It’s not easy making a film with an emotionally distanced lead character, an enigma can only be so interesting without letting the audience in, so it’s a real achievement that writer-director C.B. Yi’s Moneyboys is as engaging as it is. Beautifully long takes allow the actors strut their stuff and the juxtaposition between urban and rural China makes for some gorgeous locales.
When we first meet Fei (Kai Ko) he is a rookie hustler about to engage in a threesome with another ‘moneyboy’, Xiaolai (a terrifically multifaceted performance by J.C. Lin), and a client. The nervous Fei is instantly attracted to the handsome and vivacious Xiaolai’s swagger and the two begin a relationship, but Fei’s mind is always on the money he needs to earn. When things turn violent with a local pimp, Fei flees town leaving Xiaolai behind. The aftermath of that decision, and the dangerous world he lives in, will haunt Fei for years to come.
Fei is a complex character to present on screen. Emotionally withholding and constantly conflicted, he can be caring and heartless in the same breath. His disdain for his clients is evident and while by external appearances he has it all, he’s beautiful with a great lifestyle, he feels hollow. He is sullenly resigned to the harsh facts of his reality. When he tells his new friends a fictionalized version of his own story, abandoning Xiaolai, his friends declare that person to be “ruthless”, and Fei can’t disagree.
When a school friend, Long (the charmingly goofy Bai Yufan) tries to emulate his life, Fei is torn. He doesn’t want to introduce anyone else to his toxic lifestyle, even if they will be momentarily better off for the money it will bring, but Long’s lust for life and boundless energy win Fei over despite himself.
C. B. Yi pulls us into Fei’s life with long, carefully choreographed scenes that play out in a single take. From Fei running away injured through the maze of corridors and stairwells in his housing estate, to a drunken wedding dinner, these single-shot moments force the viewer to be a passive participant in Fei’s life. Cinematographer Jean-Louis Vialard’s camera is a cold-hearted observer to the pain.
Broadening out beyond the travails of sex work, Moneyboys also looks at the harsher economic prospects of a generation of young gay men with limited options in rural China. Long would rather sell his body than work for minimum pay in a factory job, especially when he compares his windowless room to Fei’s soaring views. Fei’s friends and colleagues watch with envy and sadness as one of their number gets married to a young woman. He got out of the rent boy life, even if it means a future of hiding his true self.
The lives of gay hustlers has been a staple of queer cinema for decades and while Moneyboys—nominated for the Golden Camera, Queer Palm, and Un Certain Regard awards at last year’s Cannes—treads some familiar territory, its lack of melodrama and its cultural specificity give it a compelling cinematic spark beneath its bittersweet exterior.
By Chad Armstrong
Moneyboys plays Queer Screen’s Mardi Gras Film Festival 2022 in Sydney, Australia on February 27th and is available on demand. Click here for times and tickets.