Based on a gay erotic novel anonymously posted on the Internet in China, Lan Yu tracks the romance between a shady Beijing businessman, Handong (Hu Jun), and a student, Lan Yu (Liu Ye), who has become a prostitute. At the outset, Handong assures Lan Yu that the relationship will continue as long as it works and then it will simply end. It's a somewhat difficult proposition for Lan Yu, who has fallen in love with him, but, for a while, he is happy as Handong's kept man. But the ever-restless Handong suddenly decides to go straight and marry a pretty interpreter who has caught his fancy. The two men's lives are destined to be entwined, however, as Handong comes to realize the depth of Lan Yu and his own feelings for him.
Stanley Kwan has directed not only one of the best gay love stories ever made, but one of the best love stories of any stripe. His characters and situations have the simple, gorgeous ring of real life. The story unfolds beautifully, filled with telling human detail and observation. Yang Tao's cinematography is superb, with oblique angles and camera movements which are at times wonderfully reminiscent of Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love. (Production designer William Chang is, incidentally, responsible for the glorious look of that film and this.)
It's a startlingly bold film in every way. As the script was not officially approved by the Chinese censors, Kwan was forced to film it in secret in Beijing. The behind-the-camera courage is matched by that displayed on the screen. It's wonderful to see Asian men sexualized for once: Hu and Liu are both comely subjects--a far cry from the nerds or martial-arts machines which are the usual ethnic representations. Both are terrific actors, as well. Liu skillfully and touchingly delineates the maturation of his character, never overstating his essential goodness, from semi-innocent student to mysterious life force. Hu is perfection as a typical alpha male, bluff and handsomely assured until he receives a comeuppance he has no way of preparing himself for. The actors' scenes together have a thrilling intimacy and intensity that is downright haunting. (Handong's olefactory obsession with the particular shampoo Lan Yu uses is but one resonating detail here.) Kwan's film positively sings in moments like these and a drive in the country, car radio blasting away, which forever captures the blithe, heart-racing excitement of first love. This viewer's only reservation is with the too-tragic ending, which, although dramatically traditional, reads as too moralistic, as if these characters (like those in Y Tu Mamá Tambin) have to once more be made to pay for their fun.