Moneyboys looks good to the eye but sees nothing new, regurgitating the more inspired reveries of erotic ennui that directors like Tsai Ming-liang effortlessly dream up.
A tacked-on melancholy shoulders, for the most part, the dramatic weight present in C.B. Yi’s carefully composed and frequently arresting first feature. Moneyboys, as its titular plurality suggests, calls into focus not just personal biography, of which its half-decade account is largely constituted, but also a broader demographic experience contextualized within China’s geographic milieu. With both prostitution and homosexuality illegal, this experience suffers doubly under the stigma established by tradition and enforced by law; curiously, the former vice appears less as a perversion of the mainland’s virulently capitalist dogma, but rather as a necessary condition to negotiating a decently fulfilling life within it. And so begins Yi’s visually captivating but thematically trite film with a tracking shot on a river, the lens trained on its rippling surface, teasing a tranquil vision of nature and freedom. This vision quickly fizzles out, its duality separated into opposing choices, mutually exclusive and sometimes denied jointly: the choice of rural simplicity, with little economic opportunity, or that of comparative affluence, but fettered to the forced rhythms of urban employment and exploitation.
The latter choice befalls Fei, a fair and Adonic young man who leaves his village to work in the big city as a gay hustler, or moneyboy; implied to have been estranged from his family, and having missed his mother’s funeral back home, Fei industriously forges a future in his line of work, servicing clients with the requisite sensuality but affording, and hence exchanging, little intimacy. “I have a client later” he states, gently announcing his refusal to ejaculate. “You’re the star of the show. As long as you’re happy, I’m happy.” His hard-headed determination lands him, against the wishes of one of his dearer customers, in the hands of another, whose physical abuse results in an avengement that cripples and imprisons his lover, separating their lifelong paths. Five years later, having relocated from Yiwu to an even busier Shenzhen, Fei — now living in modest luxury, an apartment to his name — continues his hustle among an informal network of moneyboys until a sting operation forces his return back home. Facing a family disgraced by his “perverted” ways and haunted by the abandonment of his beau, he struggles to make amends where possible; and where not, to come to terms with the derogatory label permanently affixed to his identity.
Yet, while earnest in its testimonial fidelity and sympathetic to the indignant persecutions endured by its subjects at the ruthless hands of state and society, Moneyboys evinces an undeniable superficiality in its social commentary. To an outsider, its swiveling pans and long-takes proffer microcosms of cultural divide, expressing in each cogent shot oppressive realities refreshing to liberal Western eyes; peer beyond Yi’s meticulous flair for color contrasts and calculated pacing, however, and the film’s blinkered gaze comes somewhat undone, as a psychologically lightweight if also sequentially ponderous array of formulaic melodrama, only nominally specific to its modernized Chinese setting. An especially grating wedding set-up acquires a soap-operatic quality in its talking-point condensation and unwarranted pantomiming, not quite affiliated with either steely realism or trenchant metaphor. Suffused with brittle loneliness and drenched in a moody, rainy palette (for select sequences), Moneyboys looks good to the eye but sees nothing new, regurgitating — no matter how adamant its emulation — the more inspired reveries of erotic ennui that directors like Tsai Ming-liang effortlessly dream up, conscious not of doling out inquiries, but of finding the fragile existence of aching, human desire within.
You can stream C.B. Yi’s Moneyboys on Mubi beginning on June 10.
Originally published as part of Cannes Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 3.