It's not easy being gay anywhere (try Montana), but in Communist China it's all but impossible. I remember reading about crackdowns on gay cruising areas in Beijing where guys were clubbed on the head, their bodies later seen floating, en masse, down a nearby river. Let a hundred flowers blossom, the official policy seems to be, except for the flower that dare not speak its name. Such state-sponsored terror makes a film like Zhang Yuan's East Palace, West Palace, which will have a single screening next Thursday evening at the Memorial Union's Fredric March Play Circle (at 9 p.m.), nothing short of remarkable. Billed as "China's first gay feature" during its limited U.S. run last summer, East Palace, West Palace had to be smuggled out of China and edited in France. As far as the People's Republic is concerned, it doesn't exist. And yet, here it is, halfway around the world, spreading the news about the irrepressible power of gay desire. Drenched in lust, the movie opens in one of the public toilets that flank either end of Beijing's Forbidden Palace. A routine police raid brings our two protagonists--a gay writer and a straight cop--together for a night of interrogation and...whatever. Forced to confess his crimes, the writer (Si Han, in a quietly ferocious performance) starts spinning a Scheherazadean tale about thwarted and unthwarted love, and before you can say Kiss of the Spider Woman, the cop has learned much more than he bargained for, both about the writer and about himself. "Squat down!" he keeps shouting to his prisoner, and the order seems to turn them both on. As in a play by Genet, jailer and jailed lock themselves in and throw away the key.
East Palace, West Palace isn't a perfect score. Its emotional development is too schematic, and Hu Jun, who plays the cop, doesn't seem to know what to do with himself through large parts of the movie. As with the Raul Julia character in Kiss of the Spider Woman, it's a difficult, perhaps impossible, role to pull off--an essentially straight man who turns out to be a not-so-essentially straight man, all this accomplished in 91 minutes of screen time. The movie starts to wobble as the writer gradually reveals just how much he loves a man in a uniform, finally tripping over that old conundrum of how one punishes a masochist--by inflicting pain or by refusing to. I'm not sure Zhang has thought through all the implications of this dreary, dreamy one-night stand. But that he has thought about them at all is a great leap forward for Chinese film.