The best Chinese gay cinema

Chinese film experts pick the top Chinese LGBT films

East Palace, West Palace (1996)
Despite numerous challenges, China has produced some important LGBT films, which are renowned for both their daring content and their art. Time Out asks two experts to pick their top three

China Daily film critic Raymond Zhou picks…

Love is Not Blind (2011)

Dir Teng Huatao

One may be puzzled by my choice of a fluffy rom-com (a love story between straights, that is) as my number one gay movie in China. This surprise hit from 2011 has a male lead who is clearly gay. Even the voiceover states: ‘I suspect his sexual orientation’. And this in a country where gay content in films is supposed to not be allowed.

The film is about a young woman dumped by her longtime boyfriend who finds solace in a gay colleague. Played by Wen Zhang, who is straight, the character displays so much charm that gays in workplaces in urban China have suddenly become objects of vogue, at least to young females. With a huge influence on the youth demographic, Love is Not Blind conveys the message that one is lucky to have a gay friend because he is more considerate and understanding than your boyfriend.

Lan Yu (2001) 

Dir Stanley Kwan

Lan Yu, directed by Hong Kong’s Stanley Kwan, is adapted from an online novel penned by a woman. It features Hu Jun and Liu Ye as a couple of homosexual lovers. Liu plays a poor college student who is discovering his sexuality, while Hu portrays a businessman who seduces and supports him.

While touching on sensitive topics such as the incident of 1989 and the economic dichotomy and necessity of marrying a woman for the sake of family responsibility, the film is not known for its depth. It just skirts around the thorny issues by hinting at them. What’s eye-opening about it is the depiction of sexual scenes between the two straight actors. Both feature full frontal nudity. But it is obvious that the film had no chance of being screened in Mainland China with or without these scenes. It did receive several awards in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Farewell My Concubine (1993) 

Dir Chen Kaige

This 1993 film is widely considered the best Chinese film ever. Director Chen Kaige explores the theatre of old China with its cross-dressing practice and how it impacted the actors. Leslie Cheung’s character is gay, but the film seems to suggest he was not born gay, but rather, it was beaten into him when he was growing up and assigned the task of playing only female roles – somewhat like Elizabethan theatre. He repeatedly misreads a line from an opera, from ‘I was a woman’ into ‘I was a man.’ While this may contradict conventional wisdom, the psyche of this character is the most delicate and beautiful thing ever portrayed on Chinese celluloid. Leslie Cheung so identified with this role that he later came out and became a rare symbol of integrity in showbiz.

The character falls in love with his male stage partner and, when spurned, turns to a rich gay patron. The tragedy that unfolds in the background only enhances the tragedy that is happening within the trio of main characters. This Palme d’Or winner was almost banned in China. It escaped the wrath of the censor with some cuts. Read more about Farewell My Concubine.

Director of the 6th Beijing Queer Film Festival Fan Popo picks…

East Palace, West Palace (1996)

Dir Zhang Yuan (also known as Behind the Forbidden City and Behind the Palace Gates

I watched this film for the first time in 2003 when I came to study in the Beijing Film Academy. First of all, it was famous because it was the first ever explicitly gay movie in Mainland China. Second, because it was based on a book by Wang Xiaobo, a well known novelist. Third, the plot is interesting because it tells the story of a gay man called A-Lan who is picked up one night in a park cruising near the Forbidden City. He is caught by a macho, aggressive policeman called Shi – and in the end the policeman falls in love with him. It is an exploration of the power of the government. Before 1997 homosexuality was illegal in China and there was a law that punished gay sex. So this film is an important record of history.

I love it not only because of the story but also because it is very beautiful. The director had a low budget but he did a great job. An interesting postscript is that Si Han, who plays A-Lan, did an exhibition last year on queer art in China called Secret Love in the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities in Stockholm. Si Han is openly gay and very supportive to LGBT rights, whether it be in Sweden or in China.

Fish and Elephant (2001) 

Dir Li Yu

This was the first lesbian movie in Mainland China. It is also important because it was the first fiction film from Li Yu, whose previous work had mostly been in documentaries. She’s since gone on to work regularly with Fan Bingbing. In the movie two girls – an elephant keeper in Beijing Zoo and a fabric saleswoman who works in a market – are in love. Then one of the girl’s recently divorced mothers comes to Beijing to press her to get married. In the dialogue she says something like: ‘Oh, you shouldn’t be so picky. If I was not so tolerant I would have divorced from your dad earlier.’ This mother does not have good knowledge about relationships but still gives her daughter pressure.

It is interesting in that it shows that the traditional ideas of family and marriage should be changed. The old generation should not press the younger to settle down. Fish and Elephant is a profound rethink of the family unit. Not only does the film lead the viewer to think about the status quo of lesbians, but it also shows social and cultural oppression of Chinese females. So I think that the film is not only important to the lesbian community but also the women’s community in China.

Queer China, 'Comrade' China (2008) 

Dir Cui Zien

In this documentary Cui Zien, one of China’s leading queer theorists and activists, explores the historical development of the LGBT rights movement over the past three decades in China. It is groundbreaking because previously documentaries in the field mostly focused on personal lives, but this film looked at LGBT issues in society, their milestones and the role of activists. Cui uses the film to promote his own theories.

In 2008, we screened the film in 20 different cities for the China Queer Film Festival Tour. The screenings made a difference, helping to let more people know about LGBT rights, making them talk about it. It helped lead to acceptance of LGBT people and the growth of more tolerance.