January 25th, 2011
By Darren Grant
Love between men in China goes back to the very beginning of its history, with the first ruler, the Yellow Emperor, quick to establish the custom of taking a male bedmate. Many, if not most Chinese emperors had gay lovers. The tradition was known as the Way of the Cut Sleeve, or the Way of the Bitten Peach. China also stands out as one of the richest sources of erotic homosexual art. Sadly, only a small fraction has been preserved, as most of it was destroyed in the "Cultural" Revolution.
As for the modern medium of the movies, it’s been a slow path towards visibility. We review the best gay movies made in China. We’ve excluded Hong Kong’s output as its cultural climate is radically different. It’s a shortlist of just six. But each is worth seeing. The Trailers should help you decide where to begin.
1. Farewell My Concubine . 1993. Director Chen Kaige. Winner of the 1993 Cannes Film festival Palme D’Or.
The first Chinese film to have at is heart a gay relationship, one between two famous male opera performers who meet as apprentices and sustain a friendship over five decades. While still in training, the effeminate Douzi is chosen to play the transvestite role and the masculine Shitou is chosen to play the royal role in a ritualized play about a king and a concubine. This casting shapes their shared destiny and that of the woman who comes between them.
Set against the complex backdrop of Chinese 20th century politics, the plot meanders through World War II, the takeover by the Communists, and the insanity of the Cultural Revolution.
2. East Palace. West Palace. 1996. Director Zhang Yuan.
In 1996 Zhang boldly made the first purely gay-themed movie to be set in China. Two parks near the Forbidden City in the heart of Beijing are frequently raided by the local police. The public washrooms are notorious as meeting places for the gays of Beijing. A young writer, A Lan, keeps running into policeman Xiao Shi who finally arrests the young man and takes him back to the park's police station. After an intense night of interrogation, Xiao Shi finds himself wondering whether his arrest of A Lan might have been inspired by sexual attraction.
Forbidden by chinese authorities for its open depiction of homosexuality, the film’s director, Yuan Zhang, was briefly arrested and his passport impounded. He managed, later, to get a copy of the movie out of the country. Film festivals all over the world have now shared "East Palace. West Palace" with enthusiastic audiences.
3. Lan Yu. 2001. Director Stanley Kwan.
Wealthy entrepreneur Chen Handong runs a trading company in Beijing. His loyal lieutenant one night introduces him to Lan Yu, an impoverished architecture student. Handong enjoys bedding the boy, but has no intention of committing to an on-going relationship. So begins the romantic and tragic love story of the two men. Set in Beijing in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the story alludes to the 1989 events in Tiananmen Square.
While Lan Yu falls in love, Chen tries his best to avoid emotional attachment, showering Lan Yu with expensive gifts and even getting married. However, as the years go by, Chen realizes that he cannot live without Lan Yu. The young man’s loyalty survives all the trials he suffers only for fate to play a final tragic part in their lives.
4. My Fair Son. 2007. Director Zi’en Ciu.
A father and son struggle towards reconciliation after years of estrangement. His grandfather brought up Ray who spent much of his youth railing against his traditional father's middle class lifestyle. Upon enrolling in art school, Ray strikes up a relationship with another student, and the pair quickly becomes lovers.
When Ray's father discovers the two young men in bed together nude, he begins to better understand what it really means to be homosexual. Then Ray meets Bo, one of his father's senior employees. From the start, sexual attraction erupts between the two men and Ray falls in love. But Bo is to be married. How will the two connect and what will Ray s father think?
The photography is lush and beautiful and the exploration of gay life in China is intense. The issue of familial respect, so huge a part of Chinese culture, takes on yet another complexion in "My Fair Son".
No trailer obtainable. Enjoy these stills instead.
5. Tongzhi in Love. 2008. Documentary Director Ruby Yang.
Tongzhi, meaning "comrade," has become a slang term for "gay" in several Asian countries. Frog Cui and his friends navigate the dilemmas of being gay in modern China, torn between the lures of city life and the unyielding traditions by which they were raised. Frog loves his parents: does that mean he must honor his duty to them?
6. Feeding the boys. 2008. Director Zi'en Cui.
Xiao Bo comes from a moderate, middle class family but has decided to make his living as a male hustler. His actions influences his older brother, Dabin, a devout Christian, who becomes an evangelist, driven to reform China’s entire hustler population. When the two brothers clash Xiao Bo disappears into the streets.
As Dabin searches for his brother he meets, befriends and tries to convert many working hustler boys. However, Dabin slowly comes to realize that the hustlers do not consider their work shameful or abhorrent. That comes as one hell of a revelation to him.
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