Two Summer Skirts

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Although shot in Beijing with a mainland cast and crew, Stanley Kwan's "Lan Yu" could only have been made by a Hong Kong filmmaker. The signs are all there-expressive editing, unabashedly sentimental music and uninhibited melodrama amidst overwhelming alienation. What makes the film stand out, however, is the restraint Kwan exercises in unfolding the melodrama, teasing and testing us with a careful mix of independent and mainstream sensibilities, as many of the new wave Hong Kong filmmakers did back in the '80s.

A man sees the body of a friend in a morgue and we see him wailing in distress onscreen while we perceive but cold silence on the soundtrack. In another scene, two old lovers meet on a Beijing campus where we see them in long takes, chatting, flirting, and catching up on lost time, before Kwan unloads a flurry of quick shots as they embrace, the kind of passion that exists only in short breaths and unexpected manifestations.

The lovers are two men-the wealthy businessman Handong (Hu Jun) and his younger, inexperienced boy-toy Lan Yu (Liu Ye). Even from their first sexual encounter after Handong rescues the country lad from a perverted pool-hall owner, the elder maintains that their relationship is fleeting. "When they know each other too well," he tells the young Lan Yu, then it is time for them to move on. While he showers the college student with gifts ranging from flannel shirts to a new villa outside the city, Lan Yu finds it impossible to be perceived as simply a phase in an older, richer man‚s sexual prowess. "I must be crazy," he says to Handong, "because with all the girls in college, I still stay with you."

Watching Lan Yu quietly walk around naked in Handong's apartment, or knock on his door in excited jubilee not knowing that behind the door his lover is engaged with another college student, you mournfully witness youth slipping away under the auspices of sexual selfishness. Handong, feeling the heat from his married sister and the pressure of being a Chinese man, eventually marries a woman and for years we see nothing of Lan Yu. Months or even years may pass with each of Kwan's cuts. Handong and Lan Yu run into each other several times throughout the film, and with each meeting, Lan Yu's face shows the wear of romantic maturation, and Handong's shows the regret of knowing he may have given up the love of his life.

It's an extremely romantic film, possibly the most convincing gay couple I've seen in any movie, probably because the film downplays the gay stereotypes that often distract us from what's most important-the relationship. This isn't a film about gay rights or issues, it's about love in a new setting. Yet given the frankness when it comes to full male nudity and the ever-present pressures of Chinese cultural attitudes regarding family, business, and politics, the gay issue is always present, just never brought to the fore. This doesn't mean the film is afraid to tackle gay issues, but shows how bold it is by not preaching to us, but by making us trust the characters, not their labels.

"Lan Yu" is based on an underground novel "Beijing Gushi" ("Beijing Story") written anonymously and released on the internet in 1996. The film adaptation, which surely will not be released theatrically in mainland China, was shot secretly in Beijing, and it's amazing that a small feature made under such conditions could be so composed and impeccably paced. The cold blues and blacks of designer/editor William Chang ("Chungking Express," "In the Mood for Love") take us to the sterile emotional depths of the underground gay community. In one of the film's more ethereal moments, Handong drives down a barren forest road while Lan Yu sits in the passenger seat singing along to the pop song on the radio. The shot has a comforting symmetry, with the empty road ahead and rows of trees to the sides. Yet it feels out of focus and in a foggy grey haze, the future of their love in a beautiful, inescapable blur.

The only other Stanley Kwan film I've seen is his magnificent "The Actress," one of the most intelligent biopics ever made. Kwan is living up to his reputation as a modern Douglas Sirk, fusing brilliant melodrama with contemporary sensibilities, a task Hollywood has repeatedly failed to grasp. The plot of "Lan Yu" moves briskly and confidently while the emotions, though heavy, don't feel forced but appear to sprout naturally from a universe of heavy cultural contradictions. Powerful and tragic, "Lan Yu" is a great film from one of Hong Kong's most respected filmmakers.


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