Friday, March 31st, 2023

East Palace, West Palace: a pioneering representation of defiant male-male desire in Beijing

e-wEast Palace, West Palace

Directed by Yuan Zhang

Written by Wang Xiaobo and Yuan Zhang

Premier: Nov. 1996, Argentina
U.S. Premier: June 13, 1998

Drama (foreign)
90 min. • Find on imdb

Review by Stephen O. Murray

October 4, 1998.

Close to a one-man show, Zhang Yuan’s East Palace, West Palace (smuggled out of China and first shown in Argentina 1996) is involving, though not at all likable.

The bravery of the director and the masochistic park cruiser are both considerable. A-Lan (Han Si) has many resemblances to Genet’s narrators—not least in eroticizing uniformed oppressors. Also in fearlessly insisting on their stigmatized desire (“I’m a tongzhi 1… My love is not despicable”).

Friends familiar with life in the People’s Republic of China say that the film is very subversive in the PRC—showing concerted dissidence, the fascination of a state official with forbidden desire, etc. The married A-Lan [Han Si], who wants to take the girl’s part and is willing to be beaten by a man if he loves him, resists drag (even though he took on the role of a stripped drag queen earlier): he is a man who loves men. Given his eagerness to submit to the desire (and violence) of others, it is a bit surprising that he is so unwilling to don women’s clothes for the policeman [Hu Jun] —but then I don’t understand how the policeman can think this will “cure” A-Lan, and it is perhaps the rhetoric of a “cure” that makes A-Lan refuse.
In that the film is A-Lan’s statement of his desire (and fantasy or history), and that there is little facial expression from either A-Lan or his captor, the cinematography by Zhang Jian (who went on to shoot Shower and Lan Yu) is remarkable: in flashbacks, in the park, in the toilet, in the police office, and even in close-up. 2

posted on the defunct site AssociatedContent, 4 October 1998
©1998, 2016, Stephen O. Murray



  1. Tongzhi means “comrade” and was the standard term of communist solidarity in Maoist times was appropriated by Chinese gay men for themselves—an attempt at transvaluation in the opposite direction of reviving the derogation “queer” in English.)
  2. The palaces of the title are park toilets in Beijing, where A-Lan cruises at night after the park is supposed to be closed. The location parallels the Taipei New Park cruising locale of Nie Tzu/Biezie/Crystal Boys/Outcasts but breaks from “The Homosexual Must Die” requirement of 1950s and ’60s movies made in English that recurred in the 2001 PRC movie Lan Yu, which also starred Han Si.

About The Author

Stephen O. Murray grew up in rural southern Minnesota, earned a B.A. from James Madison College (within Michigan State University), an M.A. from the University of Arizona, a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto (both in sociology), and was a postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley (in anthropology). He is the author of American Gay, Homosexualities, etc. and lives in San Francisco.