Title: East Palace, West Palace
Director: Zhang Yuan
Starring: Si Han, Hu Jun
Distributers: Strand Releasing
Country of Origin/Language: China/Mandarin Chinese
Length: 94 minutes
Rating: 4.75 stars out of 5
A guest review by Leslie S
Summary: A deliciously seductive and coldly erotic battle of wills and wits between a cop and the gay man he arrests and questions over the course of one long night.
In China, homosexuality isn’t illegal, but homosexuals are routinely persecuted by police and arrested for “hooliganism”. The film focuses on a young gay writer A-Lan who, being attracted to a young policeman, manages to have himself interrogated for a whole night. His life-story which he tells during the interrogation reflects the general repression of the Chinese society. The policeman’s attitude shifts from the initial revulsion to fascination and, finally, to attraction. (from IMDB)
A Lan (Si Han) is a gay man who cruises the parks and public toilets of Beijing (the film’s title refers to the gay nicknames for two toilets located near the Forbidden City). The police regularly raid the park, arresting gay men, putting them on a list of ‘regular delinquents’, and abusing and humiliating them before letting them go. A Lan is caught during one of these raids, but as he’s a new face, policeman Xiao Shi (Hu Jun) offers to let him walk away. A Lan refuses, and when Xiao Shi tries to usher him out of the park, A Lan kisses Xiao Shi and runs off.
Xiao Shi receives a book in the post, with a dedication ‘To my love’. Xiao Shi reacts ambiguously towards it. Later, he’s patrolling the park on duty but out of uniform when he spots A Lan in a clinch with another man. When the other man runs away, Xiao Shi arrests A Lan and takes him to the park police station, little more than an old pavilion set in dark woodland. Xiao Shi’s chief radios in to say he’ll be out all night, and the scene is set for an uncomfortable, sensual seduction between captive and captor.
Xiao Shi treats A Lan with casual brutality at first, making him squat on the floor, giving him verbal abuse, but at the same time he’s genuinely interested in A Lan and wants to know more about him. He questions A Lan about his sexuality – ostensibly it’s so he can write it down and put A Lan on the ‘regular delinquents’ list, but in reality there’s much more to it – and as the film progresses, he treats A Lan less as a criminal and more as a human being, and then almost as a lover.
Through A Lan’s narrative and a series of flashbacks, we see the events and experiences – all of them sensual, many of them sexual – that have made A Lan the man he is now. He admits to being married, yet when Xiao Shi asks about his wife, A Lan goes off on a tangent (or does he?) and talks about a girl he loved in school, a beautiful orphaned girl who transferred and who, because of her looks and lack of family, became the target of spite from his classmates, who called her a slut. A Lan lost his virginity to a male classmate while pretending to be this girl.
He goes on to detail his relationship with his mother (who always told him to be good otherwise a policeman would come and get him, and how he’s longed for a policeman ever since), and tells of the time when he was beaten up by a gang of mine workers right after he’d had sex with one of the bosses of the mine, who arranged for the beating to take place. A Lan documents his favourite lovers – a teacher, a kinky rich man – and also weaves throughout his narrative a Kunqu Opera story about a beautiful female thief who’s caught by a huge city guard. The guard has the option to either kill the thief or take her as his lover. This fragment of opera becomes a symbol not only of A Lan’s attraction to Xiao Shi but also of his attitude towards his fate as a gay man in a country where homosexuality is ignored or punished. The captive falls in love with his captor, even though he might die for it; you cannot have love without suffering, and you cannot fight against love.
The longer the conversation goes on, the more Xiao Shi falls under A Lan’s spell. At times, A Lan’s fantasies intrude into reality and vice versa, with Xiao Shi unwittingly feeding the illusions or acting out part of the fantasy. Xiao Shi becomes so disturbed by his own actions that he sets A Lan free, but A Lan refuses to leave and tells Xiao Shi that he loves him. Confused by his own feelings and desperate to deny the attraction between them, Xiao Shi tries to re-gender A Lan by making him dress as a woman. When this doesn’t work, Xiao Shi resorts to violence, literally becoming the city guard with his beautiful (and now cross-dressed to female) prisoner, and it’s Xiao Shi who must make the decision as to how the story – and all of A Lan’s fantasies – will end.
