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Pretty Pretty Boys...

April 16th, 2007 (07:38 pm)
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Bishonen
dir Yonfan
© 2007 D. Gordon

Bishonen, according to Wikipedia, is a Japanese term meaning 'beautiful youth.' It comes up often in the anime / manga world of pop culture, usually in the form of a male character of extraordinary, gender-transcendent beauty. Despite this defintion, most manifestations are heterosexual, although the concept itself underpins the homosexual variety.

Bishonen is also the international title of a 1998 film, known in Mandarin as Meishaonian zhi lian. Not surprisingly, the movie, about a male prostitute and how he comes to love, originates from a Japanese manga named Bishonen no koi. A little more surprisingly (at least to me), the movie is live action, not anime, and originates from Hong Kong.

The story initially focuses on the self-centered Jet, euphemistically referred to as a gigolo, who's gorgeous and hot and knows it. He's in demand and able to attract anyone's notice, male and female, from any strata of society. He's living the life and, despite the occasional bad trick, seems to enjoy it and himself.

One day, peering through the window of an art gallery, a couple catches his eye. At first he tells himself he's intrigued by the couple's interaction, but it soon becomes clear that he's really attracted to the straight-laced but good-looking man. He confesses his crush to his friend and fellow gigolo Ah Ching, which sets off a chain of events which introduces him to the man, a police officer named Sam, and changes Jet's life forever.

This movie travels a long road from that first look at Jet. It starts off rather slowly as it constructs the stories behind the lives of Jet and his circle. In explaining the various meetings, assignations, and sexual encounters it seems headed towards a somewhat stereotypical, somewhat fake depiction of gay life in Hong Kong. We have the male prostitutes, the johns who come and go, the pop star, the repressed man doing what society expects of him. The only scenes of gay life focus on the sex trade, and if you're not good-looking, you're a lecher.

And the sex itself...

The "sex" scenes don't really go beyond PG, which is fine by me – you don't always need to be explicit to get the point across. The bigger problem is that they don't look realistic. In this movie, kissing is the cue to turn the back of a head to the camera. Everyone keeps their underwear on through the actual act, and encounters with overenthusiastic johns end with just a belt unbuckled. (Although there is that one shower scene which almost slides into whoa nellie NC-17 land for an instant...) The story builds to a painful fakeness that doesn't say more than "Guess what!, There are gays in Hong Kong"...

...until about the halfway point. One unexpected bit of information suddenly shifts the plot into completely different territory: a story about individuals and their actions, and how we use those who love us to help those we love. Once it crosses that line, it takes no prisoners, showing how these characters' interactions aren't so random and are marching towards a seemingly inevitable ending. It serves up fate and angst; but in the end there's a little hope as well, as Jet comes full circle to where he began.

And the one sex scene that counts... really approaches a sex scene.

One of the stars of the movie is definitely Hong Kong, from its seedier neighborhoods and bars, to a solidly middle-class apartment, past the high-rises that tower over the island up to the playgrounds of the rich and famous. Director Yonfan makes the city look stunning through color and perspective: red in the gigolo's territory, an orange filter over the view from the rooftop garden. Little alleys and twisty streets. The skyscrapers of Hong Kong. Time to hop a plane and check it out for yourself.

The cast itself was good, but only good: A for looks, C for acting. Stephen Fung as Jet was stunning, quite true, although he tended to express narcissism by running his hands through his hair. Over and over. And over. (*sigh*) Terence Yin as K.S. the pop star had it a bit easier - his role was small, but he's an amazingly attractive man who definitely has "it", that kind of drop-dead gorgeous look that a real pop star would cultivate. Jet's fellow prostitutes, Sindy and the pivotal Ah Ching, aren't very well developed as characters. Ching, in particular, has his few notable moments, then slides back into the background, coming forward only as his plot point is needed. Likewise, Qi Shu, in the amorphous role of Sam's friend Kana, is trotted out only when there's a point to be made. It's Daniel Wu as Sam, and Kenneth Tsang and Chiao Chiao as his parents, who have the most fully developed roles. They're basically humble, unflashy people - despite Sam's good looks - and that comes across well. (Maybe Daniel Wu's limited knowledge of Cantonese helped him here.)

Some of the problem may be a result of budget, filming conditions, and subject matter. First of all, this is a very young cast. Many of the leads, most of whom have gone on to solid careers, were still fairly new to the business when the film was shot and were likely still learning the ropes. In addition, a film about homosexuality was (and probably still is) a risk that most top talent likely would have passed on, art house film or no. And lastly, I'm not sure about the broad scope of output in the Hong Kong film industry (and I don't know if there's a porn industry), but I would bet that graphic depictions of sexuality – hetero- or homosexual – aren't too accepted on the big screen. You're just not going to get a Last Tango in Paris or The Dreamers level of depiction.

Despite the blemishes, Bishonen is an interesting take on the dynamics of fate for one circle of acquaintances, and is definitely worth at least a look (and not just for the eye candy!). Now to read the manga...