INTERVIEW: Love in the Time of Tiananmen; Stanley Kwan's "Lan Yu"
by Fiona Ng
(indieWIRE/ 07.25.02) -- A businessman and a college boy fall in love after a one-night stand in Beijing, and the relationship that follows is the subject of "Lan Yu," the latest film from Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan. The film is based on an anonymously written Internet novel, "Beijing Story, " that spawned a cult-like following in China's gay community.
As a love story, "Lan Yu" brings to bear a thematic universality that renders the characters' gayness incidental, or casually irrelevant. Certainly, when stripped to the core, all romantic relationships are recognizably the same -- in high and low, in passion and monotony, in comfort and jealousy.
Still, to say that "Lan Yu" is a love story like any other love story would be to neglect a certain reality, one that denies the film a number of privileges usually enjoyed by the genre. For one, the film will not have an official release in China. And when it was released in Hong Kong, it carried with it a Class III classification (roughly equivalent to the MPAA rating of NC-17).
Fiona Ng sat down with Kwan and actor/producer Zhang Yongning in October 2001, when the film played as part of a special program on Hong Kong films at UCLA, to talk about the film, the novel, and the movie business in Hong Kong and China.
Strand Releasing will open "Lan Yu" on Friday.
indieWIRE: Can you begin by talking a little bit about the Internet novel and the phenomenon it generated?
Zhang Yongning: The novel appeared on the Net about four years ago. A friend of mine introduced it to me when I was on a business trip in Shanghai. At the time, the book was already very popular in the Chinese gay community. You can find a lot of people talking about the story, the characters, and so forth on the Net. You can also find a lot of people using the names of the main characters as nicknames in chatrooms and personals.
iW: Was it in serialized form?
Zhang: To begin with, I think it was chapter by chapter. I think about halfway through, the writer decided to put the whole thing up. No one knows who or where the writer is. But it is generally believed that a woman wrote the book.
iW: Mr. Kwan, what did you think about the novel and the idea of making it into a movie?
Stanley Kwan: Zhang Yongning was very moved by the story. He was very persuasive when he approached me with the project, and I felt that I could make this film. I asked him to let me read the novel first, and I was immediately taken aback by the first few chapters. Every single detail of lovemaking between the two men was depicted in very precise and explicit terms in the first few chapters, and it felt more like erotica rather than a love story at first.
I knew I didn't want to shoot a gay porn film or gay erotica. So I talked to my writer, Jimmy Ngai, a frequent collaborator of mine from previous films. From our discussions, we found some other things in the novel [that interested us]. For me, having been with my boyfriend for 11 years, there were a lot of things about the story I could relate to. In the end, I wanted to make the film because I was touched by the novel, but on some other level, I was probably using it as a lens to view my own relationship.
iW: The novel takes place in Beijing. Did you shoot in Beijing? And if so, was there any problem?
Zhang: I knew that it wasn't impossible to shoot in Beijing, even though gay subjects are generally not talked about publicly. [What worked in our favor was that] we were only making a gay love story, but not anything overtly political. Because of that, we knew that it wasn't going to be a problem [as long as we didn't cause any trouble]. Stanley, on the other hand, had a lot of worries about whether or not we would be able to film there.
Kwan: Of course, certain parts of the film were shot in Beijing, but we also shot other parts of the film to intentionally reference Beijing. So what was and wasn't shot in Beijing is really up to the person watching to decipher.
iW: Is it important for the film to be set in Beijing?
Kwan: For me, it was important. Even though I wanted to make the film, I had some reservations at first. I wasn't totally convinced it would be all right to shoot in Beijing, or that it'd be okay to shoot it as an independent production. When I made "Actress" and "Red Rose, White Rose" in Shanghai years before, I had to go through a lot of bureaucratic procedures, like script evaluation and so forth. So when I was told that I didn't need to do any of that [to make "Lan Yu"], I became immediately suspicious. Gradually, as evident during pre-production, I saw that it really was happening. Of course, the difference had a lot to do with the fact that this film was a Hong Kong-funded production and that this was an independent production. There wasn't any collaboration with any movie studios in Mainland China. And I think for a Hong Kong production with a Hong Kong director, the worst that [the government] could do was to ban us from shooting in China. Once I set my mind to do the film and to use that production method, I couldn't worry about all the things that could possibly go wrong. Basically, if you're going to make that kind of movie and if you're going to use Beijing as the backdrop, you just have to know that certain difficulties will be impossible to avoid.
Zhang: Also, I knew from the beginning that this film was not going to be officially released in China [because of the subject matter]. Since we knew that we couldn't show it there anyway, it gave us a strange sort of license to just shoot and see what happens.
iW: Of course, there is such a thing as widespread piracy in China ...
Zhang: And that is my intention. Although we won't be able to "officially" release the film in China, in the end, people will get to see it.
iW: The older man is played by Hu Jun, who starred in [director Zhang Yuan's] "East Palace, West Palace." How did you cast Liu Ye, the younger man who played the title role in the film?
