East Palace, West Palace

on July 24, 1998 by Wade Major
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What kind of 50th-anniversary Cannes fest would it be if the Chinese failed to make a brouhaha? Thanks to bad-boy filmmaker Zhang Yuan's gay-themed "East Palace, West Palace," no one will ever know.
   So furious was the Chinese government with the film's inclusion in Un Certain Regard that Zhang's passport was confiscated and Zhang Yimou's "Keep Cool" was pulled from the competition. And yet, by comparison to the fest's other gay-themed Chinese film (Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai's "Happy Together"), "East Palace, West Palace" seems downright prudish.
   What distinguishes "East Palace, West Palace" ultimately has less to do with its politics than its dramatics. Arguably the most compelling new Chinese film since the rise of the Fifth Generation, Zhang's mostly self-financed chamber piece is something of a small miracle, a film that makes an audacious frontal assault on traditional Chinese sensibilities and taboos even as it nevertheless clings steadfastly to a meticulous aesthetic tradition.
   Focusing almost exclusively on a nightlong conversation between a Tianenmen park police officer and the gay man he has detained for lewd conduct, the film is structured as a mental tango, a dance of wits wherein deep inhibitions and hidden desires are methodically laid bare. As the gay A-Lan, actor Si Han creates a heart-rending portrait of a man wholly at peace with his lifestyle, despite the inevitability of persecution. Alternating ambiguously between episodes of torment and bliss, his "confession" unfolds like a mystery novel, drawing policeman Shi Xiaohua (Hu Jun) unwittingly into a carefully crafted emotional trap.
   Had the film succeeded on a purely psychological level, it would be impressive enough. But Zhang extends his attention to detail to every aspect of the film's technical execution as well, marking a giant step forward from such earlier, rougher works as the notorious "Beijing Bastards." Whether or not Zhang will be allowed to continue making films, or under what conditions, remains to be seen. Either way, the mere existence of "East Palace, West Palace" bodes well not just for the future of Chinese filmmaking but for Chinese society itself. Starring Si Han and Hu Jun. Directed and produced by Zhang Yuan. Written by Wang Xiaobo and Zhang Yuan. A Strand release. Drama. Mandarin-language; subtitled. Not rated. Running time: 94 min. Screened at Cannes.
Tags: Si Han, Hu Jun, Zhang Yuan, Wang Xiaobo, A Strand release. Drama
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