A Lovely Film From a Daring Director
The camera languidly pans earthward through a mist-shrouded, hillside bamboo forest – dense and otherworldly. There, a handsome young man is stalked by a coterie of equally savory elves – all nude, except for their macabre masks. The scene, photographed in alternating color and black and white, is as sexy as it is surreal.
Such is the opening shot of Adonis, the latest film by the Hong Kong director known as Scud, who was born in China. (The Chinese part of his full name, Danny Cheng Wan-Cheung, translates to “scudding clouds” in English.) The movie is written, directed and produced by this daring filmmaker and produced by Artopians, his film company.
Featuring lush cinematography by Nathan Wong, the movie makes it difficult to judge what’s more appealing: the sumptuously captured exotic locales or the heart-stoppingly beautiful actors, who are routinely shown au naturel.
A feast for the senses, it is more lively and illuminating than lurid, and it’s making its way onto DVD and V.O.D.
“I was relieved after the massive theatrical release of Adonis in Thailand,” Scud says of this new phase of his film’s release. “And now I’m even more upbeat with what’s happening in the U.S. and that it has even made it up to the top 10 of Amazon LGBT titles worldwide.”
Adonis He Fei stars as the titular protagonist, who is also called Yang Ke in the movie – or Ke for short.
“I chose the name because it’s the same as a young friend of mine in Australia, who’s also from China and very talented,” the director explained. “I find it handy because ‘Ke’ in Chinese also means approving or accepting, matching Adonis’ character, who’s more inclined to say yes over no.”
He Fei also collaborated with Scud on his film Utopians. This time, Scud had the actor share the spotlight more with several others in the cast, he noted.
“And yet his brilliance was not shaded or lessened a bit,” he said. “Like other actors who returned for some of my subsequent films, there’s a quantum leap in his acting here.”
He Fei plays a young displaced Beijing Opera star who is forced by sudden dire circumstances to enter the world of “art” films. (“Only the more explicit genre attracts any investors,” insists the producer of Ke’s film-within-the-film.) Unhappily, such work quickly devolves into adult modeling and escorting that has him eventually working in a bawdy house where virile, well-proportioned young men serve clientele of all genders.
The action is non-linear, traveling back and forth through time. But it always returns to one particular moment when Ke is stretched out on his back on a huge cross as part of an underground film that he’s supposedly headlining in, only to be sexually accosted by a band of lads. We learn afterward that this violent attack was also Ke’s first same-sex experience.
Eventually, prosperity comes to Ke in the form of a trendy Hong Kong bistro that he and his agent operate. He also gains a new (and hot) American boyfriend named Daniel.
But his happiness is short-lived when the provocative video in which he appeared on the cross surfaces. He is cajoled into working on one final project for his former cohorts, just before his departure for the States and a new life with Daniel.
The brawny adult performer Eric East appears as Vendetta, a key role that furnishes a nightmarish twist.
The film shrewdly blends aspects of reality and fiction. One example is when Ke comes across a pirated DVD copy of Utopians – so severely edited and censored by the Chinese government that it’s barely 30 minutes long. Another involves Hong Kong singer Amanda Lee, when we’re told by a background radio announcement that she is currently working on the latest film by Scud (“We won’t disclose the name” the announcer avers slyly, alluding next to a new song she helped write for this movie.)
Far more than an exercise in dime-store debauchery, the film’s “adult” elements serve to invigorate and enliven the narrative. Even though the director seemingly takes the nudity of his cast largely for granted, the film cannot be written off as pornography. It’s too captivating.
As realistic as such suggestive scenes are, we’re advised that it was all screen fakery and camera magic.
“To the credits of my great actors, these sex scenes were acted very genuinely, but maybe deep down my team –including myself – were still too allergic to being perceived as pornographic to absolutely go for it,” he said.
Either way, the film draws the audience in through the mesmerizing story as much as by any residual titillation factor. Meanwhile, the music by Kawayama paints subtle, ethereal soundscapes to match the eye-popping, panoramic pictures.
“When counting my favorite scenes in Adonis, I confess there are quite a few, which are quite diverse,” Scud said. “I like the tearful scenes of Yang Ke putting back the wallpaper in vain after his mother has died, and the one where Sis Yin [Susan Shaw] sees her daughter walking away. I am also satisfied with what you call the ‘unsettling’ dungeon scene, along with the music we deployed in it (although that turned out to be the most controversial of the film!).”
Speaking of his infamous reputation within the Chinese movie industry, he reports somewhat wistfully, “Hong Kong is not expected to change for better in term of ideology.”
Beyond China’s borders, his repute truly flourishes, and that has served him well when he confronts the many challenges that any producer faces in getting new features made.
“I’ve learned to not consider the feasibility issues until a rather advanced stage, because usually what’s worth doing is meant to be difficult anyway,” he said.
Citing the parallels to a film like Salo, or the 120 Days Of Sodom , the scandalous 1975 movie by Pier Paolo Pasolini, Scud said: “My challenge in this situation was to get enough people to believe such a radical and graphic film should be made – and will be made (My track record must be helpful in that aspect). Were this my first film instead of seventh, I don’t reckon it would have seen the light of day!”
In Adonis, he said, “the shock value … is rather being true to the visions of Tibetan Buddhism about the afterlife, which are grossly graphic, and karma being a core value.”
One theme in the film is the pervading influence of karma in the central figures’ daily lives. At one point, Sister Yin says Ke is cursed somehow, adding, “Everything is fated!”
Speaking of his inspiration for this fundamental aspect of the plot, Scud said: “One night when I woke up beside a young man, I wondered what would happen if his robust life would be terminated – prematurely, incidentally or intentionally. For instance, when would he know he’s dead? What sort of after-life journey awaits him? This fascination carried over into the idea of telling a story about such questions or beliefs based on the values of Tibetan Buddhism.”
In examining these values, the film provides intriguing glimpses into Chinese culture on topics such as spirituality, mysticism, heaven, hell and the afterlife in general. Scud said these were best articulated toward the film’s conclusion, when Ke and his godmother, Sister Yin, discuss the meaning of living “a fatal life.”
“What you believe is what’s real to you,” she informs her godson. “Karma doesn’t necessarily dawn in the present life anyway.”
Scud’s personal impressions on the subject are a little surprising.
“I have to confess that I have my doubts about this, so I threw them to the Rinpoche, who helped me tremendously in the researching of the film,” he said, referring to a respected religious teacher who is his spiritual guide.
Once, the Rinpoche asked Scud to ponder the case of an airplane accident and whether all the passengers involved could share in the same Samsara, the ongoing cycle of life, death and re-birth.
“It was intriguing,” he said. “Even so, I didn’t see this notion alone as being enough to carry a larger story about life. To me, the cardinal message from the film takes place during that last conversation between Ke and Sis Yin. What they say there, I think, is pretty universal and should resonate with audiences from East or West.”
In that scene, Sister Yin rebukes her godson: “Every movie inevitably must come to an end,” she said. Pointing out that Ke was an actor, she asks: “Would you not try to give your best performance because of that?!”
Love it or otherwise, after seeing Adonis, you know you’ve been through some deeply affecting sensory experience.
“I’d love for the film to reach even more audiences – especially for my genre, which may be facing extinction,” Scud said. “Since few would come to see my work for pure entertainment, every new viewer may become my new soulmate, to keep us moving on.”
Adonis is now available on DVD and V.O.D. from iTunes, Google Play and Amazon.com. Check out the trailer at https://goo.gl/SkKh2V. To learn more about Scud and his projects, go to http://artopians.org/.