Fest or Famine?

Reel Affirmations

Pride Film Festival

At the Lincoln Theatre June 3 and 4

Each October, the 11-day Reel Affirmations Film Festival showcases the variety and vitality of international gay and lesbian cinema. Once a taboo screen topic, homosexuality is now a theme explored and celebrated by filmmakers of nearly every culture. So festival organizers should have had plenty of movies to choose from when programming this week’s four-film Capital Pride minifest. The American distributor of one of the selections, director Peter Sheridan’s adaptation of Brendan Behan’s 1958 autobiographical novel Borstal Boy (June 3), has declined to make it available to reviewers. The remaining three features are a decidedly mixed bag.

The most impressive is Hong Kong filmmaker Stanley Kwan’s Lan Yu, based on China’s first Internet novel, published in serial form in 1996, and adapted for the screen by Jimmy Ngai. Handong (Hu Jun), a prosperous 30-ish businessman, hires impoverished architecture student Lan Yu (Liu Ye) for sex. Stirred by his first gay experience, Lan Yu falls for Handong, who agrees to continue the liaison but refuses to make a lasting commitment.

After several years, during which Lan Yu becomes involved in the Tiananmen Square student protests and receives a country house, a car, and other gifts from his benefactor, Handong unexpectedly dumps him to marry a female Chinese translator whom he met during trade meetings with Russian entrepreneurs. The marriage fails, and a remorseful Handong again encounters his former lover. Their renewed union is threatened when Handong is imprisoned for questionable business dealings. At considerable personal sacrifice, Lan Yu raises enough money to free him, but a freak accident terminates what, over the course of nine years, has evolved into a profound relationship.

Ngai’s screenplay, especially its forced tear-jerker ending, consists largely of stock gay-cinema situations. But Kwan’s sensitive direction of the intimate sequences featuring his two gifted leading actors freshens an overly familiar plot. Straddling the thin line between candor and explicitness, these scenes capture the complex interweaving of physical desire and emotion, something that few movies have expressed so palpably. Kwan and his backers deserve kudos for both their courage and their altruism: Knowing in advance that Lan Yu would be denied theatrical exhibition in mainland China, they proceeded with the project trusting that videotape and DVD sales would return their investment. Although their film’s denouement is ruinously contrived, the heartfelt interplay between Jun and Le makes Lan Yu (June 3) well worth seeing.

Two decades ago, Making Love, one of Hollywood’s then-rare attempts to deal with a gay theme, was savaged by critics and howled at by audiences. In this big-screen soap opera, perky Kate Jackson suffered as her sexually repressed physician husband Michael Ontkean steamed up the sheets with hunky novelist Harry Hamlin. Lushly produced and cravenly inoffensive, Making Love offered a textbook illustration of how not to make a gay movie. Who could have dreamed that 20 years later, Spanish director Gerardo Vera would be foolhardy enough to attempt an unacknowledged remake of that fiasco?

In Vera’s Second Skin, Alberto (skinny, whiskery Jordi Molla) is a Madrid aeronautics engineer with a striking, artistic wife, Elena (Ariadna Gil), and an adoring young son. He’s also carrying on a passionate affair with Diego (Javier Bardem), a successful uncloseted surgeon from whom Alberto conceals his marriage. Sexually withdrawn from Elena yet unwilling to embrace his homosexuality, guilt-ridden Alberto ping-pongs from wife to lover until Elena intercepts a cell-phone message that exposes her husband’s double life. She walks out on him and spills the beans to oblivious Diego. Unable to fully commit to either partner, Alberto is driven to the realization that his entire life has been constructed of lies. Before he can muster the strength to discover his true identity, he conveniently succumbs to the fate doled out to gay characters in pre-Stonewall cinema.

Second Skin’s opening credits unfold against a backdrop of X-rays, an odd choice for a movie populated by paper-thin characters. Angeles Gonzalez Sinde’s screenplay, based on what the film’s press material refers to as Vera’s “original idea,” requires little of Molla, Gil, and Bardem apart from bedroom acrobatics and moping in posh surroundings—stylish apartments, swank seaside resorts, elegant restaurants—while Roque Banos’ string-laden score swoons on the soundtrack. Glossy and empty, Second Skin (June 4) makes for painless viewing but also wastes a talented cast, as well as an opportunity to explore a potentially provocative theme.

Kali’s Vibe, writer-director Shari L. Carpenter’s dismal dating comedy, can’t even be recommended as a guilty pleasure. In what amounts to an inversion of Kissing Jessica Stein, the title character (Lizzy Davis), a Manhattan social worker, tosses out her cheating performance-artist lover, Crystal (Phalana Tiller). She then befriends Reese (Akanke McLean-Nur), a handsome single-father temp working at her office. Initially unaware that she’s gay, Reese is attracted to Kali and, to her surprise, their relationship escalates into a romance. Crystal, apparently contrite, soon reappears, and Kali agrees to take her back, rejecting Reese. But when she discovers that Crystal hasn’t abandoned her reckless ways, Kali is forced to choose between partners of different genders.

Carpenter, who has served as script supervisor on many of Spike Lee’s films, fails to breathe life into this pansexual romance. Her flat, predictable dialogue stymies the efforts of an attractive but inexperienced cast, and her plodding direction, with its graceless compositions and jarring continuity, lacks the energy necessary to transcend her schematic love-knows-no-gender screenplay. Although well-intentioned, Kali’s Vibe (June 4) is too amateurish to attract audiences outside the gay-film-festival ghetto.

Surprisingly, not one of these Reel Affirmations Pride Film Festival features is particularly affirmative. In each case, the central same-sex relationship is destroyed by the closing credits. Perhaps next year the selection committee will dig deeper to come up with suitably festive fare. CP