EAST PALACE, WEST PALACE (Dong gong xi gong) (director/writer: Zhang Yuan; screenwriter: Wang Xiaobo; cinematographer: Zhang Jian; editor: Vincent Levy; cast: Si Han (A-Lan), Hu Jun (Xiao Shi); Runtime: 94; Strand; 1997-China/France)

"The Chinese authorities were not pleased with this work, supposedly the first openly gay film to come out of Red China. "

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Independent mainland Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yuan (Mama/ Beijing Bastards/Sons), a heterosexual, has made a daring gay film about a writer arrested in the Beijing park that is adjacent to the Forbidden Palace. What ensues is an engaging battle of wills to see who will succumb, the arresting police officer or the homosexual who has a crush on the officer. The film was done much like a Jean Genet psychological drama. Its title is derived from the gays who hang out in the park and amusingly refers to the public toilets located east and west of the Forbidden Palace, as East Palace, West Palace. The Chinese authorities were not pleased with this work, supposedly the first openly gay film to come out of Red China. The Film Bureau banned this independent film in China and confiscated Zhang Yuan's passport on his return from Hong Kong in 1997, which prevented him from attending a number of film festivals featuring his film.

A-Lan (Han) is an attractive, slender and effeminate young man. He is caught one night in a police raid on the park and is harassed by a rugged, macho police officer, Xiao Shi (Jun). But when he lets the writer go, A-Lan suddenly kisses him and later sends a book to him with a dedication saying -- I love you, A-Lan.  On another night in the park, he is again caught in a homosexual act by the same officer. This time he is held overnight to be questioned by the bullying policeman. A-Lan is forced to sit in a squat position in the park police station, as the policeman tells him how despicable he is and says that he wants to cure the writer of his affliction. He gets A-Lan to tell him his life story but A-Lan tells it in such a way that he tries to appeal sexually to the policeman, believing that Shi is a latent homosexual.

A-Lan's soft spoken words are, "I'm gay. I come to the park to find friends. It is easy to get together here. I have many friends: The Stud, Dandy, and Lily. I am always the girl in the relationship." He goes on to tell Shi that he was once taken to a hospital in an attempt to cure him from being gay, as he was forced to watch straight sex films.

The film is noteworthy for the skilled performances by the two actors and the political message of the film, as delivered in such an oppressive climate as Red China. It is a call for gay rights and civil rights for all dissidents, and for the Chinese government to be more tolerant. It is a film that reveals how intolerant the government is of both gays and of independent filmmakers.

Zhang Yuan confines the film to the two actors stuck in the police station and it is only via flashback that we get to see A-Lan's life unfold. We see his first male encounter and hear about his relationship with his mother and stepfather. A-Lan never wavers from who he is, willing to accept his suffering as something that is necessary. He earns his living as a romantic-story magazine writer, making up heterosexual romances, but living for the day he can write a book to tell about being gay.

During the long interrogation A-Lan rattles Shi's sensibilities, very much angering him as well as arousing his interest, as he wants to get Shi to question himself and discover what he is hiding from. He wants Shi to know that he loves him but as A-Lan offers his love Shi becomes more aggressive, calling him sick then handcuffing him and beating him. This kind of action is symbolic of China's S&M relationship with its own people.

Even though it is a stagy film the drama remains intense, as the explosiveness between the two keeps one glued to the final outcome. The gray-green and amber background of the park and the shadowy black background shades around the public toilets, give the film a somber look. If nothing else, this is a rare glimpse at modern Red China's gay denizens.

REVIEWED ON 6/28/2000     GRADE: C+

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"