Two Slim, sallow young men stand at the heart of an immense cage, clad only in white underwear. Surrounding them, a bevy of onlookers, all male, smear ink onto their bodies and faces, reminiscent of animals around a watering hole. These voyeurs watch the two lithe protagonists with a mixture of fascination, hunger and burgeoning resentment as both men draw closer together, before finally sharing a fragile kiss. Then all hell breaks loose.
When Two Men
, a short film by student director Zhao Yuanhao, was exhibited during a joint screening and live performance in July at popular queer hangout Pop-Up Beijing, there were gasps and tears aplenty. The film’s intricate story of forbidden love beaten down by hatred resonates on a universal level, and while a same-sex couple is centre stage, broader messages about social conformity, self- denial and the power of peer pressure are the film’s heart and soul.
Not bad going for a skinny 22-year-old auteur from Shanxi. Two Men might be Zhao’s graduation piece, but when Time Out attended a private screening, and then sat down with the director to chat about his project, it was clear we were witnessing the birth of a star – albeit a modest one. While Zhao insists that the production was an ensemble effort, it was his commitment and perseverance that created what is now a minor phenomenon in the capital’s art circles.
'When I started writing the story it just featured the "two men",' says Zhao, acknowledging that it was the support of his production team that encouraged him to dream bigger, adding in a supporting cast and expanding the scope of the narrative. Finding the perfect performers for the title roles was also a challenge, as was helping to guide them through their characters’ intense and ultimately tragic love story.
'The lead actors are both straight, and when we started working together, one of them was very accepting about the subject matter, but the other was quite wary. I showed them films like Happy Together that dealt with same-sex love, and worked with them on expressing themselves freely within the context of the narrative.'
That hesitancy and trepidation gives way to passion as the 'two men' circle one another, touch, break apart and are finally and irresistibly drawn into the climactic embrace that precedes their downfall at the hands of a jealous mob.
That mob itself is far from a simplistic metaphor for an intolerant society. Their glances and stares as the love affair blossoms in their midst bear few marks of hatred – indeed some are barely disguised lust. To Zhao, the mob represents closeted gay men, whose fury is unleashed when two of their number choose to cast aside concealment – symbolised by the buckets of black ink that smother the supporting dancers’ bodies – and love openly.
Destruction at the hands of one’s supposed allies is a theme that Zhao drew from the story of Leslie Cheung, the superstar Hong Kong actor and musician whose suicide in April 2003 sparked a national debate over the treatment of LGBT individuals in Chinese society. Some close to Cheung suggested it was private condemnation from closeted LGBT artists, many of them Cheung’s friends who feared a negative impact on their own careers, that ultimately fuelled the star’s depression.
Such raw subject matter being seized upon by a student filmmaker might, to the average observer, look like a one-way ticket to censure. Did Zhao’s supervisors, professors and fellow students share his enthusiasm for his work?
Zhao smiles at the question. 'The response has really exceeded my expectations,' he enthuses. 'I exhibited Two Men to an audience of young students, and their questions and comments after the screening all concerned social pressure – nobody wanted to debate the LGBT themes. To them, being gay just isn’t a big deal. What interested them were the people-to-people connections; the body- to-body connections.'
Zhao received broad support from his professors and partner institutions (the Beijing Film Academy, Beijing Dance Academy and the National Academy of Drama), and his project has already won multiple student film and performing arts awards, with a stage adaptation also in the works. Zhao also has plans to submit Two Men to a number of film festivals.
Zhao belongs to an emerging generation of post-’90s kids in China who honestly don’t feel same-sex love is anything to conceal.
'Maybe I’m unusual in that I don’t care that much about my sexuality,’ shrugs Zhao, who identifies as gay. 'If people ask I don’t hide it. But going to great lengths to emphasise a topic isn’t the same as opening up a conversation. From being very young I encountered people who didn’t accept homosexuality, just as some people in my hometown didn’t accept my love of dance. From that point I made a conscious decision to change minds.
'Traditionally, in China, there’s been a mindset that "I don’t like this, therefore you also shouldn’t like this." I’ve used this medium to express my feeling that opposing or disliking something simply because others say so isn’t right – love is love.'