East Palace, West Palace (东宫西宫, Zhang Yuan, 1996)

“The convict loves her executioner, the thief loves her jailer. We love you. We have no other choice.” the hero of Zhang Yuan’s beguiling, transgressive drama East Palace, West Palace (东宫西宫, dōng gōng xī gōng), whispers to his no longer sleeping guard. “I love you”, he later adds, “why don’t you love me?” turning the tables on an implacable authority and demonstrating that he too wields power. Considered the first Mainland film to deal directly with homosexuality, Zhang’s theatrical chamber piece is as much about the co-dependency of the oppressor and the oppressed as it is about gay life in post-Tiananmen Beijing while suggesting that in a sense submission too can be a weapon. 

Gay travel writer A-Lan (Si Han) is first challenged by uniformed policeman Shi Xiaohua (Hu Jun) in a public toilet. Staring at him intently, Shi stops A-Lan for no real reason, asking for his ID followed by a series of other personal questions with seemingly no law enforcement import before double checking if the bike outside is his and that he has a proper permit for it. These acts of hostility begin a cat and mouse game between the pair, Shi almost desperate to come up with a reason to arrest him which later he finds on raiding the park, a popular spot for cruising, after dark. But as he leads him away, A-Lan suddenly plants a kiss on the policeman’s cheek and taking advantage of his momentary shock makes his escape. 

During in the arrest, meanwhile, Shi and the other policemen had a made a point of insulting each of the men who have not actually done anything illegal under the Chinese law of the time, beating them or forcing them to beat themselves, ordering them to squat on the ground, and even threatening to call one frequent offender’s place of work. As Shi often will, the police refer to the men as “despicable” and the “dregs of soceity”, yet A-Lan is in a sense empowered by his submission in allowing himself to be arrested before subsequently escaping having planted the seeds of his seduction. He flirts with danger in mailing Shi a book with the inscription “To my love, A-Lan” and thereafter deliberately gets himself arrested, later running away from Shi only in the desire to be chased by him.  

Hugely reminiscent of Kiss of the Spider Woman, the majority of the film takes place within the confines of the park’s police hut occupied only by A-Lan and Shi, a prisoner and a guard. Yet as in the Peking opera story A-Lan repeatedly quotes, elegantly recreated in Zhang’s theatrical shifts into fantasy, the two roles are to an extent interchangeable. Shi thinks he’s the guard, that he exercises authority over A-Lan, but A-Lan is also manipulating him, trapping Shi within this space and drawing him towards a recognition of his own latent desires, the same desires that were aroused when he hassled him in the public toilet. While Shi, the guard though no longer in uniform, is constrained by authority, A-Lan, the prisoner, is free in embracing his essential self and weaponising the essence of his power in the choice to submit as reflected in his masochistic desires. “It is not despicable. It is love” he insists on being challenged by Shi after detailing his BDSM encounter with a wealthy man, echoing his previous reminders that “What I write might be trash. But I am not”, refusing to allow Shi to degrade him even while taking pleasure in submitting to authority. 

Even so, he declares himself conflicted in having married a woman presumably for appearances’ sake something of which many in his community do not approve and leaves him both guilty in his treatment of his wife and disappointed in himself. When Shi barks “explain yourself” he details his life as a gay man from his first sexual experience in which he pretended to be a woman to being assaulted by thugs after sleeping with a factory boss adding only that “this kind of experience makes life with living”. “We all march to a different tune” he tries to explain to Shi, individual but also identical. He mentions another regular to the park he describes as a transvestite but in the language of today might better be thought of as transgender, A-Lan explaining that she enjoys wearing women’s clothes but is different from the men in the park. She does not make love to them, and they do not bother with her, A-Lan insisting that she too has her own beat to which to march as does Shi even in his increasing confusion. 

Shi wields his handcuffs, the relationship between the pair mediated through them just as that between the guard and beautiful prisoner in his story is mediated through chains, but eventually places the cuffs on each of their hands locking them together in an intense embrace. The guard cannot exist without the prisoner, nor the prisoner without the guard. “He will no longer escape from his love for her” A-Lan ends his story, the guard releasing his beautiful charge while she decides to return to him each of them knowing they are trapped in melancholy waltz of love and hate. Highly theatrical and scored with a persistent note of dread, Zhang’s beguiling drama hints at the sadomasochistic interplay between authoritarian power and a subjugated populace while allowing its hero to mount his resistance only through deriving pleasure from submission. 


