A claustrophobic chamber drama set at the meeting point of opposing sexualities, Zhang Yuan's "East Palace, West Palace" is an interesting, sometimes powerful attempt to grapple with the concept of gayness within the morally conservative boundaries of mainland Chinese society. In the international arena, however, it will strike many Western viewers as less than earth-shaking and a tad old-fashioned, as well as raising questions about the pic's simplistic equating of homosexuality with inner torture. Pic should certainly get some theatrical exposure as a curio item, with small-screen sales also indicated. Zhang's film is already assured of a place in the history books, not only for being the first explicit treatment of male gay love to come from mainland China, but also for causing a major hoo-ha for being selected by the Cannes fest. Zhang himself had his passport confiscated when returning to China from Hong Kong on April 10, and to punish the festival the Beijing authorities also forced the withdrawal of fellow Chinese director Zhang Yimou's new movie, "Stay Cool," from competition at a late stage.
Originally conceived as a much broader panorama of gay life in Beijing, the film ended up with a much tighter focus, on two characters — a young gay man, A-Lan (Si Han), and a heterosexual cop, Shi (Hu Jun), who arrests him one evening. The two spend a long, dark night of the soul together, during which each challenges the other’s sexuality.
Opening crane and tracking shots establish the ambience of a Chinese-style park that’s a favored smooching spot for Beijing gays. Swooping on couples in the bushes one night, a group of cops break up and harass their targets. While being led away, A-Lan plants a quick kiss on the cheek of Shi, and later sends him a present of a book (inscribed “To my loved one, Shi”) at his police station.
More intrigued than disturbed, Shi later cases the park one night and finds A-Lan in the arms of a pickup. Dragging A-Lan back to the park supervisor’s office, Shi plays psychological games with the unashamed young man, interrogating him about his sexual proclivities like a cat pawing a wounded mouse.
Flashbacks limn A-Lan’s sexual history as he describes formative encounters as a youth: an apparent crush on a schoolgirl (Zhao Wei) that led nowhere (apart from his growing identification with women), and various homosexual experiences in which he always took a submissive, mostly masochistic role.
Whether the events actually took place is left open, but it soon becomes clear that A-Lan is deliberately provoking the cop to take on the role of the brutish lovers he describes, by flagrantly challenging his narrow-minded view of male sexuality. Pushed to the limit, Shi finally drags A-Lan to an abandoned building to “cure” the kid’s “sickness” by physical means.
Beautifully shot in strong, dark colors, and with an early Bartok-like score of grinding string harmonies, the movie is Zhang’s most technically controlled since his groundbreaking “Mama” (1990). There’s none of the emotional indulgence that marred his subsequent pics, the aimless youth drama “Beijing Bastards” (1993) and dysfunctional-family portrait “Sons” (1995). As a piece of filmmaking, it’s highly honed on all levels.
To Western eyes, however, the treatment of its subject recalls ’60s movies like “Reflections in a Golden Eye,” in which gay emotions are equated with masochistic impulses and inner anguish. Though A-Lan repeatedly denies the cop’s description of his gayness as a sickness, or aberration, the script doesn’t make a very convincing case for the young kid, who finally resorts to women’s clothing and lipstick to storm Shi’s machismo. This may well be an accurate description of gays’ sense of plight in contempo China, but will sit uneasily with more liberated Western observers.
Shi’s heterosexuality is never sufficiently in doubt to make A-Lan’s seduction anything more than a hopeless attempt from the start. In fact, the pic works best as a psychological tennis match that ends in a draw, with each staying safely on his side of the net. Per the film’s title (local gay slang for the public toilets either side of Tiananmen Square), east is east and west is west, and the twain shall never meet.
Though Zhang wraps the script in one after another seductive visual effect, there’s a sense of repetition in A-Lan’s flashbacks and dream sequences. Performances by both of the leads are fine, with other players almost insignificant. As Shi, Hu Jun later repeated his role in a stage version of the script performed in Brussels last year. All post-production work was done in France, after the footage was smuggled out of China following the shoot in spring ’96.