Love and lust are volatile, unexpected and anywhere in Zhang Yuan’s arresting drama.
“Be good or a policeman will come and arrest you.”
Zhang Yuan’s East Palace, West Palace is a film that almost was never made. Shot during a brief period of time when independent film studios could exist in China and films could be made without going through the Chinese censorship board, (provided they weren’t shown there) Palace, West Palace could only have been made when it was. It tells of two wildly different individuals and their interactions over one night. Hu Jun plays police officer Xiao Shi, tasked with patrolling the parks east and west of the Forbidden City, a popular place for gay men to meet up. A-Lan (Si Han) is an openly gay writer who’s been arrested by Shi before, and even sent him a book and taunting love-note. When he’s caught again, Shi chooses to take him back to his station for interrogation, where A-Lan recalls his life story, and while convincing Shi that he and those like him are just humans, who love.
Most of East Palace, West Palace takes place over the course of a single night, with many flashbacks as A-Lan recounts his life to an increasingly interested and attracted Shi. However, unlike Beautiful Boxer, where the framing device felt unnecessary, here the interrogation is the entire point of the film. The story is predicated on the interactions between both leads, and in a unique twist it’s the flashback sequences that feel a bit out of place – though not necessarily unwelcome. They’re good, and A-Lan’s narration keeps them grounded to the present-day reality, but I’d have been perfectly happy just watching A-Lan and Shi talk.
Both Si Han and Hu Jun deserve a lot of praise, carrying and even elevating the film during its hour-long interrogation. Something like that could have easily bored us to tears, but the interactions between the characters are highly reminiscent of the conversation heavy plays of Beckett or Pinter. Hu Jun’s Shi is a man who can’t quite overcome the biases that have been hammered into him, but he’s also willing to listen and even learns something from A-Lan.
On the other hand, A-Lan might have a bit of an advantage with audiences today for being sympathetic by default, but Si Han plays him with a lot of layers: a man whose sexuality has defined him for better or worse, and who is fundamentally broken, though for entirely different reasons. He comes across as more complex than his initial, flamboyant appearance would suggest. That this is Si Han’s only movie, and he was originally the production’s make-up artist before having to fill in for the original actor makes his star turn all the more astonishing.
However, despite these excellent performances it’s clear that director Zhang Yuan and his co-writer, the iconic novelist Wang Xiaobo are straight, and their depiction of gay individuals on screen comes off a little stereotypical at times. That doesn’t automatically kill the meaning and messages, nor does it completely undo A-Lan’s story, far from it, but his characterisation does sometimes leave a little to be desired.
Regardless, Palace manages to tell the story of thousands of marginalised queer individuals fighting against a system that has done all but made homosexuality illegal (while technically not, the police in film constantly arrest or disperse the men they see for “hooliganism”), through the eyes of just one man and his captor. In Palace, however, the voice of authority – in this case Shi – gives A-Lan basic human decency and opts to listen, which many people struggle to get even now. Combined with some gorgeous cinematography, moody lighting and music and you have a film that could almost be mistaken for an early Wong Kar-wai. The film had to be smuggled out of China and finished in France, and there’s something in the intense nature of its production and the struggles of everyone involved that comes through in the finished piece and translates wonderfully into the plight faced by A-Lan and, by extension, thousands of people just like him.
Verdict: Visually stunning and strikingly well acted, East Palace, West Palace is a powerful piece of filmmaking from an era when it almost couldn’t be made.
Overall entertainment: 8/10
Sex: Surprisingly tame 3/10
Sexual tension: 10/10
Flashbacks: Perhaps one too many
Town bicycle: Around here, we call ‘em the Bus
Rough sex: Is there any other type?
East Palace, West Palace (1996)
Also known as: 东宫西宫;Behind the Forbidden City; Behind the Palace Gates
Director: Zhang Yuan
Writers: Zhang Yuan, Wang Xiaobo
Si Han – A-Lan
Hu Jun – Xiao Shi
Zhao Wei – The Bus
Jing Ye – A-Lan (young)
Liu Yuxiao – female thief
Ma Wen – Yamen runner
Wang Quan – A-Lan (also young, but differently so)
Lu Rong – A-Lan’s mother
Zhao Xiaoyu – cop
Yang Jian – cop