After Africa, the world’s most HIV/AIDS-ravaged landmass is Asia, where nations are taking steps towards addressing the problem among female prostitutes and drug users but not realistically addressing the enormous MSM (male-to-male sex) infection rates. Superpower China, where authorities decried Taiwan’s 2004 romantic comedy hit “Formula 17″ for its “illusion of a homosexual utopia,” has produced a handful of handsome people gay films such as “Bishonen” (1998) and “Lan yu” (2001), but otherwise the subject of homosexuality is virtually taboo and AIDS is not allowed to be mentioned on the big screen.
Zi’en Ciu’s “The Old Testament” (made in 2002)loosely continues with some characters from his “Enter the Clowns” (2001). But “The Old Testament” is so “underground” that it is not indicated in this director/writer/actor’s filmography.
The three-part film dares to introduce AIDS only in briefest passing and fails to trace the ramifications, then unaccountably switches to a slapsticky middle section before a deadpan comedic finale that speaks truth about that conservative society and probably those of most countries.
Several indistinguishable young men bed down in underpants on couches in Da Jian’s flat. They drink tea, nibble, smoke cigarettes and play cards, mumble non-sequiturs against plain white walls, bring back other waifs, mouth that they plan to leave, and talk of “curing together” Xiao Gang of AIDS. “Think[ing] there’s only room for two in our world, you understand,” the owner weakly protests to lover Xiao Bo, but, unresolved, this deadening “Song of Solomon 2001” first part becomes the equally ill-titled second segment “Proverb 1991.”
In a bedroom elsewhere, a baby fat man offers a glass of water to a lightly leather-clad other who has come to renew their relationship and abandon his new wife Nana. Since “if you like, in this room we can be one family,” Baby Fat dismisses a third fellow cooking in the kitchen, and, following a gay marriage ceremony, Leather-Clad is insecurely trussed in his underwear but then reclaimed or maybe rescued by Nana, all so hammy that one is uncomfortable and in no way amused.
Shift to part three, “Psalm 1981,” in which Xiao Bo is lives with his brother and sister-in-law Qing Jie and welcomes the visit of fellow university student Zheng Yang. (In “Enter the Clowns,” both Nana and the brothers’ dying father have sex-change operations, the latter thus becoming “mom.”) Though no flesh is flashed, nor a sigh of passion heard, the two men snuggle in a shared bed, the wife smells out “the disease [of] these days” and complains to her husband. Admonishing the suspected lovers that “we don’t have this habit” of locking bedroom doors, does not work, nor does barging in on them at all hours with food or questions. Hubby proposes that wife seduce the younger brother so as to turn him from homosexuality and back to Xiao Cui, the girl they have chosen for him to marry so he can “get a job, have a healthy family.”
In the end, such schemes do not serve, and the two students head off for other places, “alone together.” Acknowledging the couple’s sacrifices as surrogate parents for him while not denying, either, theoretical social obligations of marriage and offspring, Xiao Bo could have stood for alternative lifestyles within his repressive culture.
The poorly conceived lines drone in low voices (even Mandarin speakers will need the English subtitles) and high schoolish acting consign the film to being of interest solely as an amateurish social document.
In spite of limitations not the least of which is a cinema tradition foreign to outsider sensibilities, this third episode sheds bare-bones light on an issue of concern in almost all societies. Had it been expanded to the whole seventy-five minutes and left to stand without the baggage that precedes it, the effort would merit a look.