwan made the documentary Yang + Yin: Gender in Chinese Cinema, which gave him the freedom to begin exploring his own sexuality. The following year, he made Hold You Tight, his first openly homosexual film, which suffered from a stifling restraint, even though it showed a markedly different approach to his filmmaking.

Finally, Kwan has nailed it. His new film Lan Yu, which opens today at the Castro and plays through July 11, shows a relaxed hand, and a filmmaker grown increasingly comfortable with his place in the world.

Shot on a shoestring budget with a minimal crew, Lan Yu has a loose, immediate, gritty feel, taking in the texture and smell of the city streets and messy apartments.

The film takes place over many years and plays out like an old-fashioned Chinese melodrama, but Kwan's edgy take on the material gives it new life, rather than splashing it with the leaden, opulent splendor expensive cinematography affords.

Chen Handong (Jun Hu) is a successful businessman who enjoys quick and secret gay encounters whenever his schedule allows, but he's not particularly interested in getting tied down. He meets a young, dewy-eyed architecture student named Lan Yu (Liu Ye), new in Beijing and very wet behind the ears.

The two men share an evening of passion, but Handong warns Lan Yu not to get attached. He's not in this for the long term.

Despite this, Lan Yu becomes strongly smitten, and his naive charm keeps Handong coming back for more.

The rest of the film chronicles the men's cat-and-mouse chase over the next several years. Lan Yu approaches Handong, who rebuffs him, and vice versa, when Handong finds that he's still thinking of Lan Yu after a failed relationship.

Eventually, Handong finds himself in serious trouble and has no one but Lan Yu to turn to for help. (Kwan beautifully foreshadows the movie's ending during the men's first meeting.)

Kwan does not overtly describe the passing of time. We know only through subtly written dialogue how many weeks, months or years the lovers have been apart. This helps the movie's street-level aesthetic; we feel as if we're inside the movie rather than watching a framed canvas with detached subjectivity.

Most of the film takes place inside various apartments and hideouts; even discreet exterior locations have the feel of a private getaway. Kwan uses doorways and mirrors to marvelous effect, gently underlining the emotional (and physical) ties that keep these men coming back to each other again and again through thick and thin.

Still, Lan Yu seems altogether too slight to be called any kind of masterpiece. It is, however, a completely honest, open-hearted film that should appeal to anyone willing to succumb to it.

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