2 January 2005 | Libretio
Romantic homage to male beauty
BISHONEN (Mei Shao Nian Zhi Lian)
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Sound format: Dolby Digital
Inspired by a scandal in the Happy Valley area of Hong Kong, in which a wealthy playboy was found to have taken thousands of photographs of police officers posed in various states of undress, BISHONEN is nothing less than a romantic homage to male beauty: Stephen Fung plays a handsome prostitute whose vanity is breached after he falls in love with an equally attractive young cop (Daniel Wu) who is closeted from his old-fashioned parents (Kenneth Tsang and Chiao Chiao) and wary of forming new relationships due to events in his recent past, events which finally catch up with him in the worst possible way.
Directed by photographer-turned-filmmaker Yonfan (BUGIS STREET, PEONY PAVILION), this unusual film was actually promoted as a spectacle for *female* viewers, though the narrative is defiantly Queer in tone and construction, and unfolds with all the melodramatic excess of a 'Harlequin' romance. While Yonfan's script and direction may seem hopelessly naive to some Western viewers, his painterly eye uncovers the beauty in HK's urban sprawl, as well as the physical attributes of the actors themselves, and some of the images of languid young men are genuinely intoxicating. Terence Yin (HOT WAR) plays an aspiring pop singer who leads Wu astray from an old boyfriend (Jason Tsang) during a long flashback sequence explaining Wu's melancholy demeanor, prompting a number of oblique references to actor-singer Leslie Cheung, whose suicide in 2003 ended the long career of one of HK's most beloved gay icons. In fact, Yonfan uses the milieu of HK's sexual 'underworld' to comment on the former colony's clandestine gay scene, and the ways in which it has been downplayed (or hideously stereotyped) by an overtly conservative media. Gay fans of HK cinema have always relished the voluptuous splendor of Asian film stars (Bruce Lee, Alexander Fu Sheng, Andy Lau, Nicholas Tse, countless others) and the homoerotic undercurrents which fuel hundreds of tough guy action movies and sensitive dramas (despite what some blinkered western critics would have you believe); BISHONEN drags the implication out of its closet and exposes it to the clear light of day.
Many scenes are unscripted and/or shot guerrilla-style on the streets of HK, and while some of these vignettes are rendered inconsequential by unskilled actors, the script's emphasis on the redeeming power of love is both heartfelt and charming. However, the closing scenes - in which a leading character makes a tragic error of judgment - will strike some viewers as regressive and unnecessary, though the situation is entirely believable in the context of Eastern sensibilities. Shu Qi (SKYLINE CRUISERS, THE EYE 2) plays the only significant female role in the movie, a lesbian who acts as a go-between for Fung and Wu, and the movie is narrated by Brigitte Lin (famous for the sexually fluid roles she has played in countless movies); HK film critic Paul Fonoroff also appears, in a brief cameo role. Along with Wong Kar-wai's HAPPY TOGETHER (1997), this was one of the first HK films to depict gay sex in an explicit manner, though some of the supporting players are clearly uncomfortable during moments of supposed intimacy. However, Wu has no such inhibitions: He's stripped to his underwear on numerous occasions (revealing a beautiful, gym-toned body) and shares a couple of detailed sexual encounters - a memorable shower scene with Yin, followed by a climactic make-out with Fung - which represent milestones in HK Queer Cinema.
In a country where careers are often made and unmade overnight, Fung and Wu have since become major players on the HK movie scene. Both were educated in America (Wu had only a rudimentary grasp of Cantonese when cast in BISHONEN, his first movie), and while both were selected by Yonfan primarily for their looks, they give strong performances in complex, difficult roles (Fung's character remains sympathetic despite his narcissism, while Wu is a haunted, tragic figure). Fung - the son of former Shaw Brothers actress Sek Yin - is quite simply *gorgeous beyond belief*, and his subsequent films (including blockbusters GEN-X COPS, THE AVENGING FIST and MY SCHOOLMATE, THE BARBARIAN) have assured him a place in the pantheon of HK teen idols, though his cool, insouciant beauty was never captured with more grace or allure than here. He turned director in 2001, co-helming the multi-episode HEROES IN LOVE before going solo on the well-received comedy-drama ENTER THE PHOENIX (2004), in which he cast Wu as the gay son of a dying Triad who resists his father's criminal legacy. Of the two, however, Wu is the more accomplished actor, another teen sensation whose career has encompassed everything from commercial juggernauts (PURPLE STORM, NEW POLICE STORY) to intimate 'Art-house' entries (BEIJING ROCKS, NIGHT CORRIDOR), and he's gained a reputation for playing sexual outsiders in unconventional films, earning him a sizeable gay following throughout SE Asia.
NB. The HK-English title BISHONEN is actually a Japanese word, which translates as - what else? - 'beautiful boys'.