Cinema Love: A Novel

Image of Cinema Love: A Novel
Release Date: 
May 7, 2024
Reviewed by: 

“Jiaming Tang’s first novel is a beautiful meditation on love, loss, and the haunting power of the past.”

Jiaming Tang’s bittersweet novel, Cinema Love, follows a group of people from their youth in a Chinese village in 1980 to their middle-age in New York City’s dwindling Chinatown. The focus of their youthful experience and their later memories is a ramshackle movie theater, the only place in a cruelly repressive society “where a certain type of man could love.” The novel follows two men who met in that theater and two women whose lives were shaped by what happened there.

In the 1980s, two young men, Shun Er and Old Second, meet in the rundown Workers’ Cinema, which only survives on the patronage of closeted gay men. A crippled young woman, Bao Mei, works in the cinema because she thinks the ghost of her gay brother lingers over the place. When Shun Er’s wife, Yan Hua, comes to the cinema to look for her husband, Bao Mei stops her from going in. For Yan Hua, the cinema was “a place of betrayal. A place where wives were lied to.” Yan Hua will not be deterred from finding out her husband’s secret. When she does, she goes to the authorities, who already want to shut down the theater. The men who need the theater try to resist and are met with police brutality. Shun Er commits suicide.

These events remain imprinted on the minds of Bao Mei, Yan Hua, and Old Second who emigrate separately to Chinatown. Yan Hua has flown in, thanks to the reward money she received from town officials. On arrival, she enters into a loveless Green Card marriage with Frog. Bao Mei and Old Second, now husband and wife, have arrived by boat and face the humiliations and dangers of being illegal immigrants. Their marriage is one of sexless companionship. Old Second still seeks the brief joy of furtive sex with men.

The novel is a tale of two cities. Mawei, China, is a poor, repressive society where women are often abused by their husbands and gay boys are viciously punished by their families. Later the men suffer the abuse of the police. Marriage is obligatory, so the wives of gay men experience the shame of their husbands’ Infidelities with men. Chinatown is a place of filthy, overcrowded apartments, exploitation by employers, and racist attacks—hardly the American dream the immigrants hoped for.

In this ever-shrinking Manhattan neighborhood, eventually Yan Hua, the wife who never forgot her husband’s betrayal; Old Second, her husband’s lover; and Bao Mei, the woman who stopped Yan Hua from entering the cinema, converge. Each has been haunted by guilt and anger.

The male characters are upstaged by the emotional powerful women whose responses to their situations verge on the operatic. Their emotional lives have been shaped by the men’s erotic experiences at the Workers’ Cinema. Yan Hua lives with the anger and shame of her first husband’s betrayal. She also lives with the guilt of being partly responsible for his death. When Bao Mei realizes that her protection of the men in the cinema hurt and humiliated their wives, she engages in a self-inflicted imprisonment on her living room floor. Cinema Love is an exploration of these emotions. It is also a capsule history of the lives of Chinese immigrants over the past half-century.

What saves the two women is the act of writing, which becomes a way to heal their anger, guilt, and sense of loss. Bao Mei begins writing letters to men who frequented the Workers’ Cinema 40 years ago, letters that were “trying to recreate the love-feeling of the Workers’ Cinema.” She sees those letters as a mystical connection to her dead gay brother. Yun Hua will weave her own stories of the cinema that will imagine a happier life for her husband and Old Second.

Cinema Love is a gripping narrative with sharply drawn characters. Equally important, it is beautifully written. The novel jumps back and forth between contemporary Chinatown and the Mawei of the 1980s, which is still very much in the characters’ minds. Jiaming Tang’s language is richly metaphoric. For the wronged wife, Yun Hua, “the past, like tendrils around a beanpole, crept up her spine and into her neck.” A gay man who finally comes out declares, “Until now, I lived like one of those fish they sell on Canal Street. Trapped in a bag and drowning—yes, drowning—in its own filth.”

Jiaming Tang’s first novel is a beautiful meditation on love, loss, and the haunting power of the past.