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East Palace, West Palace
Zhang Yuan 张元
East Palace, West Palace

Ah Lan is a young married gay man, an artist and writer, who frequently hangs out in a park in the centre of Beijing with other gay men, looking for sex and companionship. One evening, he is arrested by Xiao Shi, a handsome and outwardly very macho police officer, who takes him to the park’s police post for questioning. During this interrogation, which takes place over one whole night, Ah Lan ‘confesses’ his homosexuality to Xiao Shi through accounts of his sexual experiences with other men, beginning in middle school, where he was also fascinated by a beautiful girl in his class who was known to sleep around. Through these vivid and sometimes visceral recollections, Ah Lan’s predilection for masochistic sex emerges, and it soon becomes apparent that he has deliberately contrived to be arrested in order to be able to spend time with his beloved Xiao Shi. Xiao Shi condemns Ah Lan as despicable and sick, but Ah Lan passionately rejects this view, claiming that it is pure love which leads him to do anything to please his lovers. Ah Lan tells Xiao Shi the story of a female thief in ancient times who fell in love with her captor because she had no other choice, and he also reveals a childhood fantasy of being arrested by a towering policeman. Through these stories, Ah Lan spins a web of desire and seduction, drawing Xiao Shi ever closer, eventually succeeding — perhaps — in unsettling Xiao Shi’s faith in his judgements about his own and other people’s sexualities.

Dr. Derek HIRD (University of Westminster, London)


The film's scenario draws on a Beijing police station’s operations during a campaign of repression and harassment of gay men in 1991. The film covers the topics of homosexuality, sadomasochism, transvestism, male femininity and power relations between individuals and between rulers and the ruled. It pits two contrasting views of homosexuality against one another: Ah Lan’s subaltern view that a man’s desire for another man when driven by love is pure and perfectly natural, and Xiao Shi’s view, representing the perspective of the authorities, that homosexuality is morally despicable and a mental disorder. From the early 1990s, the topic of homosexuality became more widely discussed in the media in China, often linked with concerns about the spread of HIV/AIDS. As part of a broader shift to a climate of more openness towards issues around gender and sexuality and a corresponding weakening of the influence of moral conservatives (who condemned homosexuality as Western bourgeois decadence), less censorious perspectives on homosexuality began to emerge, such as Li Yinhe and Wang Xiaobo’s book Their World (1992), a sociological study of gay life in Beijing. But few people dared to identify themselves publicly as gay. Homosexual sex continued to be prosecuted through the hooliganism law until it was removed from the statute books in 1997, and homosexuality was listed in the Chinese Classification of Mental Disorders until 2001.

Ah Lan’s love for and apparently masochistic submissiveness towards his interrogator Xiao Shi, and the corresponding story he tells of the female thief’s enduring love for her jailer, depicted through scenes from Kunqu opera, are suggestive of an allegory of the Chinese state’s relationship with the Chinese people, or perhaps more specifically with Chinese intellectuals and artists. Critics vary in their interpretation of this allegory: some consider it to point to the abject position of both ordinary Chinese people and Chinese artists and intellectuals in the face of brutal treatment from their rulers, while others point to the people’s complicity in their own oppression and even willingness to be disciplined. Yet others take a more Foucauldian perspective that prefers instead to emphasise the notion of political struggle at a micro-level, in which power is not possessed and deployed coercively by just one actor or party, but is diffuse, fluid and open to manipulation by all the parties involved — which allows for the possibility of transforming subjectivities and subverting power relations. And this is precisely what Foucault considered possible through the bodily pleasures arising during sadomasochistic practices.

The film also depicts transvestism as morally abject from the perspective of the authorities, yet Xiao Shi demands that Ah Lan show his ‘real face’ by dressing as a woman. Ah Lan does not wish to do so, since he conceives of gay identity as distinct from transvestism, but to please Xiao Shi he puts on a red dress, make-up and wig and plays the part of an alluring woman. Xiao Shi’s desire to see Ah Lan as a beautiful, sexy woman, taken together with the Kunqu opera scenes, brings to mind the Beijing/Kunqu opera tradition of elite audience appreciation of young boy actors playing female roles, which was prominent from the late Ming to the late Qing. This feminisation of the younger male places same-sex desire within an overarching framework of nannü (literally ‘man woman’) relations that for some scholars is the foundational mechanism through which power relations were constructed historically in China, regardless of the ‘sex’ of the bodies involved (Liu et al. 2013).

