Director Stanley Kwan's (The Actress, Red Rose White Rose), latest film, Lan Yu, based upon a novel posted anonymously on the Internet in China, has created quite an uproar in its homeland, mostly because Kwan, who is openly gay, made the film without the official approval of the Chinese censors. Because of this, Kwan was forced to film illegally, in secret, in Beijing.
Lan Yu follows an affair between a businessman, Handong (Hu Jun) and a destitute student, Lan Yu (Liu Ye), who has resorted to prostitution to earn money for continuing his education. Beginning with an intended one-night stand, the relationship evolves into a tentative love affair, with Handong assuring Lan Yu that it will end when it becomes either boring or difficult. Lan Yu, who has fallen in love with Handong almost immediately, grudgingly agrees, but is nevertheless heartbroken when Handong abruptly ends the affair some months later, opting for straight marriage and security.
Kwan's lush film is at least visually structured similarly to Wong Kar-Wai's masterpiece, In the Mood for Love. Kwan and his director of photography, Yang Tao, build each scene with intimate zest, relishing the way their characters look and act in the well-designed sets (which come from In the Mood for Love's production designer, William Chang). Hu and Liu are dynamic performers, capturing the evocative nature of the relationship beautifully, and they play off of each other richly, allowing shared ownership of this mature, fragile love affair.
While Lan Yu shares some of what made In the Mood for Love great (despite its mainland setting and locations, it has a very Hong Kong aesthetic), the ways in which it differs from that intricate picture are what make it not entirely successful.
uses some distracting cuts where the passage of time is not clearly identified.
Handong's marriage is represented by about ten minutes of screen time,
which thematically works but doesn't give us any inclinating as to why
the marriage ends, something that might have lent more poignancy to the
resulting return to Handong. And, most disastrous, the film ends with
an abrupt, overly tragic ending, seemingly punishing the two principals
for their indescretions, when the entire film coming before suggests that
they have earned their love by lamenting their mistakes. Still, Kwan's
efforts are noble and the resulting film is a moving, if uneven, success.