Cannes 2021 review: Moneyboys (C.B. Yi)

Moneyboys, the debut feature film from director C.B. Yi, begins with a prologue showing us Fei (Kai Ko) as he is introduced to the illicit world of gay sex work. He is shown the ropes by the more experienced and enigmatic hustler Xiaolai (J.C. Lin), who gives him tips about specific clients, takes him shopping for sharper clothes, and takes him to a karaoke bar where he drunkenly sings, imploring Fei to join him. The scene is full of vibrant color and it is the first of many that present Fei as someone who has closed himself off, but eventually he gives in to Xiaolai’s prodding. Perhaps it is inevitable then that the two begin a sexual relationship outside of their work environment.

But this complicates matters as we later see Fei being pursued by an important client, Brother Bao. Xiaolai tries to get Fei to call it off, but he refuses, thinking it’s jealousy on Xiaolai’s part. When Fei returns to their apartment bloodied and bruised, Xiaolai takes off to get vengeance, but he’s no match for Brother Bao’s henchmen and the fight leaves him crippled. As police arrive at their apartment, clearly at Bao’s behest, Fei is forced to make a difficult decision: turn himself in or run and abandon his lover. He chooses the latter.

We catch back up with Fei five years later. He is still a hustler and has clearly climbed the ranks judging from his stylish apartment. But beneath the surface he is still the same Fei, guarded and compartmentalized. Any emotional scarring from what took place five years prior is hidden deep behind his cool facade. After another brush with law enforcement Fei goes back to his hometown to visit his ailing grandfather and the rest of his family. Along the way he runs into an old acquaintance, Long (Yufan Bai), who had followed Fei ever since he left their small village but eventually returned home after he was unsuccessful in finding him.

When Fei makes it back home he first sees his sister who is supportive and sweet. Unfortunately the rest of his family does not embrace him in the same way. He next sees his grandfather who is clearly losing his mental faculties, but who nonetheless has just enough left to embarrass Fei, imploring him to be less picky and to find a woman to marry. “Don’t be like Fei who is on his own and alone,” he says. It’s not entirely clear whether he’s being intentionally malicious, but the damage is done. Fei’s dinner with the rest of his family doesn’t go any better. His family is not shy about making him feel like shit for being gay, let alone a gay sex worker. One of his uncles is particularly nasty, asking him if he wants to be like “one of the other perverts in town.” It’s a classic example of small-town homophobia, displayed in unsubtle fashion, but the scene does a good job of showing why Fei is the way he is.

Fei returns home only to find that Long has followed him there. Despite the initial panic, Fei does his best to accommodate him. For his part, Long makes a welcome addition to the proceedings. Where Fei is sullen, Long is enthusiastic and only too happy to follow in his footsteps. It adds a dynamic that had been missing up to this point and he livens things up. At a neon-lit dance club, Long tries repeatedly to get Fei to dance with him, echoing the early scene of Xiaolai trying to get him to sing with him. Both as a mentor and a mentee, Fei is constantly being implored to come out of his shell, which makes the film a bit hard to fully embrace. Yi imbues much of it with a keen eye for visuals; his compositions and use of color are both consistently great, but his protagonist is so closed off from the world around him, lessening the impact the film might otherwise have had.

By chance Fei is reunited with Xiaolai, whom he hears singing at a cafe. He later finds out that Xiaolai is now married to a woman and has two young children. He has moved on, Fei hasn’t. But Fei always holds onto his past, not just with Xiaolai. They part ways, on the brink of kissing, leaving Fei to contemplate, and his mind drifts to the scene in the dance club with Long when he finally let his guard down and joined him in dancing. Simultaneously we see Fei acknowledging a moment of true happiness, while also indulging his tendency to romanticize the past. Hopefully he has learned to finally allow himself to live fully in the moment. It’s a bittersweet ending to a film that constantly keeps the viewer at arm’s length, just like its protagonist, which detracts slightly from the overall effect.

Moneyboys (C.B. Yi)