Yang ± Yin: Gender in Chinese Cinema

Release date:  1996-1998
Director: Stanley Kwan
Writer: Elmond Yeung
Cast: Chang Cheh, Chen Kaige, Peggy Chiao (critic), Hou Hsiao-hsien, Ang Lee, John Woo, Leslie Cheung, Edward Yang, Jin Xie, Tsui Hark, Lung Ti, Allen Fong

Commissioned by the British Film Institute as part of the 100 Years of Cinema celebrations, Stanley Kwan takes a look back into the history of Chinese films with a broad array of filmmakers such as Chang Cheh (The One-Armed Swordsman), Chen Kaige (Farewell my Concubine), Hou Hsiao-hsien (A City of Sadness), John Woo (A Better Tomorrow), Tsui Hark (The Lovers), and even Ang Lee (The Wedding Banquet), whom we all know ended up directing the acclaimed Brokeback Mountain.

While the beginning of the film is sketchy, Kwan revealing that his interest in martial arts film had little to do with the martial arts part of it and all to do with the half-naked torsos of dashing men, Yang ± Yin explores the history of the genre, which rules itself with the code of chivalry and roots its success in male bonding — now termed “bromance“, which we use colloquially.

Kwan has a lengthy conversation with film director Chang Cheh, who pretty much established the Kung Fu film genre and discovered the stars of his films by seeing their qualities — one of them being Wang Yu, who was Kwan’s favorite. Though this whole section of labeling bromantic relationships as homoerotic seems to be grasping at straws, its treatment does remind me of The Celluloid Closet, even if Yang ± Yin doesn’t have writers and directors bluntly telling us they intended the homoerotic scenes — everyone dodges a real answer, but agree that these things can be taken as such.

The documentary takes a different route once we leave Chang Cheh and John Woo behind and we get to talk to Chen Kaige. He discusses the changes he made to his award-winning Farewell my Concubine, in which Dieyi (Leslie Cheung), ends up meeting Xiaolou at a bathhouse in their old age instead of the film’s ending. Kwan also talks to Leslie Cheung, who was openly bisexual, regarding the roles he was given. They also discuss society’s view of women that take on masculine roles — like Brigitte Lin in Wong Kar-Wai’s Ashes of Time — and their take on men taking on feminine roles. Watching this segment nowadays paints a bittersweet picture as Cheung committed suicide in 2003 because he was suffering from depression.

Yang ± Yin also addresses the fact that Chinese films were different because they were so used to giving top billing to their female stars — sadly, something that is no longer a practice. Despite the film’s focus on gay men, they mention Sang Hu’s Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai, a 1953 version of the famous Butterfly Lovers [1] story — the one with a girl who dressed up as a boy and enters a school where she meets a boy who begins having feelings for her without knowing she’s not a he. While Tsui Hark’s 1995 version of it in The Lovers does an early revealing of the secret, Sang Hu’s version extends the secret for as long as possible while also developing their commitment for each other.

They also talk about Cantonese opera singers Yam Kin-Fai and Bak Sheut-Sin, who reprised many of their opera roles for the silver screen and often played against each other, Yam Kin-Fai always taking the male lead. This story and how it connects to Stanley Kwan and his relationship to his mother is kind of like the cherry on top of a wonderful exploration of gender in Chinese cinema that has left me wanting to explore more.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 


YAM Magazine editor, photographer, blogger, translator and part-time web designer. Film junkie, music junkie… and lately series (a.k.a. TV) junkie.

6 Responses

  1. Camiele says:

    This is always an interesting conversation — sexual identity in film. I think that Ang Lee handled the delicacy and torment of discovering one’s sexuality well in Brokeback; however, I think that the conversation becomes even more interesting when you explore cultural “rules and boundaries” governing sexuality.

    I’d like to see some of these films and see how other directors handle it — whether they try sort of laugh it off or whether they attempt to explore the grit, grime, and beauty of it.

    • amy says:

      @Camiele, the view of gender through different cultural point of views always interest me. I had my mother watching this one with me because I wanted her perspective, I think she was pretty shocked… even more so than I was. Especially with the bit with the opera singers, apparently they were some sort of an item always appearing as a couple on their projects and in real life, and nobody used to question them as a couple.

