Photographer-cum-filmmaker Manshih Yonfan’s “Beauty” looks at first glance like a sequel to the helmer’s 1995 “Bugis Street” — dramatizing the lives of young gay male hustlers instead of prior pic’s transvestite prostitutes — but it in fact reps a considerable advance in both narrative and filmic sophistication. Melancholy, handsome-looking drama has some flaws, and finally succumbs to somewhat cliched romantic tragedy. But on the whole it manages to avoid sensationalism and melodrama, delivering a sexy, tender package that should do well with international gay and arthouse auds. San Francisco opening March 19 kicked off mini-distrib Margin Films’ U.S. release.
Opening sequences don’t promise to stray far enough from “Bugis” territory, as a stable of young hustlers is viewed dishing dirt at their pickup-bar “headquarters,” servicing clients (including some high-ranking officials), and getting discreetly cruised on the street. The group’s star is Jet (Stephen Fung) , a swaggering, hunky flirt who’s just as jaded as his pals. But his head is turned — and not professionally — by the sight of another young man walking around Hong Kong streets with a female companion. “That night, Jet felt dazed and lost” notes the over-explanatory v.o. narration, feature’s most stubborn (and unnecessary) holdover from “Bugis.”
The tall, handsome stranger turns out to be Sam (Daniel Wu), who’s followed his father into a policeman’s career. A model son, cop and friend, Sam warmly welcomes a new acquaintance when Jet’s obsessed search results in a second “chance” encounter.
But sexual signals between the two are ambiguous at first. Afraid to scare off the straight-arrow (if not necessarily straight) Sam, Jet buries his usual brazen style — as well as his line of work — in a non-threatening nice-young-man act. Actually, Sam’s company does make him feel just that guileless and earnest. But it takes a long time before they express their mutual attraction.
By then, we’ve realized that Sam is no stranger to gay liaisons, but his queasiness with a gay identity, and terror of disgracing his parents, terminated the relationships. His previous partners include Ching (Jason Tsang), who was so traumatized by the ultimate rejection that he dropped from “respectability” to hustling — and is, coincidentally, now one of Jet’s closest pals.
This overlap is discovered by all three late in story’s progress. But that awkward moment proves less crucial to the outcome than Sam’s unwillingness to leave the closet. Torn between passion and guilt, he makes a sacrifice doomed to sadden all concerned.
However cliched this tragic-homosexual finale may be, it plays poignantly enough thanks to Yonfan’s restrained direction, script and handling of the capable, attractive cast. Slow pacing suits pic’s meditative, sentimental mood, which lenser Henry Chung’s often elegant images further advance (a few tacky slo-mo segs aside).
At one early juncture, Sam is convinced to pose for a voyeur’s salacious photos — an unlikely event, given character’s prim morality. Yonfan was in fact inspired to write “Beauty” by a real-life scandal in which some “dirty” pictures were found to feature models from H.K. police ranks. Probably to its benefit, though, feature doesn’t develop this sensationalist strand, instead sticking to heartfelt, romantically yearning fiction.
Tech package is high-grade all around.