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Cinema Love by Jiaming Tang review – a debut with real heart

Cinema Love by Jiaming Tang review – a debut with real heart

Jiaming Tang’s debut novel opens in China in the 1980s, at the Workers’ Cinema in rural Fuzhou, a cruising spot for queer men. The cinema is described as a magical, almost utopian place, and the language Tang uses contributes to this dreamy, soft-focus vision. The men come to the cinema, he writes, “looking for love”; in the semi-darkness of old war movies projected onscreen for 10 hours a day, “men loved and loved and loved”.

Bao Mei, the woman who works as the cinema’s cleaner and ticket seller, also assumes the role of protector of the men’s safe space: she turns away policemen as well as the confused and sometimes grief-stricken women who come seeking their husbands. She’s been guided to the cinema by the ghost of her dead brother, Hen Bao, and it’s perhaps Hen Bao’s watchful spirit that keeps the cinema safe.

Two regular clients, Old Second and Shun-Er, begin a blissful love affair – and, for a period, happiness reigns. But Shun-Er, as we soon learn, is married. His wife Yan Hua’s actions after learning her husband’s secret propel us violently into the book’s second act; the subsequent examination of her conscience provides the scaffold for the remainder of the story, all the way to its affecting conclusion.

The complexity afforded to Yan Hua’s character is one of the novel’s greatest strengths. As a new bride, she doesn’t understand why Shun-Er isn’t interested in sex, but she reflects that he “didn’t have the desire to be a man” and that “it made you experience a different kind of love”. She struggles to find a balance between generosity towards Shun-Er and a natural desire to centre her own life and concerns. “But what about me?” she asks herself. “What about my hurt?”

The second part of the novel takes some of the characters to America, where they join other newly arrived immigrants eking out a hardscrabble life in New York. Bao Mei and Yan Hua have new husbands. With these reshuffled relationships, the stage is set to explore “different kinds of love” and to test the logic of the cultural norms of the time. Why is it, for example, that a man can openly beat his wife, but “let a man hold another man’s hand” and “hell breaks loose”? Why is Yan Hua’s “puppet” green-card marriage outwardly acceptable, even when “she feels nothing for her new husband”, and when he makes advances towards her, she has to endure “the love-stench coming off his skin”? Bao Mei’s unconventional marriage is portrayed as the most successful: she accepts her husband’s queerness and finds pleasure in being useful, “a relied-on woman”. Joyful, too, are the female friendships between women who take comfort in their gossip and companionship at the garment factory, “who refuse to love their husbands, and instead [choose] to love each other”.

There is much to admire in this intricately plotted novel. The depiction of Chinese immigrant life in America is very well done: rich in detail, and with lovely flashes of humour. But I wondered, sometimes, whether Hen Bao’s ghost was allowed too much power over Bao Mei. She welcomes his instruction and obeys him unquestioningly – it’s almost as if he takes over both her voice and body, denying her agency and ownership of herself. And while the characters eventually acknowledge that the cinema was also a place of “betrayal”, where married men “had to humiliate their wives to satisfy their desires”, these realisations could have been further explored.

But these are minor complaints in an otherwise well-executed story. And it’s a story with real heart: Tang shows genuine sympathy for each of his flawed characters as he carefully unpicks the moral complexities of their choices. Sometimes, as Old Second eventually concludes, “The only painless way to live was to dream in the past.”

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Source: theguardian.com