      Ever since I have been following Asian entertainment, I’ve had this feeling that Eastern cultures are much more opened to gender and/or sexual fluidity more so than the west. I mean, the west may be opened about their sex everything, but they’ve got a label for everything and have no problems showing their sexuality.

      It always seemed to me that Asians weren’t particularly homophobic, but it’s more like the policy of not publicly displaying your affection. Of course my mother has a very simple explanation for it… “it’s a Chinese thing” she says. LOL Whoever I sleep with doesn’t or shouldn’t concern people… because they’re not really religious. And even in Buddhism where they label homosexuality as ‘bad karma,’ you can kinda make up for that with other good karma – it’s not a sin xD

      I read that a lot of prejudice that exists in Asia over these things actually come from when the West established their colonies…

      I actually kinda love that there are a few prominent transsexual or transvestite entertainers in Japan. And they are pure class, nothing against Ru Paul and his VH1 show, but wow- I always watch Akihiro Miwa (acting or hosting) and Kenichi Mikawa (performing) whenever I catch them on NHK!

      • Camiele says:

        @amy, You make a good point. It’s no surprise to me that thoughts on gender/sexuality come from the Imperial expansion of the West. It’s mainly a religious doctrine that was brought from Europe and spread throughout the world as Europeans began taking over and colonising every part of the world. Because it’s so deep in every culture, it’s hard to get it out, you know what I mean? The funny thing is, religion is something that’s so “this, that, and the other” that it baffles me that people follow it so blindly to the point of using it to justify hate towards other people (truth be told, most Eastern forms of religion were around LONG before Catholicism…just sayin’. And most Eastern forms of religion seem to teach love no matter what).

        Anyway, as regards Rupaul…HaHa. She’s a goddess; however, pure camp. I know many drag queens and kings as well and one of my dearest friends is transsexual — and he’s gorgeous, by the way (F to M transition). And it may seem like the West is more open, but, you’re right, there’s a label for EVERYTHING here. So much so, that it’s dangerous because once you put something in a definite box, any stepping away from that frightens people at the least and enrages them at the most extreme.

        So it’s more the PDA part that’s frowned upon in Asian culture more so than the actual sexuality? I didn’t know that and it sort of makes me happy that that’s the case. I’m not one for PDA myself; however, not being able to be myself, no matter what that is, would just make it hard for me.

        More importantly…LOL at your mom! She’s so fantastically epic!

        • amy says:

          @Camiele, I’ve talked about PDA to my mother, and she’s against exaggerated PDA – according to that, holding hands and pecks are fine (think about it as a little bit further than a 50s Hollywood move haha) for both heterosexual or homosexual couples.

          The problem there is that it doesn’t happen. Straight couples make out all they want and get frown upon, but no one does anything. While if a gay couple does it, everyone’s up in arms.

          There was a case here where couples setup a “protest” in the park in front of one of the churches here. Gay and straight were making out – that was crossing the PDA line. The church called the police and all, and there was a huge mess of it…

          Asian culture seems to be at an awkward stage of kinda wanting to be like the West…. they want the sexual freedom (PDA included, which I guess is what govt. fine inappropriate), but there’s also the religious repression that come from it. Thought I think all this is creating a clash with something that could have come naturally…

          LOL, I always thought that China’s best Human Rights card against the US was to make gay marriage legal, as well as adoptions and all whatever other couple’s rights there are…

  2. Camiele says:

    @amy, Are you serious??!?! Go China! That’s hardcore and completely fantastic.

    I suppose the whole “wanting to be like the West” thing makes sense in the way that you’re saying — wanting the sexual freedom and the right to express it (I’m all for it). However, you’re right in that it pretty much makes a difficult process out of something that could’ve just been completely natural. I don’t know. I just think people should love and express love to whomever they choose and one shouldn’t need a law or amendment or all the rest for that to happen. Love is just love…to put a regulation on it turns it into something completely different.

    • amy says:

      @Camiele, actually I worded that wrong. It’s “would be” – would be its best card. They still on the fence on that, I read there was someone to pass a bill but it needs delegates support which is hard, coming from the govt. Coming from the revolution, I think China’s done huge things… but change coming this fast is also a problem.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.