Underground icons: Notable Chinese LGBT films

Masterful works by Chinese LGBT filmmakers exploring queer themes

East Palace, West Palace
Men and Women
Dir Liu Bingjian, 1999

men and women

One of Cui Zi'en's earliest works (here as screenwriter), Men and Women is a grimy account of the complicated web of relationships that intertwine around muscular migrant worker Xiao Bo (Yu Bo), his formidable boss (TV star Yang Qing), her closeted, violent husband and a young Beijing student. An almost entirely amateur cast, dimly-lit interior visuals and a meandering storyline that veers between almost grotesque voyeurism, heartbreaking tenderness and utter whimsy (Cui Zi'en's cameo as a scatological shock-jock is particularly entertaining) make this an essential, if uncomfortable, watch. Local history buffs will also be enchanted by the everyday visuals that recall the classless hutong dwellers of a pre-Olympic Beijing, as Liu offers up unflinching glimpses into the home lives of what has since become a lost society. A focus on the often mundane lives of most gay people, rather than an attempt at a discourse on sexuality (money worries, housing insecurity and relationships are all highlighted), makes this flawed but charming work one of China's most honest, and least pretentious, LGBT films.

Lan Yu
Dir Stanley Kwan, 2001

Screen Shot 2018-10-08 at 4

Inspired by massively popular underground queer short novel Beijing Story, many now call this impressive effort from Second Wave Hong Kong director Kwan an example of how China pre-empted Brokeback Mountain by almost a decade. A Beijing businessman (Hu Jun) becomes the wealthy patron of a young, idealistic gay student (Liu Ye), and the two embark on a convoluted affair that blossoms into a deep, co-dependent relationship that coincides with the uncertain early years of China’s economic miracle. Though rather overstuffed with ‘issues’ at times (the film, depending on which cut you get hold of, attempts to tackle the Tiananmen protests, marriages of convenience and economic crime, all in one go), Lan Yu is rescued from excessive navel-gazing by the earnest and utterly mesmerising performances of the two leads, particularly Liu, who has gone on to become one of China’s best-regarded character actors. With its frank (for the time) depictions of sexual intimacy, the intriguing slow burn approach to the relationship between the two leads, and a truly devastating final act, Kwan’s film remains iconic in the minds of an entire generation.

East Palace, West Palace
Dir Zhang Yuan, 1996

east palace

Perhaps the most artistically accomplished Chinese LGBT film of all time. This beautifully shot and flawlessly acted character study – based on a short story by Wang Xiaobo – is so crammed with sociopolitical metaphor that theses have even been written on its ultimate message. Thirty-something gay man A Lan (Han Si) is detained in a Beijing cruising ground by alpha-male cop Xiao Shi (Hu Jun). During his interrogation, masochistic cross-dresser A Lan turns the tables on his captor, luring him into a sadomasochistic relationship that transcends both gender and sexuality. Some have interpreted Zhang’s film as a metaphor for the complex relationship between the Old Hundred Names (or the common man) and their authoritarian rulers, past and present. To top it off, a haunting score featuring traditional Chinese opera arias, and parallel scenes from an opera featuring a kidnapped girl, keeps Chinese culture at the heart of this rain-spattered, dark hymn to human endurance.

Ask the Experts

Cui Zi’en, LGBT filmmaker
Shanghai Panic. Dir Andrew Cheng, 2002

shanghai panic

'Four beautiful club bunnies have their world turned upside down when one, ballet dancer Bei, develops a mysterious rash that he suspects is HIV. Afraid to either get treatment or return home, Bei seeks comfort and safety with his friends. But fear soon spreads within the group as – ignorant of the realities of HIV/AIDS and terrified of being quarantined – they struggle to come to terms with the reality of their relationships, their respective sexualities and life in the burgeoning, aimless club culture of Shanghai’s "forgotten generation". Shooting from the hip, Chen uses the camera both actively and conceptually, slashing together fact and fiction, documentary and drama, naturalism and parable, to create a world that is both deeply realistic and also transcends reality. When Chen explores the symbolic qualities of Shanghai, his characters take on a symbolic colour, representing modernity, empathy and fear. Yet when he explores the real Shanghai, the characterisation becomes semi-autobiographical. The film is not complacent, derivative or comforting – it is bold, flowing and incandescent.'

Fan Popo, director of the Beijing Queer Film Festival
Fish and Elephant. Dir Li Yu, 2001

fish and elephant

'A young elephant keeper at Beijing Zoo (Shi Tou) falls in love with a fabric saleswoman (Pan Yi) at a nearby market. As they deepen their romantic bond, an interfering, recently-divorced mother arrives in the city to press her daughter to marry, perceiving her same-sex relationship as simply a response to her daughter having not having met the right man. The film had a troubled production history; a print submitted to the Venice Film Festival went mysteriously missing and an attempted screening in Beijing was shut down by the police. Still, Fish and Elephant remains a milestone in both lesbian and feminist Chinese cinema. ‘Fish and Elephant is a profound rethink of the family unit. It is interesting in that it shows that the traditional ideas of family and marriage should be changed. The older generation should not press the younger to settle down. Not only does the film lead the viewer to think about the status quo for lesbians, but it also shows the social and cultural oppression of Chinese women.'

By Jack Smith

You might also like

  • 4 out of 5 stars