"Out" director Stanley Kwan shot his underground Chinese romantic melodrama Lan Yu illegally, and it's anyone's guess if the film will ever play in a Chinese cinema. With its taboo homosexual coupling and (brief) referencing of the Tiananmen Square tragedy, Kwan's film is bold and admirable. It's obviously pretty, with an understated visual style, but also pretty obvious.
Based on the enormously popular and psuedonymously published e-novel Beijing Story (the author's handle is "Beijing Comrade"), Lan Yu patiently works its way through nearly a decade in the lives of two gay men in a closeted culture. Handong (Hu Jun), is a wealthy, slippery businessman who plays sugar daddy to a succession of young men until guileless student Lan Yu (Liu Ye) captivates him. Despite Handong's warning that "When two people get to know each other too well, it's time to separate," Lan Yu proves unshakeable. Handong's brother likewise voices a portent: "Better to prepare for the worst." Obligingly, various socio-economic obstacles rise to meet them, reflecting the duality of life in Beijing above and below the line.
Kwan tells his story through glass, darkly, with windows and mirrors prominent and most scenes shot at nighttime or in shadows. By also compartmentalizing the frame, Kwan walls off his characters and suggests they're "under glass;" though closeted and sometimes in denial, their love is plain to see. Light, however, breaks through sparingly and with untimely irony.
The film shares a set designer with the obviously influential In the Mood for Love, and Lan Yu might have benefited from that film's unhesitantly lush treatment of melodramatic material (lack of money might again be the culprit). As it is, Lan Yu is--despite its subversive heart--standard in dramatic terms.