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Zhang Yongning: How Lan Yu Gave Gay Love Mainstream Appeal

Zhang Yongning: How Lan Yu Gave Gay Love Mainstream Appeal

Zhang Yongning, producer of the film Lan Yu, joins Shanghai Queer Film Festival’s film jury this year. He is a producer, director and actor.

Lan Yu won Best Director and Best Actor at the 2001 Taiwan Golden Horse Awards, Best Chinese Film at the Golden Bauhinia Awards (Hong Kong) and Best Film at India International Film Festival in New Delhi. It is a classic of Chinese queer cinema.

Xhang Yongning shares his thoughts on Lan Yu, 16 years after its release, on his current projects and on the evolution of Chinese queer cinema.

What are your thoughts on Shanghai Queer Film Festival? Do you have any suggestions for SHQFF’s further developments on the world stage?

I hope that I can contribute to queer films’ normalization and legalization. I hope our queer films can portray good LGBT stories, but not just “naked” or sexual things. Let audiences enjoy and feel the films, but not see them only out of curiosity.


Do you personally have any favorite Asian queer films, especially ones produced by Chinese filmmakers? If so, please recommend us some good ones!

I like Fan Popo’s queer documentaries, because he makes these films with his pursuits and responsibilities.


Lan Yu was released in 2001, and is still popular sixteen years later. Its biggest success is that it is accessible as a love story for both gay and straight audiences. After all this time, how do you feel about the film?

I think the reason why Lan Yu has always been discussed by various audiences in the past decade is that the film portrays Lan Yu and Han Dong’s relationship as real, not unnatural. The development of their relationship is so reasonable that it convinces and moves our audiences. Perhaps that’s why Lan Yu can be accepted and liked by different people. Another reason is that the two actors in the film not only acted very well, but also used their amazing performances to break people’s stereotype of gay men as “sissy”. From the audiences’ perspective, Hu Jun and Liu Ye, the two actors could be anyone’s brothers, classmates, colleagues, neighbors, pass-byers, etc., and they don’t label themselves as anyone. In addition, this kind of love doesn’t have any difference with the love between straight people. It isnt scary.


As the film is about LGBTQ, do you recall anything interesting or anything difficult regarding how social recognition towards LGBT and the social environment influence the production process?

Not so much. As we kept everything in order, and every member in the production crew treated their work with their heart, the whole filming and production process went pretty well. Our biggest regret is that the film couldn’t be played in Chinese cinemas.


You are preparing for your next feature film. Would you mind tell us about it?

The Buddha says, “People’s pain starts from greed, and thus if you want to get rid of the pain, get rid of your greed first.”

I’m currently working on a new film called White Dream. It is a story about how two men from different walks of life eventually became friends. One is a typical, handsome, rich man from the big city who goes blind. The other is a poor man from a small village. Their paths cross and their lives change.

Their story is about realising there is more to lice than money amd material possessions. Understanding, respect and equality…the story ends with them being happier.

White Dream is considered too arthouse and not commercial. I actually have no idea what’s the benchmark for art films or commercial films. As a result, I have some difficulty when it comes to getting funded, and I’m still figuring out how to do with it.


You’ve been based in the UK recently, and have made a lot of television documentaries. How do you see the film industry, especially the industry in China?

Copycat. There’s too much focus on speed and scale. The makers think they’ll become famous overnight. These are all the biggest problems that current Chinese films face, and also the dilemma that affects the quality of Chinese films. The so-called high box offices are mostly achieved by their people, not real people, and will destroy the film industry sooner or later. Only films that are made with emotion and heart can be good films. Chinese cinema has to change the dominant attitudes, stop operating on the premise that they can always make money no matter when, and offer audiences more choice.


What do you think is the difference between queer films in Asia and in other parts of the world?

“Queer” is a controversial word. “Queer” means “odd, unusual”. It has long been a pejorative term that heterosexuals use to mock homosexuals. The word “queer” started to be accepted in homosexual communities in the 1980s. “I’m a Queer, I am what I am, so what”. In the 1970s, through the efforts of various groups, some Western countries began decriminalizing homosexuality, and homosexuals began to move from the underground and to public. In 1989, Denmark became the first country to legalize same-sex marriage. Today, a significant number countries have legalized same-sex marriage, and “queer” no longer implies gay people are odd or unusual. Their’s is another kind of human love, and is being accepted by this multi-cultural society. Since homosexuality is seen as a kind of love, western queer films don’t avoid such topics anymore, but portray them as a normal love story. However, in Asia, many countries or regions still see homosexuals as abnormal, a kind of crime, or even “sexual perversion”, and thus queer films can only exist as an underground culture. When these films tell stories, they can’t narrate naturally, especially when it comes to the plots, directors have to pick only appropriate parts in order to avoid censorship and potential conflicts with so-called culture, religion and traditions.


Official guidelines in China towards the LGBTQ community are at times unclear. Given this, in which direction do you think Chinese queer filmmakers should steer their efforts? What are your expectations for them?

As long as our filmmakers can always remember and believe that “everyone has the right to love”, we can tell good stories of great quality. This is the duty of all filmmakers.