Every Thursday night from 7 to 9 pm The Asian Studies Program hosts a movie night at the Mitchell Multimedia Center in the Northwestern University Library. On October 24th the Movie was 东官西官 or “East Palace, West Palace,” directed by Zhang Yuan.
East Palace, West Palace is a film that raises questions about homosexuality in China. Although homosexuality is not illegal, homosexuals, or individuals who do not follow gender or sexual norms, are subject to social stigmatization as well as harassment and persecution from the police for “hooliganism.” According to Yuan in China “there is no visible gay culture and no one understands gay people. It is very hard to find any gay friends who are living a happy, well-adjusted life under these circumstances.” A law against this “hooliganism” has long existed to target gay people, and it was not until 2001 that homosexuality was removed from the list of mental disorders. East Palace, West Palace became one of the first films to openly discuss homosexuality in Mainland China.
The film’s plot centers on a young gay writer, A-Lan and a police officer, Xiao Shi. Xiao Shi arrests and interrogates A-Lan one night during a frequent sweep of an area where gay people are known to frequent. Xiao Shi already knows who A-Lan is, as he has received a present in the mail signed “Love, A-Lan,” and brings him into the park’s police station for interrogation. As the night wears on, the audience watches a battle of seduction and confession unfold between the two characters. A-Lan progresses from answering direct questions to sharing his past, presented through flashbacks: A-Lan growing up, finding his love, and many of his sexual experiences with other men. Throughout out these flashbacks, A-Lan’s experiences with harassment and bullying for not following gender and sexual norms are also laid out. A crucial point in the film occurs at the end of one segment where A-Lan has been beaten by a partner and called a freak and a queer. “For how much I had suffered in my life it would be better if I had never been born,” A-Lan says as the flashback ends. His actions are barely legal in China, and are still not socially acceptable.
From schoolmates and police officers’ torments to lovers beating him, there is no end to the shame A-Lan has felt for being gay. At first the stories anger and frustrate Xiao Shi, prompting him to verbally attack A-Lan, yelling out “You’re despicable” or “You’re sick.” Despite his outbursts, he keeps listening and asking for more. One can read Xiao Shi’s polarity as his frustration with his own sexuality. As the film nears its end, Xiao Shi’s angry interjections become less frequent and he begins to resist A-Lan’s seduction less and less.
The film, Zhang Yuan’s fifth, came out in 1997 and was hailed as Mainland China’s first film to openly discuss the topic of homosexuality. Because of this, it provoked more government criticism than any of Yuan’s previous films. East Palace, West Palace also received quite a bit of international attention, including an invitation extended to Yuan to participate in the 1997 Cannes International Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard section. The film caused trouble in Yuan’s personal life, which included the seizure of his passport so he could not attend the festival. It is clear that the topic of homosexuality is not openly discussed in China.
Yuan is not gay himself, but has many gay friends, and many of his other films also concentrate on marginalized groups. In general, Chinese society does not like to discuss topics that stray from the country’s norm. As a director he feels he has a lot in common with these groups, as his “work is invisible but not actually illegal in China“ (Berry). Yuan empathizes with stigmatized communities and people because he also feels the societal pressure to keep to the norm. Although China does not explicitly ban non-normative behavior, it does not support it either. East Palace, West Palace serves to remind the audience members of the status of marginalized populations in China.