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Position Player: Liu Ye plays a boy from the country who becomes an executive's lover in Stanley Kwan's 'Lan Yu.'

Beijing Comrades

A gay liaison rises and falls in 'Lan Yu'

By Richard von Busack

NOT FOR Stanley Kwan is that focus on unrequited love that's made Wong Kar-wei's career. Kwan's newest, Lan Yu, doesn't dwell in the trembling moment before a love affair begins. Instead, the film charts out the entire life of a romance, in all of its painful complexity. The film is based on a novel published on the Internet, Beijing Story. (The author, calling him/herself "Beijing Comrade," enjoyed such a large following that "comrade" has supposedly become a Chinese slang word for a gay man.) The story follows a nearly decade-long liaison between Handong (Hu Jun), a well-placed executive, and Lan Yu (Liu Ye), a boy from the country who's come to the capital to learn architecture. At first a trick, Lan Yu becomes the love of Handong's life. The Chinese have a typically pragmatic view of romantic love; a proverb quoted here says, "Like birds, couples fly apart when disaster strikes." Still, Lan Yu's much-tested faithfulness transcends the changes in Handong's fortunes, not to mention the turbulence in the People's Republic.

Based on its outline, Lan Yu sounds like old melodrama--a noble prostitute enduring, for love, what a better-born customer misunderstands as nothing but harmless sport. In one episode, for example, Handong decides to do the right thing and gets married to a woman in order to start a family. Subtly, Kwan fleshes out the story of two lovers: one powerful and well connected, one young and striving. The class struggle between them plays out mostly between the lines. The sharpest confrontation features Lan Yu jibing at his lover by sarcastically pretending to be a slave: "Master, in what position do you want me?"

Kwan's style is cool and complex, and he tells his story urgently. History intrudes; in a central sequence set in 1989, Handong bumbles into the retreat from the army raid on the protest at Tiananmen Square. The raid is depicted as a midnight rally of desperately speeding bicycles, illuminated in car headlights and police floodlights. After Tiananmen, Handong becomes a rich member of the post-Mao business hierarchy. Even so, we can't hate him. Though facing the world with the closed-off, grave face of a man in authority, the actor Hu Jun eloquently suggests the fear and personal repression that underlies arrogance.

Jimmy Ngai's script is tightly written; the terseness, however, comes at the expense of time sequences. Sometimes the viewer (and maybe it's just the Western viewer) gets stuck trying to figure out how much time has passed since the last scene. (Jean Renoir's films have this same trouble.) Still, in this ambitious film, the scope of changing life and lifestyles is compelling right up to the last memorable shot: a view of Beijing seen from a speeding car window, a zoetrope of concrete freeway pillars, strobing the street scenes viewed through it. The film is named after a goodhearted courtesan who becomes so much more than just that. But the novel's title is borne out here, too. Though glimpsed in the backgrounds, the city of Beijing has a life of its own in this movie.

Lan Yu (Unrated; 86 min.), directed by Stanley Kwan, written by Jimmy Ngai, based on the Internet novel, photographed by Tao Yang and starring Liu Ye and Hu Jun, opens Friday at the Towne Theater in San Jose.

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From the July 25-31, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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