Filmmakers in mainland China still have issues with LGBT content, as official censors are often pretty squeamish about anything decidedly queer, and have even tried to prevent some gay-themed Chinese films from screening at festivals outside the country, as well as banning them in China. However, it seems things are a little more relaxed in Hong Kong, where Utopians is set, as the movie includes a lot of full frontal nudity – most of it male – and even a very explicit male masturbation scene that goes right the way through to completion.
The film follows Hins (Adonis He), a student at a university in Hong Kong. He has a girlfriend, but in his dreams he’s started to have thoughts about men. That side of himself finds a further outlet when he starts studying under the outspoken Professor Ming, whose class explores ideas such as homosexuality and the philosophical ideas about utopias.
Hins’ very conservative girlfriend isn’t impressed by the class, but Hins is drawn to both it and Ming. The professor takes Hins under his wing, introducing him to a free and decadent world of naked young men, pleasure and what seems like freedom. However, Hins begins to wonder whether this world is really as good as it seems, especially when the authorities discover what’s going on and family secrets are uncovered.
There are a lot of good things about Utopians and not just how much screen time is given over to good looking young, naked men who aren’t shy about showing off their goodies. The film takes in some interesting themes. Professor Ming initially looks like he’s trying to build a kind of highly sexual, epicurean utopia, with his and Hins’ relationship harking back to the ones between older and younger men in Ancient Greece. The film then questions the whole thing, sometimes wondering whether it’s unhealthy, other times whether it’s based in selfishness that is bound to leave people hurt, or whether Ming’s conception of sexuality and utopia is indeed something that should be strived for.
Around all this Hins struggles with his identity. The film sometimes plays with whether the new world he enters is merely opening him up to truths about himself, or whether he’s being seduced/groomed by something decadent but potentially dangerous. There’s also an intriguing and only just touched upon question of British colonial era laws around homosexuality, which have never been altered and still effect people’s lives in many countries.
The slight problem with all this is that while the film has a lot of interesting ideas, it sometimes doesn’t know what to do with them, so themes either peter out or it ignores some of the more problematic issues that it raises – especially around the coercive aspects of what’s going on. Those issues are also seen in the storytelling, which is often quite abrupt and misses out moments that are necessary for the film to fully make sense, or else delving into a world of melodrama that seems at odds with the rest of the movie.
There are also a series of visually/technically impressive and rather sexy tracking shots, nearly all of which involve copious amounts of nudity and sit somewhere between dream and reality. They look great, but it’s sometimes difficult to work out what exactly we’re meant to make of them. Initially it seems they’re just what’s going on in Hins’ head and so merge the real world with fantasy, but after a while that theory doesn’t quite stack up. For example, we see Hins wandering around a beach, watching men having sex, and then seeing a man being shot with arrows in a way that’s deliberately reminiscent of homoerotic paintings of Saint Sebastian. It looks great and it’s pretty hot, but as with many of these scenes, it becomes so enraptured by itself and its technical accomplishment that it loses track of whether it properly fits with what’s happening around it, and how the audience is meant to view it.
Although there are a few problems with the movie, the good things outweigh the bad, helped by a seductive and sexy atmosphere, and a rather sweet central performance form Adonis He (who’s also the one who gets handy about halfway through). There is frustration though as there are moments where it gets close to being exceptional and then does something either amateurish or which completely undermines what’s gone before. It does suggest though that director Scud could produce something truly brilliant one day.
Overall Verdict: Sexy and with plenty of full frontal male nudity, Utopians takes on interesting ideas about philosophy, religion and the possibility of an epicurean paradise, but slightly undermines itself by lacking the coherence that something so ambitious desperately needs.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac