C.B. Yi’s “Moneyboys” is a moving exploration of Chinese rural-to-urban migration that feels authentically emotional despite being peppered with incongruous moments and details.
The film follows Fei (Kai Ko), who moves from the countryside to different Chinese megacities to support his family as a hustler. When he realises that they accept his money but not his homosexuality, their relationship breaks down.
Although set in China, “Moneyboys” was filmed entirely in Taiwan. Linguistic inconsistencies also rear their head unexpectedly to jar viewers otherwise immersed in the film’s melancholic mood, with Beijing accents mingling with lilting Taiwanese intonations in the same village where neither should be at home.
And while leading man Kai Ko delivers a nuanced, heart-rending portrayal of the hustler Fei and real chemistry with his male love interests Long (Bai Yufan) and Xiaolai (JC Lin), none of them publicly identify as homosexual.
First-time director Yi waited nearly 10 years for the chance to shoot “Moneyboys,” intending all along to do so in China. At the last minute, however, he moved production to Taiwan, which required a rush to adjust the story but also cut costs and brought in financing from the Taipei Film Commission.
He doesn’t attribute the shift to censorship, saying that the choice was made for budgetary reasons before he submitted the script to China to get approved for a shooting permit, and because it was easier to work with Taiwan’s more Westernised production system.
Shooting in China, he admits, would have yielded a “totally different” film, but he’s satisfied with the final results.
“I didn’t make a film of total realism. If I wanted to have a realistic film, I would have done direct cinema or documentary. I made this with an artistic mindset and with the situation I was given, which forced me to adapt,” Yi says.
Yi was born in China but immigrated to Austria as a teen, and is most comfortable in German. A Sinology major, he first encountered the topic 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 hustling on the side to help his ill mother.
Yi first planned a documentary about money boys, but later morphed it into a fiction over concerns that it might put subjects at risk in a country where prostitution remains illegal and there are few legal rights for LGBTQ citizens.
As censorship tightens in the mainland, the “Moneyboys” model of a China-born director with foreign citizenship making a China-set film shot outside the country with foreign funding and crew may become an increasingly common avenue for cinematic explorations of otherwise taboo Chinese subjects.
For a director who has spun such an intimate portrait of gay love, Yi at times appears less versed than one might expect on the politics of its representation or the state of LGBTQ issues in China and Taiwan, the latter of which in 2019 became the first in Asia to legalise same-sex marriage.
In Hollywood, the question of whether straight or cisgender actors should play gay or trans characters is an ever-evolving hot-button issue. Although Yi hadn’t considered the topic, when pressed he says that while the intention behind the idea of reserving gay roles for gay people was a good one, “it also leads to problems” by being too reductive.
“Many heterosexual 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] of spreading more understanding of LGBT issues worldwide,” Yi says.
“I also think playing a homosexual role gives heterosexual male and female actors the opportunity to fulfil their curiosity and satisfy their subconscious desires to live [the experiences] of LGBT people.”
He elaborates: “Film is not really politics: it has some politics, of course, but not the kind of outside politics where you go to a demonstration. Everything in film is there to tell a story, but the stories have political messages and issues packed within them. I just want the best actors to play the characters; to forbid anything or to question that minimises the artistic work.”
His stars both concur. “The character is what the director chooses him to be… Homosexuals should also play straight men, and so on, as long as the actor develops the character well,” adds Ko.
Lin says what matters most is how convinced the audience is. “I think there should be equal opportunities to take on roles no matter what your identity, as long as you’re good at your craft and willing to take on the challenge.”
Yi wasn’t sure if an actor could openly identify as gay in China, but notes that while in Beijing he saw many women holding hands in the streets. “I think homosexuality in China is not a big issue, because it’s common. In the 1990s, they already said it’s not a disease, or something like that.”
China decriminalised homosexuality in 1997 and declassified it as a mental disorder in 2001, and while mores are slowly changing, gay content is still regularly censored in film, TV and online media — most recently via the mass deletion of social media accounts for LGBTQ student groups and research associations at most major universities just last week.
Bai, who adroitly plays a young villager who follows Fei into the world of prostitution, is a rising commercial star in China who also appeared this month in a very different sort of film: the historical propaganda film “1921,” a tribute to the Chinese Communist Party.
While he is on screen at Cannes learning to turn tricks, Bai is in theaters in China as the staunch military leader Ye Ting, who joins the Communists after leaving the Kuomintang, the party that went on to rule Taiwan and is still one of its most powerful factions.
There is past precedent for Chinese actors playing controversial gay roles pushing on unabated to mainland stardom. For instance, Chen Sicheng and Qin Hao, the leads of Lou Ye’s 2009 Cannes competition title “Spring Fever,” are now top industry figures even though that film resulted in Lou receiving a five-year ban from filmmaking.
Yi still has family in China, and uses a pseudonym to keep his work separated from his private life and avoid the risk of being unable to return. He hopes that his future films will be able to screen there, and acknowledges the political tightrope that may force him to walk — particularly when other China-born artists like Chloe Zhao have been unofficially banned on nationalist grounds even for making work 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 want to do the right thing as an artist,” he says.
“I’m aware of what happened to Zhao, but I don’t think something like this would happen to me, because the politics in my film are about relationships, about making people empathise with others with whom they wouldn’t normally sympathise.”
‘Reduced to my Chinese origin’
Yi didn’t initially set out 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 it was abruptly killed two years in after certain backers pulled out without explanation.
“I was told, ‘It’s better when your first movie is about China. If there are two people, an Austrian director and you, both first-time directors trying to make a film about relationships between Austrians, of course they would rather give it to the other guy than you,’” he says.
Yi has made his peace with that setback. “I went through all that, but I realised it really was better to do my first film in my homeland, where I had travelled many times and knew people better.”
Times have changed, but not drastically so.
Yi envisions “Moneyboys” as the first installment of a thematically linked trilogy of films, each pulling further away from China than the last. He’s finished the script for the next title: Paris-set “Purelands,” which centers on a French-Austrian student involved in protecting a group of female prostitutes from northern China.
The third film will be set in the ’60s and shuttle between Paris and other non-China international locales. Yi also has scripts written for two bigger-budget sci-fi films that zoom even further out from the sticky realities of the present.
This article was first published in Variety.