The title of Chinese filmmaker C.B. Yi’s debut feature refers to male hustlers in the industrial south of China who cater to male customers. From the first scene when we’re introduced to the protagonist, Fei (Kai Ko), going to his first gig as one third of a threesome, it’s clear that these moneyboys are gay men who otherwise can’t reveal their sexual preferences, and as the movie develops we see the tight-knit community that forms underground among these men (and their female comrades), thus shining a light not only on gay life in China, but the circumstances surrounding migrant labor from the countryside to the cities. As it turns out, Yi, who studied film in Austria, shot Moneyboys in Taiwan, supposedly for budgetary reasons, though it may also have had something to do with the movie’s theme.
Like many migrant workers, Fei sends money back to his family in the countryside, though in his case he hides from them the nature of his work. The story is framed by his relationships with two other men, first Xiaolai (JC Lin), a fellow moneyboy who falls in love with Fei and exacts retribution on a john who subjects Fei to a beating during a paid tryst. After Xiaolai is himself subjected to a beating in return, Fei escapes to another city and Yi jumps ahead five years, by which time Fei has become a successful moneyboy with a nice apartment and steady work with high-income clients. Nevertheless, his life isn’t stable, and he’s set up by local police who bust him for prostitution, a charge that somehow is communicated back to his home village. The next time he visits, to see his ailing grandfather, he is practically banished by his extended family, but a childhood friend, Long (Bai Yufan), follows him back to the city, eager to become a moneyboy himself since, as he so pointedly explains, every job he’s ever had involves “selling my body,” so he might as well get paid as much as possible for it.
Yi brings the narrative full circle in a way that’s dramatically satisfying. Fei’s life has rendered his psyche vulnerable to any kind of disapproval, and when he reconnects with Xiaolai while trying to make a home with Long, he loses his equilibrium—or, whatever equilibrium he has managed to manifest under such circumstances. The conflicting emotions of all three men is palpable, and the overall mood and motivations of the characters feel credible to the point of documentary realism. Kai, apparently, was once a popular film star who is making a comeback after some years in the show biz wilderness, and his unsettling portrayal of Fei keeps the viewer off balance, because you never know how he will react to the next obstacle on his carefully navigated road to happiness, developing a through-line of personality that’s recognizable regardless of whether he presents with ecstasy or despair. And though Yi demonstrates a familiar European sensibility in his choices—very little camera movement, with long static shots of inventively blocked tableaux—Moneyboys feels alien enough to convince you it’s honestly depicting a world you know nothing about.
In Mandarin. Opens April 14 in Tokyo at Cinemart Shinjuku (03-5369-2831).
Moneyboys home page in Japanese
photo (c) KGP Filmproduktion, Zorba, Arte France Cinema, Flash Forward Entertainment, La Compagnier Cinematographique & Panache Productions 2021
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