‘Moneyboys’ director CB Yi spits gay romance between China and Taiwan

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CB Yiit is In some perspective Title “moneyboysis a moving exploration of rural-to-urban Chinese migration that feels authentically emotional despite being peppered with incongruous moments and details.

The film follows Fei (Kai Ko), who leaves the countryside to settle in different Chinese megalopolises to support his family as a con artist. When he realizes that they accept his money but not his homosexuality, their relationship falls apart. Although set in China, “Moneyboys” was filmed entirely in Taiwan. Linguistic inconsistencies also arise unexpectedly to confuse viewers otherwise immersed in the film’s melancholic mood, with Beijing accents intermingling with singsong Taiwanese intonations in the same village where neither should be at home. And while main man Kai Ko delivers a nuanced and heartbreaking depiction of hustler Fei and true chemistry with his male love interests Long (Bai Yufan) and Xiaolai (JC Lin), neither of them gets along. publicly identifies as homosexual.

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First director Yi waited nearly ten years for the chance to shoot “Moneyboys,” intending to do so in China. At the last minute, however, he moved the production to Taiwan, which required urgency to adjust the story, but also cut costs and secure funding from the Taipei Film Commission. He does not attribute the change to censorship, saying the choice was made for budgetary reasons before submitting the script to China for a filming permit, and because it was easier to work with the system. of Taiwan’s most westernized production.

Shooting in China, he admits, would have made for a “totally different” film, but he’s happy with the end result.

“I did not make a film of total realism. If I wanted to have a realistic film, I would have made direct cinema or documentary. I did this with an artistic mindset and with the situation I was given, which required me to adapt,” Yi explains.

Yi was born in China but immigrated to Austria as a teenager and is more fluent in German. A graduate in Sinology, he first encountered the subject of gay prostitution nearly two decades ago while studying abroad to improve his language skills at the Beijing Film Academy, where he discovered that a classmate was scrambling to help his sick mother.

Yi first planned a documentary about the money boys, but later turned it into a fiction for fear of putting the subjects at risk in a country where prostitution remains illegal and LGBTQ citizens have few legal rights. .

As censorship tightens on the mainland, the “Moneyboys” model of a Chinese-born director with foreign nationality making a film shot in China outside the country with foreign funding and crew could become a way of increasingly common for cinematic explorations of otherwise taboo Chinese subjects. .

Equal opportunities?

For a director who has painted such an intimate portrait of gay love, Yi sometimes seems less versed than one might expect on the politics of his portrayal or the state of LGBTQ issues in China and Taiwan, which the latter having become the first in 2019. in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage.

In Hollywood, the question of whether straight or cisgender actors should play gay or trans characters is an ever-evolving burning issue. Although Yi did not consider the subject, when pressed he said that while the intention behind the idea of ​​reserving gay roles for gay people was good, “it also causes problems” by being too reductive.

“A lot of straight actors wanted to be part of the project because they were touched by the story and wanted to support the LGBT community, and that empathy…is a [positive way] to spread a better understanding of LGBT issues around the world,” Yi says. “I also think that playing a homosexual role gives heterosexual male and female actors the opportunity to satisfy their curiosity and satisfy their subconscious desires to live. [the experiences] LGBT people.

He specifies: “Cinema is not really politics: there is politics, of course, but not the kind of foreign policy where you go to a demonstration. Everything in the film is there to tell a story, but the stories contain political messages and issues. I just want the best actors to play the characters; prohibit anything or question anything that minimizes artistic work.

Its stars agree. “The character is whatever the director chooses to be…Gay people should also play straight men, and so on, as long as the actor develops the character well,” adds Ko. Lin says that what matters most is how convinced the public is. “I think there should be equal opportunity to take on roles, regardless of who you are, as long as you’re good at your craft and up for the challenge.”

Yi wasn’t sure if an actor could openly identify as gay in China, but notes that in Beijing he saw many women holding hands in the streets. “I think homosexuality in China is not a big problem, because it is common. In the 1990s, they were already saying that it wasn’t a disease, or something like that.

China decriminalized homosexuality in 1997 and downgraded it as a mental disorder in 2001, and while mores are slowly changing, gay content is still routinely censored in movies, TV and online media – most recently through the mass removal of social media accounts for LGBTQ student groups and research associations at most major universities just last week.

Bai, who deftly plays a young village girl who follows Fei into the world of prostitution, is a rising commercial star in China who also appeared this month in a film of a completely different genre: the historical propaganda film “1921 », a tribute to the Chinese. Communist Party. While on screen in Cannes learning how to do tricks, Bai is in cinemas in China as dedicated military leader Ye Ting, who joins the Communists after quitting the Kuomintang, the party that subsequently ruled Taiwan and is still one of its most powerful factions.

There is a past precedent for Chinese actors playing controversial gay roles relentlessly pushing for mainland stardom. For example, Chen Sicheng and Qin Hao, the leads of Lou Ye’s 2009 Cannes competition title “Spring Fever”, are now industry figureheads, even though that film resulted in a theatrical ban from five years.

Yi still has family in China and uses a pseudonym to separate her work from her private life and avoid the risk of not being able to return. He hopes his future films can be screened there and acknowledges the political tightrope that could force him to walk – especially when other Chinese-born artists like Chloe Zhao have been unofficially banned on nationalist grounds, even for making music. work completely unrelated to the country.

“I feel for my country. I want to do the right thing and respect everyone there, but I’m also an artist and I want to do the right thing as an artist,” he says.

“I’m aware of what happened to Zhao, but I don’t think anything like that would happen to me, because the politics of my film are about relationships, about getting people to sympathize with other whom they would not normally sympathize with.”

“Reduced to my Chinese origin”

Initially, Yi had no plans to make a film about China at all. His first project was a coming-of-age story set in Austria with European main characters, but he was abruptly killed off two years after some backers pulled out without explanation.

“I was told: ‘It’s better when your first film is about China. If there are two people, an Austrian director and you, two new directors trying to make a film about relations between Austrians, well sure they’d rather give it to the other than to you,” he says.

Yi made peace with this setback. “I went through all that, but I realized that it was really better to make my first film in my native country, where I had traveled many times and where I knew the people better.”

Times have changed, but not drastically.

Yi envisions “Moneyboys” as the first installment in a trilogy of thematically related films, each straying further from China than the last. He has completed the script for the next title: “Purelands”, which is set in Paris and centers on a French-Austrian student involved in the protection of a group of prostitutes in northern China. The third film will be set in the 1960s and will shuttle between Paris and other non-Chinese international locations. Yi has also penned scripts for two big-budget sci-fi movies that stray even further from the sticky realities of the present.

He explains: “I don’t want to be reduced to my Chinese origins as a filmmaker.

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