HONG KONG FILMMAKER STANLEY KWAN, whose love-and-death-and-Tian-An-Men-Square men's romance, Lan Yu, is currently in local cinemas, isn't a stranger just to American audiences familiar with a pantheon of former Crown Colony auteurs ranging from John Woo to Wong Kar-Wai. Despite a career that stretches back to the primordial ooze of the 1980s' Hong Kong new wave (his feature debut was 1985's Women), the 45-year-old director remains to this day something of a stranger in his own hometown.
A former assistant director to groundbreakers like Tsui Hark (Peking Opera Blues, A Chinese Ghost Story) and Ann Hui (Romance of Book and Sword, Song of the Exile), Kwan built his reputation on a series of sumptuous melodramas: Rouge and Red Rose, White Rose and the Maggie Cheungstarring Actress, voted by Film Comment magazine one of the best films of
the 1990s never to have attained U.S. distribution. Commissioned by the British Film Institute in 1996 to direct an installment of its “100 Years of Cinema” series, he used the occasion to fashion Yang ± Yin: Gender in Chinese Cinema, a passionate deconstruction of cross-dressing swordsmen and sinewy chopsocky hunks that also served as the now openly gay director's coming-out party. Kwan considered the film (which is essential if hard-to-find viewing for anyone serious about Hong Kong cinema) both a creative and a personal breakthrough, but the notoriously reactionary Hong Kong press had a small-minded field day with the director's revelations.
Though his box-office profile has lowered over the last few years, Kwan's been busy quietly reinventing himself all the while, and Lan Yu, shot illegally on location in Beijing, marks a return to form. Smart, steamy and politically astute, Kwan's deceptively simple new film strips melodrama down to its bikini briefs, and holds a gilt-edged mirror up to much of the aesthetically underendowed “new queer cinema” on this side of the globe.
Lan Yu’s Liu Ye
L.A. WEEKLY: Lan Yu is your first film to get U.S. distribution, yet you've been directing features since 1985. With so many Hong Kong filmmakers becoming well-known in America and internationally during the last decade, why do you think it's taken you this long?
STANLEY KWAN: Well, part of the reason is that, even in Hong Kong, I'm seen as something of a fish out of water. I was told many years ago that my films never look like Hong Kong films. The content, the pacing, the style — they're all very different. The only thing that makes them like Hong Kong films is that they star people like Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung. But there are other reasons, too. When Maggie won the Best Actress award at the Berlin International Film Festival for Actress, many people thought that would be a chance for me to get some overseas exposure. But Golden Harvest, my distributor at that time, didn't know how to deal with such a small, serious film for the international market.
One of your collaborators on Lan Yu was William Chang, the editor and art director most often associated with the only other art-film director from Hong Kong with whom Western audiences are familiar, Wong Kar-Wai. Do you see any similarities between your work and his?
In a small way, yes. But the thing I really admire about Wong is that he is not only a wonderful filmmaker, he's very talented in packaging his work, and in running his own company. I'm more the kind of person who wants to spend his time inviting friends to come over to visit, cooking for them and drinking wine together. But I would definitely like to follow his example — drawing production funds from foreign countries, but still making films in Hong Kong.
Lan Yu has a unique look — lots of darkened spaces and mirrored reflections, an overall feeling of claustrophobia. Was there a certain visual idea that you and Chang used as a starting point?
What we discussed wasn't so much a color palette, or certain compositions, but a limited range of emotional tones — tones somewhere between pity and regret. Even in my simplest and most direct films, I still need to find something in them that has some specific connection to the circumstances of my own life. In this case, I was thinking about the way that my boyfriend and I . . . we have a very good relationship, but somehow he still thinks there is this area of something like pity in our relationship, because we can never have children. With that in mind, I began to envision a beautiful piece of silk, looking at a piece of silk filled with beautiful colors and suddenly
realizing that there's a flaw in it. That flaw in the silk — the image of something beautiful that's been somehow slightly marred — that was the central visual idea of the film.
Your least-known films tend to be ensemble pieces that you made in the 1980s, like Love Unto Waste and Full Moon in New York. Your later, better-known ones — complicated melodramas from the '90s like Actress and Red Rose, White Rose — earned you a reputation as a director of what used to be known in Hollywood as “women's weepies.” How do you see your style as having changed over the years?
Ever since I started watching movies as a little kid, melodramas were what most appealed to me. They seemed to apply to my personal experiences. But when I started making films, I always felt this need to convey some kind of message or meaning beyond just a melodramatic story. Actually, I've now come to realize that I had just been making things overcomplicated, for myself and probably for the audience. I don't find it to be such a problem to deal directly with melodrama anymore. Simple and direct is good too. When journalists ask me if there is any message that I'm trying to get across to audiences in Lan Yu, I tell them no, it's just the basic story of a 10-year relationship, a love story about two men.
In 1996, you made the documentary Yang ± Yin: Gender in Chinese Cinema, where you not only explored the history of homoerotic imagery in Hong Kong films, but used the occasion to make a public statement about your own sexuality as well. How did coming out affect your career?
I'm sorry to say that, compared to Taiwan and even mainland China, Hong Kong — which is supposed to be this very sophisticated and civilized place — is the most conservative of the three Chinese territories. Hong Kong people behave like they're very welcoming of new ideas — multiculturalism, and so on — but they accept these things with their mouths only, not their hearts. After the Hong Kong Movie Awards this year [where Lan Yu, with 11 nominations, was completely shut out of the winner's circle], one prominent local film critic, commenting on the conservative trend in our industry over the last few years, wondered aloud in his column why it was that, since Stanley Kwan made his sexuality public, he hasn't won a single award. It was nice of him to ask.