East Palace, West Palace screens at the BFI on 27th May as part of this year’s Queer East. It is also available to stream in many territories via GagaOOLala.

Lan Yu (蓝宇, Stanley Kwan, 2001)

“It’s not really over as long as there are memories” the cynical hero of Stanley Kwan’s haunting romantic tragedy, Lan Yu (蓝宇, Lán Yǔ), is reminded by his earnest lover only to find himself both immersed in and comforted by nostalgia, “because I feel you never really left”. Inspired by a subversive yet hugely popular erotic LGBTQ+ web novel thought to have been written by a Chinese woman in exile in the US Kwan’s aching melodrama is one of very few Mainland films to deal directly with the subject of homosexuality but is also a melancholy meditation of the frustrated liberations of post-Tiananmen China. 

In 1988, hero Handong (Hu Jun) is perhaps the personification of an age of excess. In a sharp suit and sunshades, he plays the ladies man while repressing his homosexuality in an act of superficial conformity. His money can buy him anything, and to begin with it buys him Lan Yu (Liu Ye) a cash-strapped architecture student turning to sex work to make ends meet, only to discover himself drawn to this “weird” young man who doesn’t really care about his consumerist success save asking with a melancholy air if he’s ever been to America. As we later discover, Lan Yu had wanted to study abroad but travel was not such an easy matter in late ‘80s China while even some years later he has trouble organising a passport and visa. Handong as a wealthy businessman may have no such trouble, perhaps his money really can buy him anything after all even a superficial sense of liberty in what is still an oppressive and authoritarian society. 

For Handong, sex with men may be a way of expressing a freedom he does not really believe he has endangering his relationship with Lan Yu by picking up another random student in a park while reminding him that “this kind of stuff isn’t serious”. “So what is serious for you?” Lan Yu not unreasonably asks, but it may be a difficult question for Handong to answer. What’s serious for Lan Yu is the authenticity of his feelings. He is uninterested in Handong’s wealth, saving the money that he gives him rather than spending it, ironically making good on Handong’s joking suggestion “maybe you’ll bail me out if I’m broke one day”. 

In the pivotal sequence set against the backdrop of the Tiananmen Square protest, it is nevertheless Handong who finds a kind of liberty in accepting the reality of his feelings for Lan Yu overcoming his internal conditioning which convinces him that love is a weakness. Meanwhile, Lan Yu’s revolution evidently fails in the chaos of the protests, Handong cradling him as he weeps for all he’s seen. It’s this liberation that allows them to engage in a conventional romance, Handong buying a suburban villa he puts in Lan Yu’s name where they can live together as a couple albeit discreetly. But in the end Handong cannot let go of a sense of conventionality, eventually sacrificing his love for Lan Yu for a traditional marriage which later fails presumably because of its essential inauthenticity or at least Handong’s inability to accommodate himself with it. 

Torn in two, he makes his money through dodgy deals with Russian businessmen themselves perhaps also experiencing a degree of political confusion. They turn down Handong’s invitation for champagne hinting they’d rather go shopping for their wives. Yet Handong also aspires towards Japan, then at the height of its economic success, buying fancy clothes for country boy Lan Yu which lend him the air of a sophisticated Tokyoite. But Japan like China and Russia is also about to experience a moment of instability quite literally bursting Handong’s bubble while he is left to carry the can for his company’s not entirely above board business practices after his influential father dies. Saved by Lan Yu’s unwavering love for him, he abandons his consumerist conceits and immerses himself a world of simple comforts living in his small flat which is, ironically enough, rented at a preferential rate from Lan Yu’s Japanese boss. 

