Mainland China has produced some truly world-class films in recent years, but the barest hints of social criticism in their work have brought government scorn upon modern cinema masters like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige. It's therefore especially astonishing to discover the existence of East Palace, West Palace, a film by Chinese maverick Zhang Yuan which not only has a gay theme, but a sophistication and haunting complexity that would be the pride of any open Western auteur.

The audacity of the film begins with its title, which refers to the male public restrooms on either side of Beijing's Forbidden Palace. There, young, gay, married writer A-Lan (Si Han) first meets the unnamed policeman (Hu Jun) who patrols the park area for illegal homosexual activity. During a subsequent roundup of gay men, the defiant A-Lan dares to plan a kiss on the cop's cheek before running off into the night. He further taunts his nemesis by mailing him a book inscribed 'To my love.' The rest of the film takes place over the course of one night, after the cop has caught A-Lan once again and holds him for interrogation. During this marathon session, A-Lan recounts his life and his erotic history while his questioner listens, at once disgusted and strangely intrigued.

Who really holds the power in this relationship is the delicious question at the heart of the movie. A-Lan, a magazine writer of 'complicated love stories where men's and women's roles are reversed,' lives a life of the imagination far beyond the constricted world view of the public servant detaining him-and uses it to transcend a situation he's willingly invited upon himself. A-Lan detects a kinship between himself and the repressed cop, and he's determined to use all his wits and wiles to bring it to the surface. And, having integrated elements of authority, suffering and discipline into his erotic life, A-Lan is not one to be put off when the cop treats him roughly or takes out his handcuffs. In essence, East Palace, West Palace is a love story of the most subversive kind.

The cop, who talks of 'curing' his prisoner, betrays some erotically charged rituals of his own-soft slaps to a prisoner's face, offering a cigarette and then withdrawing it after one puff. And, when A-Lan admits to being open to his feminine side, his captor takes a surprisingly robust interest in seeing him dress up in women's clothes he's confiscated from a transvestite. The finale, in which A-Lan refuses to leave after being released and the cop tries to fight his own attraction to the boy, is among the most highly charged sequences in gay cinema. A-Lan's final words to the cop are devastating: 'You asked me a lot of questions. Now, why not ask youself?'

The two characters Zhang and his co-writer Wang Xiabo have created are immensely complicated, and the actors are fully up to the challenge. A-Lan is someone who's achieved victory over an oppressive childhood and adolescence and his awareness of his lowly status in Chinese society. His legacy of pain has become part of his erotic identity and fuels his desire for a rough figure of authority, but he's intellectually aware of who he is and open to possibilities that terrify his captor. Si Han's performance in the role is both sly and open-hearted, angry and joyous all at once. In the even more difficult role of the nameless cop, Hu Jun ably navigates the character's sudden turns from humanity to brutality, and hints at the secret fears beneath his macho posturing.

Zhang made East Palace, West Palace outside the government system, and had to smuggle his footage to Paris for the post-production phase. His courage is only surpassed by his artfulness. The film is beautifully crafted down the line, from Zhang Jian's handsome and lively cinematography, to Xiang Min's evocative music score, to Wu Gang and Shen Jianquin's brilliant sound design. East Palace, West Palace is not only a landmark in Chinese and gay cinema, but one of the most fascinating and provocative films of the year.

--Kevin Lally