Zhang: We spent a long, long time casting. I think one thing Stanley found very impressive in China is the actors and actresses. They're not afraid to take any part. As long as the part is suitable, they'll fight for it. We had a lot of top stars willing to do the part.
Kwan: And willing to go through rigorous auditions. I am very impressed by the work ethic actors have in China. In Hong Kong, actors probably would only be that serious with Hollywood productions. But for a Hong Kong production and for a Hong Kong director [using Hong Kong actors], there is really no such thing as auditions in Hong Kong, except if you're dealing with genuine newcomers.
Maybe it was because all the actors I saw were either from the Central Drama Academy in Beijing or the Beijing Film Academy, but my sense was that the actors in China were all very, very well trained. And in my view, they were a lot better than actors in Hong Kong. Liu Ye [the younger actor in the film], graduated from the Central Drama Academy in Beijing, he actually was from the same class as Zhang Ziyi [who was in Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"].
It is not easy to find stars in Mainland China, but if star power is not a concern, it is very easy to find solid actors there. And at this stage, Beijing is a very good place for that. Of course, things are changing [in China], and a star system is certainly emerging. Just take a look at the proliferation of management agencies. Ten years ago, such things simply did not exist in Beijing. But now, there are agents and managers who do nothing but promote and package artists. Hopefully, it won't become like Hong Kong or Hollywood, where it is more about packaging and less about substance.
iW: The film was generally shot pretty dark and the editing was more elliptical and episodic. Can you talk about what went into visually constructing the film and its mood?
Kwan: The feeling we wanted to evoke was lament. William Chang [the film's production designer and editor] and I thought that the story was like a beautiful, but flawed, silk hanging. And that metaphor basically informed our visual design of the film.
[In terms of storytelling,] my sense of the novel was that it was a very melodramatic story. My previous films, like "Rouge" and "Red Rose White Rose" generally gave people the impression that Stanley Kwan films are melodramatic, and that his signature is in that genre. But with "Lan Yu," I knew I didn't want to do that. My intuition was to use a mode of storytelling that is more straightforward, one that would touch and move people. With this film, I didn't feel that it was necessary to play a lot with the form, unlike my last film, "The Island Tales" -- where simple things were unnecessarily complicated, like the deliberate confusion between space and time. I felt that that type of storytelling wouldn't work with "Lan Yu." The line between melodrama and soap opera is very fine and I didn't want "Lan Yu" to become a soap opera. I want the time lapses within the narrative to be a space where audiences can make their own connections and inferences. To me, that [way of editing] was interesting, because in such a melodramatic story that approach would disrupt the mode of melodrama.
iW: Taiwanese director Edward Yang once said that to be a filmmaker in Asia nowadays is also to be a businessman, meaning that one not only has to make the film, but one also needs to get the money together, sell it, etc. Do you share that experience?
Kwan: I started to direct in the mid-'80s. The film industry in Hong Kong during the '80s was very different from now. For instance, there still were a lot of studios at that time, like Golden Harvest, Shaw Brothers, or Cinema City. Back then, it was all very simple: you signed with a studio to direct a couple of films, and once you finished shooting, you were done. You didn't have to worry about anything, since the studios had their own network for distribution and so forth. But the climate today is quite different. For instance, there aren't many big studios anymore, but mostly independent, shoestring operations. In terms of directing, we can see that the generation after us -- the newcomers and the independent filmmakers -- are much more savvy when it comes to fundraising. They know how to hit up the Hong Kong government's arts council for money, or send proposals to possible investors overseas -- that just was not part of our generation's consciousness. Edward Yang was right, we all have to learn to do that now.
iW: You seem to be taking another direction with your last four or five films -- the documentary "Yin and Yen," "Hold You Tight," "The Island Tales," and now "Lan Yu" -- in that they have elements of sexuality, homosexuality, or homosociality. Being one of the few openly gay filmmakers in Hong Kong, are you concerned that you might be labeled as a "gay director?"
Kwan: I don't consider "Hold You Tight" as a gay film at all. Even though my sexuality was talked about in "Yin and Yen," my intention was not to make a statement about it with the documentary. With "Yin and Yen," my aim was to look at Chinese cinema in terms of gender and homosociality, I felt that it was relevant for the audiences to know where I was coming from. "Lan Yu" is certainly about the relationship between two men. After the film showed in Hong Kong and Taiwan, a lot of people told me that they appreciated how un-sensational the film was.
Of course, I don't want to mark myself as just a gay director, but I don't have a problem concentrating on gay subjects. I certainly don't feel like I am limiting myself. It's very much like the way I was characterized as a "women's director" [earlier in my career], I was repeatedly asked why I wanted to make women's movies and if I would continue to do so. Basically, my stance is that if I am moved by a project, a story or a group of characters, I will film it no matter what.