My generation, people in their 40's and late 30's, has a very complicated feeling about mainland China and Hong Kong.
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Stanley Kwan. Strand Releasing
JULY 27, 2002. Hong Kong director, Stanley Kwan, 45, first won international acclaim with his 1987 film, "Rouge," billed as a 'supernatural love story.' In 1996, he became one of the few openly gay film directors in Asia when he came out on-screen in his widely-praised documentary, "Yang and Yin: Gender in Chinese Cinema." His latest ground-breaking film, "Lan Yu," shot without permits in Beijing, offers the first realistic portrayal of gay men in mainland China.
Based on the Chinese-language cult novel, "Beijing Story," first published anonymously on the Internet, "Lan Yu" explores the relationship between a closeted business man and a young architecture student under the shadow of Tiananmen Square. Recently, Kwan talked with The Gully about his life and work.
The Gully: You have said that you usually don't choose gay themes for your films. Why did you decide to make "Lan Yu?"
Stanley Kwan: I came out in 1996. So, when this project was suggested to me, it seemed like a natural project. I was a Christian in middle school, and I struggled with my own sexuality. But when I began working with young directors like Ann Hue, Patrick Tam, Tsui Hak and Dennis Yu, as an assistant director at Television Broadcast in Hong Kong, they were much more open-minded than I expected. I also had good experiences in my first and second films working with people like Edward Lam, a theater director who organized the Hong Kong Gay and Lesbian Film Festival during its first few years.
By the time I started shooting "Lan Yu," I was comfortable with my sexual identity, and felt I could use common sentiments; so in a way, what I was making was no longer a 'gay film.'
Why do you think the writer of "Beijing Story" chose the events at Tiananmen Square, June 4, 1989, as the moment of commitment for the closeted businessman, Handong? Was it a political commentary?
I think the choice was made for the sake of drama. The original novel was very melodramatic, too melodramatic for me, that's why I compressed this segment. But it was a time when people established or renewed relationships. The equivalent here would be 9-ll, which is responsible for this year's June and July baby boom. I think Tiananmen Square was something like this.
The writer, a woman from Beijing living in the United States, wasn't exactly happy with the adaptation. Few writers are. She wanted to have a lot more in it. In the book, she tells the reader every detail, including the wife's revenge [the businessman, Handong, marries a woman and that relationship fails]. When you make the transition to screen you have to make choices. I pared down some of the big emotional scenes so it wouldn't be too melodramatic, or clichéd.
Hong Kong was under British rule until 1997, when it became the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China. How have these political and cultural complications affected your work?
My generation, people in their forties and late thirties, has a very complicated feeling about mainland China and Hong Kong. When I work with young directors, you can really see China on one side as a mother figure, while on the other you see them struggling to develop their own culture, their own vision. It's like they're trying to avoid something, but are emotionally pulled towards it anyway.
It's the same for me. I'm not that interested in politics, in particular, but in 1997, my failure to deal with my relationship to Hong Kong emerged as a weakness in my own identity. I was working on a script then, about a young man who was wondering about his own [sexual] identity. After the final draft, I was having coffee with the writer when I realized that the underlying theme was my Hong Kong identity, being caught between love and hate.
My parents immigrated to Hong Kong before 1949 [when the Communists seized power in China]. They still have a real love for China. My father was a worker. I thought he was a Communist, and I hated hearing him listen to Chairman Mao tapes. I would get so angry that I would yank them out of the tape player. My younger brothers went to left-wing schools. But because I was the oldest boy, I was put in the best school, regardless of its politics.
I feel "Lan Yu" reflects me as a gay Hong Kong director. The external and internal worlds would be very different than what you'd see if a Beijing director had made it. That was another of the writer's criticisms, and something mentioned in some of the reviews. Because in the film you see two gay men trying to build their own world. A mainland director probably wouldn't try so hard to build a different world, and wouldn't be bothered by the outside world.
At the time, I was not conscious of how I was shaping the internal and external worlds, though they say something about me anyway, as a person from Hong Kong.
Although Hong Kong has its own laws, its own government, and people tell themselves it's a special district, the fact is every second your freedom is controlled by China. Like the couple in the film, every second your life is managed by society.
Even though I focused on the relationship, it still makes a difference to the movie that I'm Hong Kong, not mainland.
"Lan Yu" has been well-received in Hong Kong, and the actors have become amazingly popular, though the film hasn't been shown in China itself, aside from pirated videos. How do you explain the popularity? While there's been progress in the region, gay people are still largely invisible, or stigmatized.
The film opened really big in Hong Kong, and took off in Taiwan after three months when the DVD was released. Though in certain ways, Hong Kong is the most conservative of the Chinese cultures, it's also very civilized. I think that the audience just felt the chemistry between the two actors, and really believed in the story. The film was especially well received by the female audience. Women fell in love with the young actor Liu Ye (Lan Yu).
Nobody minded the explicit sex scenes?
No, which is strange. A straight friend of mine a macho guy who has always been friendly, but has had some reservations explained the film gave him a different perspective on gay life, that it's quite ordinary. I think most people found things they could relate to.
For me, the story is about two individuals having a relationship. As I read it again and again, erotic content aside, I really found something similar to the relationship with my boyfriend of the last 12 years. It showed how relationships form and evolve. How ordinary couples argue and make up. I think that's what people connect with.
In the United States, Lan Yu is now playing at the Quad Cinema in New York City, and opens August 23, 2002 at Laemmle's Fairfax Cinemas in Los Angeles. It will also be shown at upcoming lesbian and gay film festivals in Chicago, Fresno, and Tampa.
In June, Lan Yu was released in France by Epicentre, and in Canada by Mongrel Media. It will be released in Korea by Pacific Entertainment, and is available in Japan.
For a Stanley Kwan bio and filmography.
For Strand Releasing's Lan Yu site, which includes other theater listings.
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