YANG ± YIN: GENDER IN CHINESE CINEMA
Hong Kong/UK / 1996 / 120 min / Cantonese/Mandarin/English / Documentary
Director: Stanley Kwan
Cast: Brigitte Lin, Leslie Cheung, Tsui Hark
The Skinny: Everything You Wanted to Know About Chinese Gender But Were Afraid to Ask
Plato Score: A-
The concepts of masculine and feminine are flimsy at best, but when viewed through the kaleidoscope of 100 years of Chinese film: Whoa.
Director Stanley Kwan (Center Stage, Rouge) offers a personal essay about the cinemas of Hong Kong, Taiwan and China and their piss-poor attempts at hiding the contradictions inherent in traditional gender roles.
Openly gay and a cinephile, Kwan takes a sweeping approach, interviewing many of the now legendary talents of the three cinemas: Ang Lee, John Woo, Chen Kaige, Leslie Cheung, Hou Hsiao Hsien and Tsui Hark to name a few.
The whole gang’s here: from guys taking male bonding to a near homo level in the martial arts films of Chang Cheh as well as the gangster fare of John Woo; to the female-driven characters in Xie Jin’s work who were waaaay too comfortable being friends; and let’s not leave out the androgyny and cross-dressing in Tsui Hark films (first dibs on Brigitte Lin in Peking Opera Blues—called it!).
The documentary unearths a decades-long fascination with gender roles (and their queer corollaries) with a surprising dollop of tolerance. Most fascinating are the actresses of Yam Kin-Fai and Baak Suet-Sin, who were openly accepted as a gender-bending couple in Cantonese operas of the 1960s.
Produced for the celebration of 100 anniversary of cinema by BFI, Yang ± Yin was released just at the time when more openly queer characters were starting to emerge in Chinese cinema. Although, that’s part of the fascination with the doc—that so much ‘gender confusing’ work was already in abundance.