Sunday, April 25, 2010

Hong Kong Cowboy

by Michael D. Klemm

(originally posted on pages 3/endoflove.html)

End Of Love, written and directed by Simon Chung, is the second feature film from the out Hong Kong filmmaker. It is an uneven, but mostly engaging, look at the journeys undertaken by a young gay man, aged 22, whose drug addiction leads to arrest and a mandatory stay in a Christian rehab camp.

Ming (Chi-Kin Lee) is an emotional train wreck who hung out with the wrong crowd during the aftermath of his mother's death. He views the rehab center as a prison but his sponsor, a former heroin addict named Keung (Guthrie Yip), shows him the ropes and helps the time pass. Ming soon develops feelings for his new best friend but Keung is straight and doesn't even notice that his acolyte only has eyes for him. Keung is there voluntarily and, when he decides that he is ready to return home, he invites Ming to come stay with him when he is released.

Ming takes Keung up on his offer but is disappointed when he discovers that his comrade has a live-in girlfriend. Her name is Jackie (Joman Chiang) and she makes no effort, at first, to get along with their new roommate. Ming, still smitten by Keung, finds it hard to listen to the sounds of their lovemaking in the next room. Jackie figures out that Ming is gay and delights in throwing herself at Keung in front of him whenever she can. She turns out to be quite the party girl and her actions become the catalyst for disaster.

Director Chung wisely breaks up the scenes at the camp with a series of flashbacks that detail the events leading up to Ming's incarceration. Ming led a double life, juggling a sweet relationship with Yan (Ben Yeung) while indulging his inner Mr. Hyde as a drug-fueled rent boy. Ming's roommate, Cyrus (Clifton Kwan), plays Lord Henry to Ming's Dorian Gray and leads him down the dark path, supplying him with both sex clients and drugs. There's always a party going on in their apartment and, before long, Ming is spiraling out of control. Yan's attempt to intervene horribly backfires.

End Of Love's non-linear structure is effective but not without its drawbacks. A twist involving Ming's mother's death isn't revealed until the final minutes. The withholding of this information makes for a dramatic finale but also causes some head scratching in a few earlier scenes. This is not a fatal flaw however, and there remains much to commend. There is often an overabundance of teen angst in queer Asian films and this certainly isn't the case here. No one struggles to come out of the closet in End of Love and Ming's problems do not stem from queer self loathing. We see one ugly moment of homophobia and, aside from that, the characters' sexualities are incidental.

Instead, the issues involve drugs, and hustling, and these are topics that aren't restricted to any gender, sexual preference, or country of origin. There is, thankfully, really nothing "fabulous" or cutesy about this film's approach. (The last Chinese queer film that I tried to watch featured a Taiwanese boy band - I have my limits.) The story, even if it could sometimes use a little more punch in spots, is a realistic one. Chung takes us down darker alleys and, while it might not be harrowing in a Trainspotting way, End Of Love lays bare the horrors of addiction. With more than its share of melodrama, End Of Love manages to be creepy and erotic at the same time.

There is fairly explicit sex with lots of jump cuts, and fans of Asian eye candy won't be disappointed. The film isn't all grim and there is a nice From Here To Eternity styled beach scene between Ming and Yan. Ming's first trick with an older john is also rather touching. The score is western but the accoustc guitar's squeaky strings provide an Oriental flavor. I'm sure I missed a few things that would have been obvious to an Asian audience. Undoubtedly there was much cultural significance to the shot in a hotel room where Ming, Cyrus and their john share the frame with their shoes looming large in the foreground. There are many such memorable images. The first time that Ming takes E (or K, I get those designer drugs mixed up), he watches Cyrus and their john's lovemaking distorted through a cocktail glass.

I've seen several American variations on the drug and hustler theme (too many actually) and this one has a nice edge to it. Maybe it's the subtitles but End Of Love seemed more serious than the ones I'm used to. The viewer is treated to a glimpse at another culture with the comfort of a universal storylne that knows no borders. Hong Kong isn't subject to the same censorship laws as mainland China and so the director's vision comes delivered without compromises. Chung is a filmmaker worthy of our attention.

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