Love Potion No. 7: Hong Kong animated art film equals bisexual literary fantasy

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DREAM DATE Animated art film, ‘No. 7 Cherry Lane,’ is streaming now on the Criterion Channel.

Filmmaker Yonfan, a “China-to-Hong Kong-to-Taiwan-back-to-Hong Kong” specialist in romantic dramas, has spent more than 30 years writing, producing and directing films depicting the Chinese LGBTQ experience from various angles. His biggest successes have featured such movie idols as Chow Yun-Fat and Maggie Cheung (Lost Romance, 1985), Daniel Wu (Bishonen, 1998) and Joey Wang (Peony Pavilion, 2001). Yonfan’s 1995 Bugis Street, the story of a Malaysian maid’s experiences in the title Singapore neighborhood, might even be seen as a queer remedy, 30 years in advance, for Crazy Rich Asians—better writing, funnier dialogue and more-believable characters and situations.

The 72-year-old Yonfan is quite content to reshape the past in his own image, which may explain how he arrived at his latest, No. 7 Cherry Lane. It’s the procedural tale of a sensitive young man’s coming of age in Hong Kong, circa 1967, told in splendidly conceived animation—a combination of pencil and charcoal hand drawings on rice paper, with themes borrowed from a virtual encyclopedia of European and Chinese visual art and films. In other words, a spectacle.

Tall, handsome Ziming—voiced by actor Alex Tak-Shun Lam, and an English literature major at Hong Kong University—earns extra cash teaching English in his clients’ homes in the North Point district—a.k.a. “Little Shanghai”—home of many well-heeled refugees from the Communist revolution. His No. 1 pupil at the title address is Meiling (Zhao Wei), the gorgeous daughter of Mrs. Yu (Sylvia Chang), a sophisticated matron with definite coyote tendencies. Before long Ziming is forced to choose between them, in an elaborate, nutty flirtation powered by lit crit and old Simone Signoret movies.

Both women have action-packed dream lives, involving everything from ancient Chinese poetry and mid-20th-century French films to the legend of a maiden, abducted by a lusty warrior, who adorns her body with phallic snakes. Whew. In the hands of Animation Directors Zhang Gang and Joe Hsieh, Yonfan’s fantastic dreamscapes are every bit as deliriously beautiful as the live-action tableaus of Wong Kar Wai’s lust-drenched In the Mood for Love. In that spirit, the love triangle of Ziming, Meiling and Mrs. Yu becomes a myth of unhurried seduction, dripping with sexual promise.

The narrative loses a bit of steam somewhere in the third quarter, but the filmmaker gives us a crowded supporting cast of eccentric personalities to compensate. Upstairs neighbor Mrs. May—veteran screen siren Kelly Yao—never got past her operatic role as “The Intoxicated Concubine.” Mrs. May’s pallid, eunuch-like servant Ah Kwok is voiced by Tian Zhuangzhuang, maker of The Horse Thief. Hong Kong actor-director Fruit Chan shows up as No. 7’s most curious cat. Actor Stephen Fung takes the role of Ziming’s friend Steven, amid other idealized homoerotic figures working the margins of the story. For every reference to Brigitte Bardot or Jane Eyre, the filmmaker throws in a nude all-male shower scene, a cross-dressing joke or a quotation from À la recherche du temps perdu. In perhaps the film’s most curious flight of fancy, we’re treated to a three-way sexual geometry problem featuring Ziming, the Bookworm—his painfully mincing admirer, played by Tiger Wong—and the building’s black cat. In common with most of the movie’s most flamboyant contrivances, that escapade also takes the form of a dream.

In classic “against-the-background-of” style, our leading trio’s love tussle takes place during the turbulent Hong Kong street demonstrations in favor of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution and against the British government’s colonialism of that era. Any ironic comparison to the current dire political situation in Hong Kong is probably intentional. According to the film’s press notes, No. 7’s over-the-top reverence for museum-caliber culture also has a real-life connection. Yonfan reports that he sold off portions of his fine-art painting collection to finance 14 of his independent productions. A purer example of the much-abused “indie” impulse would be hard to imagine. No. 7 Cherry Lane follows its dream, no matter what.

Now streaming on the Criterion Channel.