Through his various experiences, Handong rediscovers a sense of pure joy and contentment in his newly simple life of domesticity in which his relationship with Lan Yu appears to be accepted by his sister, brother-in-law, and best friend, but Kwan hints at sense of uncertainty in the anxious canted angles and frequent mirror shots that return us to the opening sequence. The men have in a sense exchanged roles, Lan Yu now guiding Handong in this changing society. Yet the bleakness of the ending suggests that these changes will never come to fruition, a literal construction accident resulting in a romantic tragedy that leaves Handong both trapped and comforted by the nostalgic past in the memory of Lan Yu and the idea of the better society he came to embody. 


Lan Yu screens in London at Prince Charles Cinema 12th May as part of Odyssey: a Chinese Cinema Season.

Trailer (English subtitles)

My People, My Country (我和我的祖国, Chen Kaige, Zhang Yibai, Guan Hu, Xue Xiaolu, Xu Zheng, Ning Hao, Wen Muye, 2019)

My People My COuntry poster 3Oct. 1, 2019 marks the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. Supervised by Chen Kaige, My People, My Country (我和我的祖国, Wǒ hé Wǒ dě Zǔguó) presents seven short films by seven directors featuring several notable historical events from the past 70 years though not quite one for every decade (perhaps for obvious reasons). Though different in tone, what each of the segments has in common is the desire to root these national events in the personal as they were experienced by ordinary people rather than how the history books might have chosen to record them.

Told in roughly chronological order, the film opens with the founding of the Republic as comedian Huang Bo plays an eccentric engineer charged with ensuring the operation of an automatic flag pole doesn’t embarrass Chairman Mao at the big moment. In the context of the film as a whole which is fond of flags, this is rather odd because every other flag in the film is raised by hand usually by a soldier taking the responsibility extremely seriously. Yet the point is less the flag itself than the symbolic pulling together of the community to find a solution to a problem. Realising the metal on the stopper is too brittle, the engineers put out an appeal for more with seemingly the entire town turning up with everything from rusty spoons to grandma’s necklace and even a set of gold bars!

This same sense of personal sacrifice for the greater good works its way into almost all of the segments beginning with the story of China’s first atom bomb in the ‘60s for which a pure hearted engineer (Zhang Yi) first of all sacrifices his one true love and then the remainder of his life when he exposes himself to dangerous radiation all in the name of science, while in the film’s most charming episode a young boy is devastated to realise his crush is moving abroad and has to choose between chasing after her and fixing up a TV aerial so his village can see China beat the US at volleyball during the ’84 Olympics. Visions of flag waving glory eventually convince him where his duty lies, but his sacrifice is later rewarded twice over as he becomes a little local hero even if temporarily heartbroken in the way only a small boy can be.

Then again, some people are just a little self-centred like the hero (Ge You) of Ning Hao’s Welcome to Beijing who keeps trying to reconnect with his earnest teenage son only to end up connecting with a fatherless young boy during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Chen Kaige’s sequence, meanwhile, is inspired by the story of two earthbound astronauts but similarly finds two roguish, orphaned young men connecting with a patient father figure who is able to bring them “home” by showing them a space miracle in the middle of the desert, and in the final and perhaps most directly propagandistic sequence, a tomboyish fighter pilot eventually overcomes her resentment at being relegated to a supporting role to rejoice in her colleagues’ success. Despite the overly militaristic jingoism of the parades with their obvious showcasing of China’s military power, Wen Muye’s “One for All” is in its own sense surprisingly progressive in its advancement of gender equality and mildly subversive LGBT positive themes were it not for a shoehorned in scene featuring a milquetoast “boyfriend”.

Sensitivity is not, however, very much in evidence in the sequence relating to the extremely topical issue of the Hong Kong handover. Out of touch at best, the constant references to the continuing reunification of the One China are likely to prove controversial though admittedly those they would most upset are unlikely to want to sit through a 2.5hr propaganda epic celebrating the achievements of Chinese communism. Nevertheless, it is a little galling to see the “return” to China so warmly embraced by the people of Hong Kong given current events in the city. This perhaps ill-judged sequence is the most overt piece of direct propaganda included in the otherwise unexpectedly subtle series which, despite the flag waving and eventual tank parade, tries to put the spotlight back on ordinary people living ordinary lives through the history of modern China. Of course, that necessarily also means that it leaves a lot out, deliberately refusing to engage with the less celebratory elements of China’s recent history, even as it closes with the fiercely patriotic song of the title performed by some of the ordinary heroes who have inspired its various tales of everyday heroism.


