A guy is found by the police swimming naked. He can’t, or refuses to, speak and is sent to a hospital. Since no diagnosis can be made, he will be transferred to a mental hospital, when his male nurse decides to take another route. Slowly the reason for his speechlessness becomes clear. Together with the nurse’s girlfriend and a female friend of the silent stranger, their history is explained. The ending of the film is deliberately ambiguous and raises more questions than it answers about both the characters’ relationships and the relationship between China and the West. Luke’s attitude to his relationship with Han is different because he’s more relaxed about being gay and it’s as if the fact of Luke’s nationality is a deliberate strategy to contrast those attitudes, but also to examine what can happen when cultures with varying degrees of acceptance try to come together.
This naked man, known mostly throughout the film as the foreigner and played by Pierre-Mathieu Vital, says nothing to the Chinese police officers who bring him in after he is found on a river bank, passed out and being poked at with sticks by local children. They aren’t sure at first if he is just being difficult or not but eventually send him to a psychiatric hospital for treatment under the belief that his inability to speak is trauma induced. They are correct in their assumption and the rest of the film becomes a journey to piece together precisely what this mystery man is running away from. Luke, as we come to know the foreigner’s name to be later on, is joined by Jiang (Gao Qilun), a nurse who helps Luke escape the authorities to pursue his past. Their chemistry is undeniable.
The two Chinese characters in my film are both from small towns, and for such people, homosexuality is mostly underground. Some may not even be aware of their own sexual desires. Of course nowadays with the Internet people can read about such things, but it’d be difficult for them to find someone to have sex with, much less a sustained relationship. (Mind you, Grindr and Facebook are both banned in China.) Perhaps some will have furtive encounters in public baths or toilets, and that’s it. Most gay men and women in China have heterosexual marriages, even in big cities. So for Han and Jiang in the film, they would probably not have acted out their sexuality until they had met Luke. I think Luke was traumatized because he held himself responsible for Han’s comatose state. He felt that if it wasn’t for him, Han would have just went on with his relationship with Ning, and eventually gotten married. He was also hit by the realization that an innocent college romance would have such dire consequences.
As a screenwriter, I feel Simon Chung was trying out different things with narrative structure, such as how the film shifts gear when Luke leaves the hospital, and again when Ning appears. Also he was playing with different narrative perspectives, such as when Ning tells her version of the story, and later on you see things from Luke’s perspective. The inspiration for the film came from the “Piano Man,” a guy who washed up off the eastern coast of England a few years ago. There was no ID on him and he refused to speak, so they took him to a mental hospital. He was given a piano and started playing, and stories became circulating of him being a musical genius who went mad, like the guy in “Shine.” In reality he was a gay student from Germany who had a mental breakdown. This film was very emotional and one I can recommend.