East Palace, West Palace: Zhang Yuan’s Gay Film, Banned in China

Banned in China, Zhang Yuan’s East Palace, West Palace is one of the first Chinese films to deal directly and explicitly with gay themes.  As such, it makes contribution to a growing body of films about sexual politics in a rigid, repressed society.

Gay Directors, Gay Films? By Emanuel Levy (Columbia University Press, August 2015).

This boldly intense, darkly grim drama depicts a young gay man (Si Han), who refuses to run away or to express shame when he’s arrested.

Set during one long night in a detention center, the narrative depicts through flashbacks the homophobic context of his life, which has made him both resilient and submissive.

The shifting power play between the prisoner and the cop (Hu Jun), who had arrested him, serves as a forceful metaphor for the surrounding authoritarian regime.

Gradually, we get to know the complex and complicated personalities of both protagonists, including the cop who initially seems just a stern homophobic disciplinarian, but turns out to covers some secrets of his own life.

Mostly relying on dialogue, the tale is verbose and static, confined as it to a largely one setting, and the pacing is rather deliberate.

But we do get some interesting background and insights into the clandestine gay subculture in China, a society and a culture that are rapidly changing in many ways.