LGBTQ films set in mainland China remain a rarity due to the government’s strict censorship regime. Nearly 30 years after Farewell My Concubine was banned for its overtly queer themes, stories about gay life in the country are few and far between, with many productions forced to abandon ship and shoot elsewhere. Moneyboys is a curious film for this very reason — a rare depiction of contemporary gay life in China, filmed in neighbouring Taiwan, by a first time director who moved from a rural Chinese village to Austria as a teenager. This might by why, at first glance, C.B Yi’s film doesn’t feel culturally specific in its approach to the subject matter, as the heart of the drama appears to be a universally relatable tale of gay self acceptance in the face of homophobia from family and wider society.
But Moneyboys is a far smarter film than this, using an exploration of sex work not as a way of addressing attitudes towards sexuality in a conservative country, but the increasing gulf in prospects for young people between rural areas and cities. It’s not a demeaning depiction of the profession despite how this sounds, instead telling a multi-year tale about the migration of workers to the city, and how the gig economy can wind up becoming the sole long term career prospect in an overcrowded job market. Moneyboys is a quietly accomplished debut, both a melancholic character drama and a grander study on simmering economic and cultural tensions, be they regional or generational.
More by Alistair Ryder: Cannes Film Festival Review: Kira Kovalenko’s ‘Unclenching the Fists’
An extended prologue introduces Fei (Kai Ko), a nervous young man seemingly new to the profession. He awkwardly expresses gratitude at being chosen for a threesome with a client, not yet mastering the calm coolness with which he needs to carry himself. During this time, he’s in a relationship with Xiaolai (JC Lin), who remains overprotective of the newcomer; when Xiaolai fights back with a client of Fei’s who oversteps some boundaries, he’s forced to leave the city and move elsewhere. Five years later, Fei has fully reinvented himself, living in a luxurious property in a different city where he’s continued to thrive as a sex worker.
A visit to Fei’s home village to see his dying grandfather exposes the downside to his newfound success, however, with his family struggling to hide their shame that their son makes money sleeping with other men. This complicates things, as Fei has kept donating significant chunks of his pay check to his family. After being accused of bringing such a shame to his family that he can’t see his grandfather, he heads back to the city. A few days later, childhood friend Long (Bai Yufan) follows him back and assumes a role as a sex worker, with Fei now taking on the role of the overprotective elder. The pair start a relationship while Fei’s personal life deteriorates — he’s no longer allowed to visit home and begins to prefer the services of his younger friend.
More by Alistair Ryder: BFI Flare Review: Oskar Roehler’s ‘Enfant Terrible’
Yi studied under Michael Haneke at the Vienna Film Academy, and has described the Austrian auteur as a key stylistic influence. The biggest compliment I could possibly afford Moneyboys is that the formal similarities between the two filmmakers aren’t as immediately pronounced as they are with the director’s numerous other imitators, namely Michel Franco and Ruben Östlund. This might be because Yi’s film is a less caustic affair, with a more openly empathetic approach towards its characters. The filmmaker is most unsparing in his approach when using a static shot to depict tensions rising at a family dinner, which leads into a full homophobic attack. Even then, the violent moment is staged out of the viewer’s field of vision, with a similar approach taken with regards to sex scenes, which are more verbally explicit than they are visually.
Ko’s excellent lead performance is perfectly tailored to fit this formal approach. In long and often static takes, the actor wordlessly conveys a vulnerability to show what Fei has long left behind him. One sequence at a restaurant, in which cinematographer Jean-Louis Vialard’s camera carefully tilts from side to side, effectively frames Fei at the center but forever in the background. When Fei’s family drama gets analyzed without him becoming part of the conversation, the actor makes an impression despite essentially representing a void in the social circle. The stark contrast between the youthful naivety Ko displays in the prologue and the hardened facade of the later drama is so vast that it feels like the work of two different performers.
More by Alistair Ryder: Cannes Film Festival Review: Teodora Mihai’s ‘La Civil’
This is, of course, what the simple, circular nature of the character study demands of Ko, as Fei becomes the over protective mentor and love interest that Xiaolai initially was to him. Moneyboys exceeds at depicting the many circumstances that have led him to withdraw since that relationship fell apart, from family tensions to seeing other gay people in his circle have marriages of convenience. Fei’s relationship with Long is characterized by his many attempts at self sabotage, with a euphoric and climactic sequence proving effective for just how much the actor can express the earliest stages of closure without dialogue. No, there aren’t any surprises when it comes to how Moneyboys handles queer self acceptance, but with a central performance like Ko’s helping to drive the drama, it can often feel revelatory.
Moneyboys is the first of a planned thematic trilogy from Yi, which is good news — this is the kind of promising debut that will make audiences eager to see what he does next.
Alistair Ryder (@YesitsAlistair) has been writing about film and TV for nearly five years at Film Inquiry, Gay Essential and The Digital Fix. He’s also a member of GALECA (the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association), and once interviewed Woody Harrelson, which he will probably tell you about extensively, whether you want to hear about it or not.