Lan Yu

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Lan Yu

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Considered among the benchmarks of contemporary Hong Kong cinema, Stanley Kwan's 1992 opus Actress, a wildly ambitious biopic about Ruan Ling-yu (dubbed "the Greta Garbo of Chinese cinema"), had more than half an hour ruthlessly slashed from its original 166-minute run time. Kwan's latest, Lan Yu, initially seems like it's been given the same foul treatment—it barrels through its 86 minutes in such an elliptical rush that a man gets married and divorced within the space of a single cut. But as the film progresses, the passing of time brings urgency and weight to the on-again/off-again central romance, like a window of opportunity that slams shut more quickly than expected. Based on an anonymously published Internet novel and shot in Beijing without government approval, Lan Yu takes a frank and honest look at the city's burgeoning gay underground, but Kwan's elegant style belies the on-the-fly production conditions. With shades of The Unbearable Lightness Of Being, the story centers on Hu Jun, a nouveau-riche entrepreneur who seduces younger men with money and gifts, but begs off a more lasting affair. His feelings seem to change when he meets Liu Ye, a naïve and emotionally vulnerable young college student who becomes a hustler to make ends meet. After one magical night together, the two fall in love, but Hu's chilly romantic philosophy puts an expiration date on their relationship, and his free-spending habits have a way of tainting everything around him. His desire to conform to the rarefied world of Beijing's wealthy elite leads him into a disastrously stilted fling with his female interpreter. Political allusions aside, Lan Yu invites an obvious comparison to Hong Kong compatriot Wong Kar-wai's superior 1997 film Happy Together, both for its visual splendor and for its open depiction of gay lovers whose lives head in separate directions. But as a consequence of Kwan's experiments with time, the connection between Hu and Liu seems more scripted than real, founded on musty allegorical clichés about innocent country folk and corrupt city slickers. In Wong's film, the deteriorating relationship between Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung feels lived-in and palpably suffocating, with a mutual resentment that's like a natural outgrowth of love and intimacy. Though the clipped scenes and brisk length undermine Kwan's broader agenda, his portrait of capitalist excess in the new China resonates so strongly and directly that the film has never screened on the mainland. In tying Hu's financial fortunes to his romantic ones, Lan Yu finds the tragedy in a man who wanted everything, but sold his soul in the process.

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