East Palace, West Palace is a very clever film in its construction. Originally written as a stage play, it retains much of its dramatic feel from that medium and relies almost entirely on the performances of the two leads. Hu Jun’s stolid, curious cop is the perfect foil to Si Han’s seductive fantasist, and the physical difference also works very well – Hu Jun, even as a young man, seems bulky and tall, while Si Han is ethereal and pretty. The truly amazing thing is that Si Han wasn’t a professional actor but part of Zhang Yuan’s film crew. You would not believe it – he is absolutely brilliant in this role.
Director Zhang Yuan’s motivation for making the film was to redress the decades of denial and silence surrounding homosexuality:
“Although there are many stories recorded about gays in Chinese culture, after the Liberation of 1949 and especially during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), the very word ‘homosexual’ disappeared from all newspapers, books, and even public discussion.”
This was the first gay film to be made in China. The authorities already viewed Zhang Yuan with disfavour due to some of his earlier works, but they took action against him following the release of East Palace, West Palace. His passport was seized and so his friends smuggled the film out of the country. It was shown at Cannes in 1997 in front of an empty chair marked ‘director’ as a protest to Zhang Yuan’s treatment.
Until recently (2001), homosexuality was classified as a mental disorder in China. The film was made in 1996. A Lan talks about his time in hospital when they were attempting to ‘cure’ him. They fed him his favourite foods while he watched M/F porn and fed him bitter food while he watched M/M porn. “It didn’t work,” he says with the ghost of a smile. The ‘cure’ doesn’t work just as the continuous abuse and humiliation from the police and other people doesn’t have any effect – “we march to a different beat.”
A Lan portrays his circle of gay friends, lovers and acquaintances as outsiders who band together awkwardly out of desire for love and understanding. The outsider theme is very strong – even within his own circle, A Lan is looked down upon because he’s married. Xiao Shi also seems to be an outsider, and especially at the start of the film, there’s voyeuristic scenes where Xiao Shi goes outside and circles around the police station, looking in at A Lan (the role reverses at the end of the film). We never know if Xiao Shi is closeted gay or straight, and perhaps it doesn’t matter – the important thing is his response to A Lan’s outsider status and later his desire for A Lan as a sexual partner.
Another theme is that you can’t have love without suffering. When talking about losing his virginity, A Lan describes how it hurt and how his classmate was rough with him, but then he realised he could find pleasure in it: “He could do anything he wanted – as long as he was happy, I was happy.” As A Lan was specifically taking on the role of the girl, this also offers oblique commentary on the traditional role of women in China. The theme becomes stronger and more powerful each time it reappears in A Lan’s fantasies.
East Palace, West Palace, to me, reads like an anti-fairy tale. The cinematography is beautiful even when the camera is moving over ugly concrete buildings or a filthy, dank public toilet. This is a Beijing that no longer exists, a place that was an illusion even when it was real. The darkness, the shadows, the mirrors and endless walkways – they all take the viewer deeper into this very intimate, very internalised interrogation between captor and captive. The inescapable comparison is The Arabian Nights, where Scheherazade told stories every night in order to survive. A Lan tells stories to reaffirm his identity as a gay man, as a human being, and as an object of desire.
It’s not surprising that A Lan is a writer – when he hears this, Xiao Shi snorts “That explains a lot.” I think anyone who writes fiction would enjoy this film, or at least find it fascinating, because it questions the nature and use of fantasy and storytelling, not just as a method of seduction (and oh, does it ever work on that level!) but also as a mechanism for coping. A Lan suffers many hardships but he overcomes them because he has his fantasies, and because he can draw others into his fantasies and make them real.
It’s a brilliant, complex tale that’s ambiguous enough for you to draw your own conclusions and which offers plenty of food for thought. Recommended.