lan yu posterDo you remember the first queer movie you ever saw?  For me, it was a little French romance called Come Undone (the title was inexplicably translated from Presque Rien, literally meaning “Almost Nothing,” on its way across the pond).  Apart from some much-desired frontal nudity and a particularly stimulating sex scene on the beach, the movie was pretty lousy; the characters were bland, the storytelling was undisciplined and the experience was overall pretty forgettable.

What I do remember, though, was the experience leading up to my watching Come Undone.  I was a sixteen-year-old, deeply closeted little movie buff, perusing the shelves at the local Blockbuster.  Working my way systematically through the “Foreign Films” rack, I happened to come across this particular title, knowing absolutely nothing about it apart from the fact that its cover sported two slender, dark-haired hunks sporting nothing more than their bare chests.  After about twenty minutes of working up the courage to actually pull the tape from the shelf, I smuggled the movie down to my bedroom, waited until my family was sound asleep, and popped the VHS tape into my TV-VCR combo, the volume audible to nobody else but me (in retrospect, that was probably not necessary, as nobody in my house spoke a word of French).

The point of this story is that the queer-themed movies we watch, regardless of how good or how bad they are (and trust me; many of them are pretty terrible) we seek out these films in hopes of witnessing, finally, some kind of representation of ourselves within popular culture.  And so we consume queer-themed movies not so much for their entertainment value or artistic insight, but for the underlying feeling that, by seeing ourselves represented within a popular medium, we finally are consuming a product made specifically for us.

Like Presque Rien, many of these queer-themed movies come from outside our country’s borders.  In order to celebrate these films and what they mean to us as queer movie-goers, the University of Minnesota’s International GLBTA Student Group, in collaboration with several other campus GLBTA groups, recently began screening a series of films whose central themes – political, cultural, romantic, et cetera – encompass issues faced by GLBTA individuals.  The student-run film festival, which aims both to reflect the diverse cultural values and perspectives of the international community, plans also to screen movies whose specific content coincide with important GLBT events that take place throughout the calendar year, such as Transgender Day of Remembrance and World AIDS Day.

Last Friday, the International LGBT Film Series kicked off with a screening of the 2001 Chinese film Lan Yu, a widely celebrated adaptation of a popular Beijing Internet story (it made its run on the festival circuit upon its release, stopping at Cannes and Sundance).  Lan Yu, a film I am sad to say I have never seen, was an auspicious choice to open this International Festival; it immediately refuted my initial prejudice that all gay-themed movies suck.  The story, which chronicles in its entirety the relationship between a middle-aged, wealthy Beijing businessman and a young university student, certainly sounds familiar from a conceptual standpoint.  I immediately was reminded of 2002’s Food of Love, a 2002 American film built on a vaguely similar premise (naïve student falls for an older man, proceeds to learn some serious truths about life). But where the narrative for Food of Love plods along and is risibly dramatized, Lan Yu unfolds its narrative briskly and with the kind of reserved emotional prowess that only ever seems to come from East Asian cinema.

At 86-minutes, Lan Yu ironically feels a bit too brisk at points; I feel I could have spent some more time with the characters depicted on screen.  While I admire director Stanley Kwan for giving us a romance that does not spoon-feed to its audience the nuances and the circumstances of its subjects, it is equally important not to omit so much characterization that we begin to feel distanced from the relationship being depicted.  Despite these issues, it is worth noting the astonishing amount of craft that clearly went into this small production; there are multiple layers to almost every shot in the film, and there is an honest intensity to each performance.  The art direction is stunning as well; there is a strong sense of urban romanticism in the way Beijing is shot.  The city feels vast, but at the same time, oddly comforting.

This Friday, the GLBTA International Film Festival plans to screen the Israeli film Ha-Buah (The Bubble).  I have not seen this film either and I am anxious to see if it matches the visual texture of Lan Yu or if it devolves into a convoluted, two-hour parade of misery like Presque Rien.  Either way, I am just relieved finally to see a movie like this in a way that no longer involves locking my bedroom door and waiting for all my siblings to fall asleep before me.

Stay tuned for a review of Eytan Fox’s The Bubble, which will be showing at 4:30pm on Friday, November 13 at the Walter Library (Room 402) on the University of Minnesota Minneapolis Campus.  Visit to discuss on an online forum the films being screened, or email with any questions.

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  1. We consume queer-themed movies not so much for their entertainment value or artistic insight, but for the underlying feeling that, by seeing ourselves represented within a popular medium, we finally are consuming a product made specifically for us.

    Very true, but even if beautiful, smart, queer-themed movies aren’t exactly legion, there are several exemplars beyond Lan Yu.

    I will say, Asian directors (not even necessarily queer ones) have created some particularly spectacular queer films – Brokeback Mountain, of course, but also The Wedding Banquet, Happy Together and Farewell My Concubine.

    There’s long been a solid coterie of out gay directors creating outstanding cinema: Gus Van Sant, Todd Haynes, Robb Marshall and Pedro Almodovar maybe chief among them. And each year we’re tacking a couple more names onto that list – this year Tom Ford and Lee Daniels look to ascend. Most of these men are incorporating queer themes into the movies they make.

    Anyway, thanks for bringing the film festival to my attention. It’s a little difficult navigating that site, but if I get a chance, I’d love to check out some of these films. I haven’t seen any of the ones they’re screening.


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