Love stories are a genre of meetings, complications, and either happy or tragic endings. Subgenres grow over the years, like the May-December variation where budding innocence meets the gravitas (seeming or real) of ossifying experience. Flammable dewiness dissolves fossilized love and its flames raise the phoenix of redemption — or reduce the unfortunate ones to ashes. Lan Yu modernizes the classic tragic love story and elegantly boxes it in the formal compositions of director Stanley Kwan’s (The Actress) moving pictures.
Almost august in his bearing, Chen Handong (Hu Jun) has matured past the summer of youth. In his mid-30s, he’s managed to successfully command an international construction company, and win the trappings and trophies of wealth that include collegiate sexual playthings. Still, Handong is in the winter of his discontent. That he hasn’t taken a wife at his age is questionable. His sexual liaisons are cool, businesslike transactions. Until he falls in love with Lan Yu (Liu Ye).
Lan Yu is this modern tragic fable’s version of the innocent. A country boy, he’s studying architecture in Beijing while working construction. His boss, Liu Zheng (Liu Huatong), Handong’s right-hand man, panders his young worker to Handong, as it seems Zheng has done before and afterward continues to do.
Lan Yu, of course, thaws Handong’s heart. In their situation, this is both a blessing and a curse. Handong eventually must decide between his tacitly tabooed and closeted love for his young “friend” or a more formal transaction: marriage to his beautiful, dimpled translator, Jingping Lin (Jin Su). Tragedy will shade Handong’s life regardless of his choice.
Despite its soap-operatic ending, Lan Yu is still remarkable: Here, Communist China (a country that banned the film Ju Dou for its adulterous theme more than a decade ago) allows a filmmaker to graphically air the controversial issues of the country’s emerging economic and sexual permissiveness before Lan Yu’s subtle moral inevitably condemns both.
Opens Friday exclusively at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-542-0180.
James Keith La Croix writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].