Review of “The Panda Candy”


Chun Sue (left) and Taki Zhang in The Panda Candy

The Panda Candy is a quirky, unconventional film from
Chinese musician/painter/filmmaker Peng Lei. Shot in a pseudo-documentary style
with non-professional actors, the piece is certainly different, though
audiences may disagree strongly on whether this is a good or a bad thing.

The story —
such as it is — follows the adventures of two young women, played by Chun Sue
(who penned the story that inspired the film) and Taki Zhang.

Taki’s
character is a lesbian who floats around with the rock band New Pants (of which
Peng Lei is the front man), dating all of the girls she meets as the band tours
across China.
The other woman, Chun, is more interested in guys, dating a string of men until
she meets her apparent soul mate in Taki.

Instead of
presenting a traditional narrative of the beginning-middle-end sort, Lei has
instead opted for a sort of loose cyclical structure.

The film opens
on the presumed end, and after a brief scene, we’re whisked away to the
beginning, which has Taki explaining her roadie lifestyle and love of the
ladies. Meanwhile, Chun’s off meeting young guys all around Beijing, with no apparent motivation other
than curiosity – with a dash of lust.

The film plays
out in a collection of scenes that have our characters meeting their various
lovers, speaking with them about life and love, and occasionally having sex.

There’s never
any real explanation of the events; the audience is simply asked to spend some
time with these characters as they live their carefree lives.

As such, it’s a
hazy, low-key and often fun portrait of life as a young roadie/drifter in
modern China.
Anyone expecting a traditional story will be sorely disappointed, but audience
members who are on board for 85 minutes of hanging out, flitting around Beijing, and making love
will appreciate the change of pace.

But there’s also
something deeper at work here — even if Lei didn’t set out with that in mind.

Considering the
cultural shift occurring in the People’s Republic these days, the film is a
quiet, almost accidental testament to social change. While the words
"lesbian" or "queer" never appear anywhere in the film, the
movie is implicitly about the younger generation’s greater acceptance – or at
least, comfort with — queer people and lesbians in particular.

Taki’s various
encounters with women are casual and fun. She seems to meet a new lady at each
and every performance, creating a track record that would put Shane McCutcheon
to shame. With bright eyes and an even brighter personality, she seems to smile
her way into the hearts of her lovers.

Many of her
encounters begin with a conversation about sexuality. Without ever explicitly
defining herself, Taki interviews her paramours with a shy grin before getting
them into bed. In fact, one of the most refreshing elements of the film is the way it portrays lesbian
sexuality in such a natural, non-exploitative light. Though most of the
dialogue is conversational and easygoing, Taki and her lovers make more than a
few interesting observations about the bonds between women.

But Panda Candy’s ambivalence about the
permanence and seriousness of the lesbian identity is troubling.

Even Peng Lei,
in his director’s statement, seems to consider lesbian relationships something
of a curiosity. He admits that he didn’t take lesbian relationships "for
serious" until he made this film, though he later states: "what I’m
sure of is that the girl-girl love is purely true and beautiful [and] deserves
everybody ['s] and the whole society’s respect".

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