There are few works of literature in China to rival the mighty stature of Cao Xueqin's The Story of the Stone, an epic tale of family and society in old Nanjing. Now, the Qing-dynasty saga gets a sex-drenched update through the lens of Taipei's gay party scene. CINEMQ speaks to director Starr Wu about his unusual adaptation of a classic.
"People are not scared to look for sex in public spaces," remarks Starr Wu, the filmmaker behind The Story of the Stone. "I think that Chinese and Taiwanese gay films avoid the topic of sex, so I wanted to tell people about this as it is often what many lives are really like." For his modern day adaptation of the famous classic, Wu swaps Jinling for Taipei; the stately Honglou for Ximen Honglou gay district; and the celebrated twelve beauties for twelve promiscuous golden boys.
Shy florist Lin sets up shop in Taipei after the death of his boyfriend, quickly falling in with the muscle boy crowd that hangs out at Stone bar, presided over by the inimitable 'Miss' Fong (a standout performance by Etsen Chen). Wu describes his film as a barebones adaptation, but much is familiar: the romance, tragedy, and camaraderie of Cao are all here, lending the film a surprisingly truthful, if occasionally clunky, representation of the queer scene.
"Very few Taiwanese films depict real gay life in Taiwan," Wu says. "I wanted it to be honest and natural." There is none of the coming-out struggle that dominates Mainland China's queer discourse, nor any mention of marriage equality. Instead, the screen drips with the love, lust and other bad decisions of a hedonistic night out with the young and hung. The cut and paste narrative of true romance that forms the backbone of so much gay cinema is here replaced with the familiar feeling of waking in a different bed every weekend, sheets crisp with the smell of sex.
Sex is explored as a point of exchange. Miss Fong uses the golden boys to entice patrons to spend money at Stone bar, whilst the boys use their bodies to pursue their own gains. Fong himself sleeps with politicians in exchange for legal protection. "Sex is like a currency and it is separated from love," believes Wu. "This is something that exists in Taiwan today."
One scene sees the effeminate CC demand that his roommate Josh sleep with him, "because you've fucked everyone else." Unable to find his cock ring, Josh instead uses a jade bracelet CC's mother had given him, "for my future wife." It is a delicious subversion of tradition; a perverse rejection of heterosexual marriage that gives fresh meaning to the protective properties of jade.
Whilst Taiwan has made historic advances in LGBT rights recently, Wu is quick to point out that queer lives and spaces are still policed. Saunas in particular are frequently raided without warrant by the authorities, a topic which Wu discussed in his short documentary Shower (2017). "These spaces are an easy target," he says, and hopes that The Story of the Stone will encourage discussion around the topic.
Bare torsos and thick arms strut and slide from the club to the sauna. Wu teases at the hyper-sexual surface of Taipei's gay venues before diving his audience beneath the softcore surface to confront issues such as HIV (there are two openly pos characters), depression and drug-abuse. Not all of these strands end positively, but there is a refreshing lack of moral judgement. "These are the things surrounding me in my life, but not so many gay films talk about these issues."
If there is one failing in Wu's film, it is in its perpetuation of a masculine ideal. Gym-bodied guys are framed as stoic and desirable, whilst feminine male characters are catty and shrill. Josh avoids looking at CC as he has sex him. Later, CC is chased out of a steam room with, "fuck off fatty." There is a truth in this reaction, but it is played for comedy, as is a scene when a shirtless man beats three beautiful drag queens in a runway competition. Wu plays a number of scenes as reflections in mirrors, a visual language which could have been used to interrogate the vanity of masc-normativity, or the distortion of femme/fat shaming. Instead, The Story of the Stone rests easy on its aesthetic beauty, missing an opportunity to elevate the conversation around a very real problem in gay culture.
"Taipei has changed from what it was like 10 years ago," muses Wu. He finds in the city's saunas a microcosm of a decade, of equality achieved and of distance still to go. "It's not just about sex, it's a social place where people can relax and communicate with one another." The Story of the Stone is provocative and fun, a pumped up retooling of the illustrious 700 page epic for the Grindr generation.
Words: Matthew Baren
Translation: Annabel Lee
CINEMQ is a queer short film screening + party series. It is run by a group of queers with too much on their mind to sit still for long. We’re publishing articles on queer cinema and screen culture every week. Want to contribute? Message our account or email email@example.com