Si Han performs brilliantly as A-Lan, a young gay writer who falls madly in love with Shi, a macho police officer (played by Hu Jun) who has arrested and proceeds to interrogate him intensively. A key idea to understanding this film is that there is no such thing as love, real compassionate devotionate unconditional love, without at least some element(s) or component(s) of suffering or genuine sacrifice involved. Si Han's powerful acting renders A-Lan's ardent passion, suffering and compassion into vivid cinematic actualization, translated very well to VHS with excellent subtitling.
There is mystery, subtlety, subtext, metaphor and allusion in this movie which only heighten the audience's interest. What, for example, is A-Lan referring to exactly when he speaks of his being "married?" We are captivated by this mesmerizing captive as he gradually unveils his story, and his soul, to the cop, his captor, his tormentor, possibly even his executioner, yet at the same time his deeply beloved.
In the hands of a lesser director this film might've failed on any number of levels, but Zhang Yuan has crafted a jewel, a delicate labor of love no less. This film reminds the reviewer of the sort of humanistic psychology reminiscent of Carl Rogers, also the kinds of healing breakthroughs achieved by Gong Shu, art therapist and acclaimed student of psychodrama's cofounder Zerka Moreno. "East Palace, West Palace" is so imbrued with hope, care, sensitivity and metanoia for and towards its characters that one gets the feeling these actors (and actresses) all of them are Yuan's own beloved children. With a gentle but firm, parental hand he directs and guides his exceptional cast to incredible fruition in their compelling portrayals and core revelations.
There is something for everyone here. There is fantastic and poignant humor; one will come away never thinking of "bus" in quite the same light ever again. There is sex; lots of it, gobs of it, sometimes even extremely violent sex, though rendered all-the-more powerfully precisely because much of it is left to that ocean of sensuality and eroticism itself, the theatre of the mind. And there are moments in this movie where your eyes will well with tears, and you will welcome them.
If it is true that, as comparative mytheologian Joseph Campbell insists, "from sacrifice comes bliss," then the many and great sacrifices Zhang Yuan made to bring "East Palace, West Palace" to us are rewarded in the exceptional bliss which you will discover and engage in this rare, precious and life-giving gem from Beijing. Please don't miss it.