Thinking about Stanley Kwan’s Lan Yu, I find it impossible to separate the film from a memory of adolescence, one that I sometimes take pleasure in glorifying as a key moment in my cinephilic puberty. In the years before I got a driver’s license, I would nag my dad every week to take me to the one video store in our city with a substantial foreign-film selection. Though I was already out to my sister and a few close friends, it never occurred to me, compulsively strait-laced as I was, to be so transgressive as to venture into the gay section of the store—certainly not on my father’s watch. If I ever did have the thought I would have rejected it as a kind of betrayal, especially since my father had lovingly assumed the role of chauffeur just so I might cultivate a deeper passion for movies.
On each visit, though, I would make sure to stroll through the Asian aisle to steal another glance at the cover of Lan Yu, with its image of two Chinese men standing in pre-kiss proximity. Of course I lacked the nerve to smuggle it home, but in addition to being extremely curious about what simulated sex between two Chinese actors would look like, I was tantalized by the sense that this movie would surely contain some hint of a life or a sensibility I could understand, some alternative to the American gay culture I felt alienated from. I imagine Lan Yu will always toll me back to that initial desire.
As the audience of any form of storytelling, we are often pulled between the urge for an encounter with the new and unknown and the partly narcissistic wish to find ourselves reflected in characters with whom we can identify. My memory of Lan Yu provokes the perhaps unanswerable question of whether it’s a right or a privilege to see one’s ethnic or sexual identity represented and taken seriously on the big screen—a question that, depending on whom you ask, may be considered banal, sentimental, or unfashionable. With Harold Bloom having spent at least the past fifteen years lambasting the “School of Resentment” for prizing social concerns over great literature, and Paul Schrader recently blaming the “Nonjudgmentals” for precipitating “the fall of the canon,” is it possible anymore to note that spectatorship and aesthetic emotion are profoundly influenced by our politicized identities without being accused of advancing some uncritical, touchy-feely, anti-art dogma?
Like almost every other moviegoer at one point or another, I had a teenage self that was looking to cinema as both an antidepressant and a romanticization of my own grievances. I had also figured that if I was going to call upon queer movies to throw a pity party in my honor I didn’t want to end up feeling like the lone racial outsider in the crowd. The irony is that, when I finally did catch up with Lan Yu three years ago, it turned out to have as little to do with my experience as a Chinese-American gay man as those edgier, whiter films of the New Queer Cinema or the gay caricatures in Hollywood comedies. Not unlike the communities in which we find ourselves in real life, movies marketed to marginalized demographics try to extend the comforts of sympathy and unity, but usually only end up throwing the viewer’s individuality and separateness into sharp relief. It’s embarrassing to think I hadn’t predicted as much, since Kwan’s movie is clearly entrenched in the political anxieties of a specific time and place I never shared.