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Moneyboys

Director: CB Yi (Austria, France, Belgium, Taiwan). Year of Release: 2021

Fei, a young, pretty boy, is timidly knocking on a door. It is opened by Xiaolai, equally young, equally pretty, but not quite as timid. It soon becomes obvious that Fei is there on a financial transaction, helping Xiaolai out with a threesome with a man who is neither young nor pretty. We get a brief glimpse of the client, belly hanging over his shorts.

Fei and Xiaolai are moneyboys, kids from the countryside who move to the big city and engage in sex work to support their families back home. Xiaolai is relatively choosy, and urges his protegé, soon to be his lover, to do the same. But Fei’s family needs the money, so he gets involved with disreputable types. You wonder how much Xiaolai is trying to protect Fei’s safety, and how much he’s just jealous. Either way, he causes a scene at a bar and tries to break up Fei’s latest liaison.

Fei returns to his client, and suffers as a result. Xiaolai goes looking for revenge. He corners Fei’s attacker, and starts flailing at him with an iron bar. This works short term, but soon the attackers’ friends come looking for Xiaolai and make use of the iron bar on his chest and legs. Xiaolai is left crippled for life. More immediately, the police have started knocking on the door of Fei’s flat, and he needs to get out of town quick.

Cut to: Another City, five years later.

The focus is now on Fei, a lot less timid than when we first met him. He is soon joined in the new city by Long, another friend from the home village. Long joins Fei in his hustling and in his bed. An imminent death in the family brings Fei back to the old village, and shows that while his family is appreciative of the money he still sends regularly, they’re still very judgmental about his sexuality. There’s also the occasional visit by the police, looking for male prostitutes and illegal drug use.

Xiaolai returns on the scene with his wife and children, and a love triangle – make that a love quadrilateral – starts to emerge. Xiaolai’s wife is remarkably unpossessive about her husband’s renewed contact with his ex-lover. In any case, Xiaolai himself has moved on. Long is still jealous, and it seems that while Fei feels guilt about his old friend’s injuries, he isn’t really sure what or who he wants for himself.

I feel like I should have enjoyed Moneyboys more than I actually did. I’m all for a good film about people on the margins of society, those who have been unfairly rejected. And yet, it is all just so slow. There are lots of scenes of people eating together, drinking tea together, buying clothes together, in scenes which I know are showing the awkward tensions of everyday life. Nonetheless, I just feel a little like I’m intruding into conversations which weren’t that interesting in the first place.

There is also something a little odd about boy-men in their early twenties getting all emotional about undying love, betrayal and desire. It’s as if the kids have been in the dressing-up box and are playing at being adults with grown up feelings. I’m sure these feelings are real and heartfelt, but I’m now a little too old to show much empathy. And when the guys get up and start singing love songs on the karaoke machine it just emphasizes that their lives are quite different to mine..

Still you’d have to have a heart of stone to begrudge the film’s final scene of Fei dancing in a club. There’s a group of them together on the dance floor, but he’s on his own, eyes half shut, mind preoccupied by the music. This is a film that is not scared of showing people having fun, being joyous. They may experience difficulties in gaining familial acceptance, but being gay does not mean that you have to live a permanent tragedy. These are people who enjoy life as best they can.

I see why I should like Moneyboys. The regular sex scenes do not feel exploitative or gratuitous, and the characters are allowed to emote … and maybe that’s my problem. The film is a little too emotional for me, a little too melancholy, a little too self-obsessed. I can’t quite like any of the characters, but equally they don’t impact on me enough to irritate. They’re just there on the scene, and a couple of hours later, they’re gone. It all just feels a little too insignificant.

But it looks great, and at least it’s trying something slightly new. I didn’t quite get on board, but that’s no reason for why you shouldn’t.

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