Original trailer featuring Faye Wong’s cover of the well known patriotic anthem from 1985 (no subtitles)

Shadow (影, Zhang Yimou, 2018)

Shadow poster 1Zhang Yimou waxes Shakespearean in a tale of palace intrigue and a world out of balance in his latest return to the age of wuxia, Shadow (影, Yǐng). Drawing inspiration from classic ink paintings, Zhang’s monochromatic world has a chilling beauty even in its intense layers of oppression which make prisoners of king and subjects alike. Like the yin yang diagram on which the climatic battle takes place, Shadow is a tale of dualities and oppositions as its hollowed out hero begins to wonder who exactly he might be without the mirror.

Long ago in feudal China, the Kingdom of Pei has been living in peace thanks to an “alliance” with the Yang who are technically occupying the former Pei city of Jing. Many in the Kingdom of Pei are unhappy with this arrangement, regarding the loss of Jing as a humiliation and the king’s refusal to retake it more cowardice than pragmatism. Despite the king’s instruction that the truce must be maintained and war avoided at all costs, his trusted commander has undertaken a secret meeting with Yang in which he has agreed to a personal duel for the honour of Pei. The king is very unhappy. A lesser man might have lost his head, but the king needs his commander. What he doesn’t know, however, is that the commander is not all he seems. Nobleman Yu (Deng Chao) was badly injured during a previous fight with Yang and has retreated to the catacombs while his double, Jing (also Deng Chao), has been playing his part in court.

Jing, “saved” from poverty as a young child brought to the palace as a double for Yu, is grateful and loyal. He respects his masters and has trained hard to learn the skills needed to pass as a nobleman and more particularly as Yu. As such he has no “identity”. Even his name was given to him by his master and is simply that of the town where he was found which happens to be the disputed city itself. Jing does everything right – his instincts are good, he is clever and quick-witted with a talent for intrigue, all of which makes him both a danger and a shield for Yu. Yu, meanwhile, trapped in the same underground cell which used to house Jing, has become warped and embittered. Nursing a mortal wound, he plots and schemes against the king, scuttling goblin-like as he rails against his fate.

Yu promises Jing a release from his mental imprisonment if he agrees to take part in the duel with Yang. Jing knows that Yu’s promise is hollow and that he is not intended to survive, but submits himself to his fate anyway. He does this, partly, in hope but also because of his longstanding but unspeakable love for Madam (Sun Li) – Yu’s wife, who is one of the few people ever to express pity for his miserable circumstances. As the film opens, Madam and the king’s sister are reading proverbs together including one which insists that men are meant to rule. The king, however, is weak – he is effete and prefers the art of the brush to that of the sword, while his sister is “wild” – a bold and impetuous young woman seemingly more suited to the throne than her foppish brother.

As if to complete the theme, it’s Madam who eventually reveals the technique to beat Yang to her increasingly crazed husband. In order to defeat his hyper masculine enemy who fights with a giant sabre, Yu resolves to fight like a girl armed with one of Pei’s iconic parasols reconfigured in sharpened iron. Only by creating balance can they hope to win, meeting the weight of Yang’s blunt force with a lightness of touch and feminine elegance. 

The world of Shadow is one defined by its dualities – male/female, lowborn and high, betrayal and loyalty, arrogance and supplication. Jing’s existence is defined by that of the “true” commander – a shadow cannot exist without a form to cast it, or so it had always been thought. Offered the possibility of escape, Jing’s original identity begins to resurface. Yet his victory over his “other self” is also a defeat which infects him with the dubious moralities of the court, allowing him to become more than himself alone and leaving the world once again dangerously unbalanced. As the opening narration told us, however, it is not Jing, or Yu, or the king who hold the fate of Pei in their hands but Madam whose final decision will dictate the course of history. Set in a world of oppressive greys broken only by the driving rain and shocking redness of blood, Shadow may not return Zhang to the balletic heights of the poetic Hero, but does its best to add Shakespearean grandeur to its tragic tale of fractured identities and conflicting desires.


Screened as part of the 2018 BFI London Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)