Coming from the country’s radical gay movement and cast largely with “out” gay men, the underground production “Men and Women” differs from most of the handful of other mainland Chinese films dealing directly with contempo homosexuality in that it purports to offer an insider’s view. Winner of the Fipresci international critics’ prize in Locarno, the film won’t be seen any time soon on its home turf due to rigid censorship barriers concerning its subject. While it’s perhaps more interesting as a cultural document than as drama, it should segue to further bookings in gay fests.
Director Liu Bingjian co-scripted with Cui Zien, reportedly the first out gay writer in mainland China, who appears in the film as the fey deejay of a radio show dedicated to public-toilet culture. His lover, Chong Chong, specializes in a similar field, publishing a magazine on the subject that reproduces choice bathroom graffiti. But while fellow Chinese independent filmmaker Zhang Yuan’s “East Palace West Palace” showed a more forthright picture of restrooms as gay cruising grounds, Liu’s film treats them coyly, in an almost comedic vein that sits awkwardly with the more successful central drama.
Principal focus of that drama is shy, sensitive country boy Xiao Bo, who hits Beijing looking for work and is taken under the wing of kindly Qing Jie (played by the cast’s sole professional thesp, Yang Qing). Giving him a room in her apartment and a job in the clothing store she manages, Qing Jie soon starts trying to pair off Xiao Bo with her single girlfriend A Meng. But his lack of interest in her leads to the suspicion he might be gay. Looking to find some of the physical pleasure that’s missing from his stagnant marriage, Qing Jie’s slobby husband makes a clumsy attempt to rape Xiao Bo, prompting his hasty exit from their lives.
Adopting a cinema verite, documentary style, which reaps mixed results, Liu maintains a cool distance in observing his characters, taking in seemingly inconsequential details rather than analyzing their actions and choices in concrete terms.
When Xiao Bo moves in to Chong Chong’s apartment — the nature of their prior acquaintance is never established — the gradual, almost matter-of-fact kindling of a sexual relationship between them is economically and effectively conveyed in silence. But when Qing Jie announces she is leaving her husband to strike up a lesbian relationship with A Meng, the revelation comes out of nowhere. Both outcomes, however, provide appropriate backup to the theme of sexuality as a fluid rather than fixed factor.
Liu’s restrained approach makes the low-budget, technically spare and clandestinely shot production slow going at times, with the generally low-angle camerawork often static for long periods. Despite this, it remains engrossing and is dotted throughout with quietly amusing touches and casual glimpses of the changing face of a somewhat bleak modern China.