Narrator: Tony Rayns.
(English and Mandarin dialogue)
True to the project’s intention of providing a personal rather than academic view of world cinema, Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan takes family and sexuality as his starting points in considering film from the three Chinas in “Yang + Yin: Gender in Chinese Cinema,” the Sino entry in the British Film Institute’s “Century of Cinema” series. Focusing primarily on homosexuality, gender-bending and father figures, this absorbing, at times analytical treatise should figure widely in fests, on TV and in gay film forums.
Dividing his reflections into six chapters, Kwan begins by recalling his first trip with his father to a bathhouse (memories evoked in his 1991 feature, “Actress”) and his first sight of naked male bodies. Over family photos, he describes being forced, by lack of space, to share a bed with his father, and the lingering memory of the look and smell of his body.
Growing up in Hong Kong, Kwan became fascinated with the man-to-man bonds depicted in martial arts films and their displays of male bodies in action. He seeks out the homoerotic undertones of swordplay pics of the 1960s and ’70s, speaking to prolific director Chang Cheh about the sexual symbolism of knives and swords and the virtual exclusion of women from these stories. He poses similar questions to Chang’s former assistant, John Woo, about the celebration of male bonding in his gangster films. While Woo admits that any homoerotic charge is unintentional, he acknowledges that were he to depict the same kind of male relationships in his Hollywood features, he would be forced to work outside the mainstream.
Backtracking to mainland Chinese films of the 1930s, Kwan looks at images of masculinity in Shanghai productions of the period in particular, the sexual frankness of Ma-Xu Weibang’s films. Creating a link from the director’s 1937 “Song at Midnight” to a recent remake starring Leslie Cheung, Kwan grills the actor about his frequent casting as an effeminate narcissist. This leads to detailed consideration of Cheung’s role in “Farewell My Concubine,” and the charges of homophobia against director Chen Kaige for his diluting of the novel’s gay themes.
Chapter three returns to patriarchal figures as its subject, interviewing directors including Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Tsai Ming-Liang, Edward Yang and Ang Lee on their relationships with their fathers and how this is reflected in their films. Cross-dressing and sexual conundrums in Tsui Hark’s films come under scrutiny, with actress Brigitte Lin pushing the boundaries by playing women who pass themselves off as men or who were men in past lives. Actor Cheung comments that it remains more acceptable in China for women to portray male characteristics than vice versa.
This links to the docu’s closing segment, in which Kwan reins the focus back into the purely personal. Looking at a female star duo who became popular through Cantonese opera pics of the 1950s, and formed a couple onscreen and off, Kwan quizzes his mother about her acceptance of Yam Kin-Fai, one of the actresses, as a man. Her comments on open-mindedness and tradition prompt the director to ask if she accepts his own relationship with a man.
Changing attitudes and family structures are main concerns of Kwan, leading to something of a concentration on cinema of the past decade. The comparative openness of Hong Kong and Taiwanese productions to these themes also means that these industries are better represented by clips and interviews than mainland Chinese productions. But the documentary in no way purports to be a true history of Chinese cinema, merely one aspect of it.
Considering what visual stylists both the director and cinematographer Christopher Doyle are, the film has a rather standard documentary look, and despite its highly personal nature, Kwan’s approach is a little dry at times. More inventive cross-cutting between the various strands and subjects could perhaps have lessened the enterprise’s dissertation feel. But the material remains fascinating, and should spark as much interest from scholars of sexual politics as from Chinese cinema pundits.