The Lover (dir. Jean-Jacques Annaud, 1992)

            The Lover (dir. Jean-Jacques Annaud, 1992)  is not the typical epic historical romance in the same way as Gone With the Wind might be but it plays on the same elements. While the plot of this well-worn genre revolves around the loss of innocence—which is often an allegory for the colonial experience—and of having a nostalgic view of war and imperialism, The Lover at least depicts real societal issues such as racism and miscegenation. However, it confines these issues to events happening between the protagonists. Everything happens in the background or mentioned in the dialogue, and as film critic Nguyen Tan Hoang has argued, in the love scenes.[1] Hoang focuses—quiet obsessively—on Tony Leung Ka Fai’s butt exposure in these love scenes. He analyzes his behind from its litheness to its lighting and argues how the “Chinese lover’s bottomhood” draws out the anxiety in heterosexual men of (homosexual) emasculation, rape, or, simply, gay male sex. For Hoang, bottomhood functions not only as an “instance of shaming,” but also “a shameful position”.[2] Comparing the logic to the anatomical features of the buttocks, Hoang bluntly says that it can mean both powerful musculature or the vulnerability of the asshole’s “penetrability”.

Equally important in analyzing the depiction of Asian masculinity in the film is the allure of the Southeast Asian landscape as the Heart of Darkness, where relationships go against the grain of Western morality. Audiences in 1992 might have found it enthralling to revisit the past in which France was an empire that controlled territories from Africa to Southeast Asia. This political amnesia allows for stories like The Lover to seem exotic and erotic. The enticing setting is stoked by the illicitness of the affair being depicted, that of a very young girl (only 15 and a half), with a catty smile under a fedora and skinny legs in evening pumps who hooks up with an older, more affluent, Chinese-Vietnamese man.

But The Lover isn’t just about the love affair. Based on Marguerite Duras’ novel, the films tells her version of Indochina in the 1930s through the other characters—the mad mother, the opium-addicted older brother, and a younger brother who remains mute throughout the film. In this world, love affairs come and go like the monsoon season and the Mekong mud drowns both hope and despair.

The novel was both intimate and spectacular and appealed in the shamelessness of the autobiography and deftly executed story. Jeanne Moreau, who is known to cinephiles as the lead in Les Amants directed by Louis Malle, is the narrator who stands in for the authorial voice of Duras, signaling that the story we are about to follow is a personal confession. She fills in the details of those things which are not translated into images and could not be embodied by the actors even in their full frontal nudity.

[1] A View from the Bottom by Nguyen, Tan Hoang. DOI: 10.1215/9780822376606

Duke University Press, 2014.

[2] Ibid, 139.