Directed by Stanley Kwan and written by Jimmy Ngai, a young, gay student has a relationship with an older, successful businessman. The handsome playboy-businessman must choose between his comfortable, yet closeted straight life, or an honest, yet subversive life with the student. Starring: Ye Liu, Jun Hu, Lu Fang, Su Jin and Li Huatong.
Stanley Kwan opens Lan Yu with an immediately casual, charming and friendly air, drawing you in without a second’s hesitation. Kwan’s direction throughout holds a relatable and down to earth atmosphere, mixed with that charm you could even compare it to the air of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. One of the interesting elements, especially for a film made in 2001, is that it’s not afraid of nudity. Even today, so many filmmakers shy away from male nudity, and it often undermines the reality of gay cinema, whereas this example perfectly portrays a grounded, real relationship. That style does weaken slightly later on as it falls into a more typical mix of love and sadness, giving in to classic sentimentality, it still works but isn’t as strong.
The story feels simultaneously unique and familiar, the latter due to following the age old tale of a casual dalliance turning into sincere feelings. The unique being that where others would have found cheap drama, it holds its authenticity. For instance, it clearly but briefly explores Handong’s less than legitimate business dealings but never truly tries to bring through crime and scandal. The focus is always on the ups and downs of his relationship with Lan Yu, it’s both simple and complex creating a sweet but fraught story. Jimmy Ngai paces the story out well, it holds your attention with ease, with only the exception of a few stereotypical moments.
One of the reasons it works well is the strength of the chemistry between Ye Liu and Jun Hu. The connection is there from the very start but they don’t make the relationship feel effortless, it builds and they have to gradually figure it out. They also have to explore the conflict between their love, their view of who they are and societal expectation. In doing so they create, albeit relatively briefly for a heavy topic, a snapshot of the difficulty in accepting yourself and matching that up with the vision of yourself that you’ve grown up with or has been reinforced by your family. It covers a large amount of time and it’s fairly impressive how Liu and Hu capture such an evolution of their relationship, from romance, to love, to a deeper, lasting meaning.
Lan Yu is an under appreciated gem of both queer and Chinese cinema, it captures a sweet, grounded and compelling relationship. Jimmy Ngai’s writing dives into the complex existence of queer people in a country with strictly traditional values, while Stanley Kwan’s direction creates romance, drama and lasting emotion. All of which is perfectly encapsulated in the performances by Ye Liu and Jun Hu who have a touching and considerable chemistry, which is enthralling to watch from start to finish.