‘Moneyboys’ Helmer CB Yi balances China-Taiwan gay love story

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CB Yi’s Un Certain Regard track “Moneyboys” is a moving exploration of Chinese rural-urban migration that feels genuinely moving despite being peppered with incongruous moments and details.

The film follows Fei (Kai Ko), who moves from the countryside to various Chinese megalopolises to support his family as a con artist. When he realizes that they accept his money but not his homosexuality, their relationship is broken. Although set in China, “Moneyboys” was filmed entirely in Taiwan. Linguistic inconsistencies also unexpectedly arise for jar viewers otherwise immersed in the film’s melancholy vibe, with Beijing accents mingling with Taiwanese singing intonations in the same village where neither should be at home. . And while leading man Kai Ko offers a nuanced and heart-wrenching portrayal of con artist Fei and true chemistry with his male love interests Long (Bai Yufan) and Xiaolai (JC Lin), neither of them publicly identifies as homosexual.

First-time director Yi waited almost ten years for the chance to shoot “Moneyboys”, intending to do so from the start in China. At the last minute, however, he moved production to Taiwan, which required a rush to adjust the story, but also to 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. more westernized production from Taiwan.

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

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

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

Yi first planned a documentary about money boys, but then turned it into fiction for fear it would endanger subjects in a country where prostitution remains illegal and there are few legal rights for them. LGBTQ citizens.

As censorship grows on the mainland, the ‘Moneyboys’ model of a foreign Chinese-born director making a film shot in China outside the country with foreign funding and crew could become one more avenue. more 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 aware than one might think about the politics of his portrayal or the state of LGBTQ issues in China and Taiwan, the latter of which having become in 2019 the first in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage.

In Hollywood, the question of whether straight or cisgender actors should play homosexual or transgender characters is a hot and evolving question. Although Yi did not consider the subject, when urged, he said that while the intention behind the idea of ​​reserving gay roles for homosexuals was good, “it also causes problems” by being too much. reducing.

“Many heterosexual actors wanted to be a 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, ”says Yi. “I also believe that playing a homosexual role gives heterosexual male and female actors the opportunity to satisfy their curiosity and fulfill their unconscious lust for life. [the experiences] LGBT people.

He specifies: “The 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 messages and political issues. I just want the best actors to play the characters; to forbid or question anything that minimizes artistic work.

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

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

China decriminalized homosexuality in 1997 and declassified it as a mental disorder in 2001, and although mores change slowly, gay content is still routinely censored in film, television and online media – most recently via the mass deletion of social media accounts for LGBTQ student groups. and research associations at most of the major universities last week.

Bai, who deftly plays a young villager who follows Fei into the world of prostitution, is a rising star of the Chinese business who also appeared this month in an entirely different genre of film: the landmark propaganda film “1921” , a tribute to the Chinese Communist Party. While onscreen in Cannes learning how to do tricks, Bai is in theaters in China as a dedicated military leader Ye Ting, who joins the Communists after leaving the Kuomintang, the party that ruled Taiwan. and is still one of its most powerful factions.

There is a precedent for Chinese actors playing controversial gay roles, relentlessly pushing for stardom on the mainland. For example, Chen Sicheng and Qin Hao, the protagonists of Lou Ye’s 2009 Cannes competition title “Spring Fever”, are now industry leading figures, even though this film resulted in a five-hour filming ban. years for Lou.

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 shown there and recognizes the political tightrope that may force him to walk – especially when other Chinese-born artists like Chloe Zhao have been unofficially banned on nationalist grounds, even for doing so. a job completely unrelated to the country.

“I feel for my country. I want to do the right things 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, making people sympathize with others with whom. they wouldn’t normally sympathize. “

“Reduced to my Chinese origin”

Initially, Yi had no intention of making a film about China at all. His first project was a coming-of-age story set in Austria with main European characters, but he was brutally killed two years after some backers withdrew 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, both first time directors trying to make a film about Austrian relations, of course they would rather give it to the other guy than to you ” , he said.

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

Times have changed, but not drastically.

Yi envisions “Moneyboys” as the first installment in a trilogy of thematically related films, each moving further away from China than the last. He finished the script for the following title: “Purelands”, which takes place in Paris, which tells the story of a Franco-Austrian student involved in the protection of a group of prostitutes from 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 written scripts for two bigger budget sci-fi films that move further away 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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