The film was originally developed as a stage play, which Zhang Yuan toured round Europe after the release of the film. The dramatic intensity of the exchanges between Ah Lan and Xiao Shi in the police post in the park, and the Kunqu opera performances, point to the strong theatrical influence on the film. This very theatricality brings to the fore the idea of the performativity of gender and identity generally in the ‘real world’ (Berry 1998).

Dr. Derek HIRD (University of Westminster, London)


Although the film is of average length, the pace is very leisurely and the atmosphere consistently intense, brooding and claustrophobic, with frequent hints of menace and impending violence. The dialogue is punctuated by long pauses and intervals of silence, filled by the insistent hiss and hum of nocturnal insects and birds. For much of the film, only two characters are present within a confined space and the psychological tension between them is accentuated visually by the disconcerting presence of angled corner mirrors and the consequent frequent splitting and duplication of the protagonists' reflections, as well as by the ambient sound effects. The threat of violence hangs constantly in the air and although there is relatively little actual violence or other action, except in flashbacks to Ah Lan's earlier life, the suspense and anticipation of violence only serve to heighten the viewer's discomfort. Ah Lan's vivid story-telling has a hypnotic quality which draws the viewer into his world just as it progressively undermines Xiao Shi's hitherto unexamined macho heterosexuality, and thus has much the same subjective effect on members of the audience as it does on Xiao Shi in the film.

Dr. Michael CLARK (King's College London)

The Cast Si Han, who plays the young gay man Ah Lan, is not a professional actor: he was recruited from Zhang’s film crew. He has subsequently followed an academic career, and recently curated the world’s first major exhibition of queer art from mainland China in Stockholm.

Hu Jun, who plays policeman Xiao Shi, is a leading professional actor from China who has starred in numerous films and television dramas, including the well-known gay film Lan Yu (2001), Stanley Kwan’s adaptation of the hit internet novel Beijing Story (Beijing gushi).

Zhao Wei (‘Public Bus’, Ah Lan's sexually active middle - school classmate) has since become one of China's best-known screen actresses. In the film, when Xiao Shi asks Ah Lan if his wife knows about his homosexuality, he ignores the question and relates the story of Public Bus. However, in Wang Xiaobo’s novella, Public Bus is explicitly identified as Ah Lan’s wife.

The screenplay was written by the film’s director Zhang Yuan (b. 1963) and the fiction writer and sociologist, Wang Xiaobo (1952-1997). At the same time as co-writing the screenplay, Wang Xiaobo wrote a novella called ‘Sentiments like Water’ (Si shui rou qing), which shares a similar plot and characters, although differing in some aspects. Running water is a prominent aural and visual trope in the film, perhaps alluding to the fluidity of sexual desire on one level, and on another to the ancient Daoist notion that flowing water, although ‘soft’, has the capacity over time to wear down the hardest of objects.

Dr. Derek HIRD (University of Westminster, London)

  • How does this mid-1990s film portray homosexuality, sado-masochism, transvestism and male femininity?
  • In what ways does the film reflect the concerns of filmmakers at that time? Are its portrayals and concerns still valid today?
  • How is Ah Lan’s naked body deployed throughout the film? What issues does this raise?
  • Do you think the film is trying to make a point about the relationship between the rulers and the ruled in China? If so, do you see any problems with its depiction of this relationship?
  • Do you think sadomasochistic practices subvert or reaffirm power inequalities?
  • What do you think water symbolises in the film? What about hands?
  • How does Judith Butler’s concept of gender performativity help us understand the fluidity of gender roles and sexual identities in the film?
  • How do you read the ending of the film? What kind of reading might the choice of music suggest?