Moneyboys is a Taiwanese movie that explores the world of gay sex workers. Although filmed in the country of Taiwan, the story is supposed to take place in China. The main character comes from an impoverished rural background. He escapes to the city and makes a living as a rentboy. His career comes with many challenges, including physical danger, emotional torment, and financial burdens.
Despite the stylish aesthetic and some meaningful commentary, I don't feel passionate about Moneyboys. There are several inspiring moments, but this gritty gay movie seems excessively melodramatic. The cynical narrative, cliched dialogue, and emotionally distant protagonist fail to connect with me.
Around 1 hour and 55 minutes
Sad and bittersweet
Yes, Moneyboys has gay romances.
Fei is a professional sex worker from China, also known as a moneyboy. He came from an impoverished rural village, where his mother and grandfather are in poor health. Fei uses his earnings to support his family financially. However, his parents and the rest of the villagers have traditional thinking. They disapprove of Fei's career. The only exception is Fei's older sister, sympathetic to her brother's situation.
Five years ago, Fei and Xiaolai had a romantic relationship. Xiaolai is also a sex worker at the top of his career. The two men lived together, enjoying domesticated bliss. However, Fei feels an urgency to make money, taking on risky clients despite his boyfriend's warnings. One of the clients left Fei severely battered. Xiaolai retaliates by attacking this client, but the fight ends terribly. Fei leaves his old life behind as the police search for Xiaolai's complicit accomplice.
The story jumps to five years later, and Fei is still a sex worker. He accepts various clients at a secluded house, where they would pay him for their sexual encounters. Some wealthy clients treat him well, like a sugar daddy. Others are dodgier, getting Fei into trouble. Fei doesn't know what happened to Xiaofei. According to his friends, there's an ex-moneyboy with a broken leg and abandoned by his boyfriend. This infamous figure now performs music in the streets. Fei doesn't admit to knowing this person.
Fei's friends are also sex workers. Recently, one of his friends Xiangdong has quit his career and gets married to a woman. Xiangdong used to date another sex worker, Guo Yong, who is devastated by his ex's decision. Apparently, it is common for money boys to quit their line of work after earning enough money. They get settled down with a woman to fit into society, like what Xiangdong has done.
Fei returns home after an unpleasant encounter with one of his clients. He reunites with Long, his neighbour and childhood friend from the village. Long is friendly and seems eager to catch up with him. Fei also reunites with the rest of his family. His grandfather's health is deteriorating rapidly. In addition, he receives a cold reception from his father. That night, their dinner turns hostile when Fei exchanges heated words with the other villagers. It becomes clear that Fei isn't welcomed by those living in his hometown.
Kai Ko (柯震東)
Fei is a professional sex worker from an impoverished rural town. After escaping to the city, he sleeps with various men in exchange for money. Fei uses his earnings to support his family, even though the people in his small town disapproves of his work. Fei has a cynical and pragmatic outlook towards life.
JC Lin (林哲熹)
Xiaolai is Fei's boyfriend. He is a sex worker who earns a decent living from his career. Xiaolai and Fei live together in an apartment, enjoying domesticated bliss as a couple. Xiaolai warns Fei to be careful about choosing his clients. However, his boyfriend is desperate for the money and doesn't listen to the advice.
Bai Yufan (白宇帆)
Long is Fei's childhood friend from his hometown. He left his village to find a job in the city, but returned home after achieving little success. Long gets reacquainted with Fei during his family visit. Long has a bright, outgoing, and playful personality. He is spontaneous and enjoys living in the moment.
Chloe Maayan (曾美慧孜)
Chloe Maayan (曾美慧孜)
Chloe Maayan (曾美慧孜)
Zach Lu (盧彥澤)
Daniel Chen (陳慕)
Daphne Low (劉倩妏)
Brando Huang (黃鐙輝)
Fu Lei (傅雷)
Tsai Ming Shiou (蔡明修)
- Fei's actor (Kai Ko) is a famous Taiwanese celebrity. He won the Best New Actor award in the 2011 Golden Horse Awards for his debut movie, You Are the Apple of My Eye. A decade later, Kai received another Golden Horse Awards nomination as the Best Actor for his role in Moneyboys.
- No, I didn't make a mistake posting the same actress three times. Chloe Maayan portrays three different characters throughout the movie. Her roles include Fei's sister, Lulu, and Li Yu.
- You may have recognized Xiangdong's actor (Zach Lu) from the 2018 BL series History 2: Crossing the Line.
Movie Review Score: 6.5
I have a mixed review of Moneyboys. The good news is I didn't hate the movie, but the bad news is I didn't love it either. To be honest, I'm unable to muster passion either way. While a few moments are genuinely compelling, I feel detached for most of the film. I only have a muted response to the excessive melodrama, tiresome conflicts, and cliched writing. Despite its artistic merits, Moneyboys fails to move me emotionally with the gloomy narrative.
The main character doesn't appeal to me. Fei is a standoffish protagonist who buries himself deep beneath a cold demeanour. He hardly shows any personality, enthusiasm, or vulnerability. Although Fei faces sympathetic circumstances, it's tough to care about him as an individual. He remains an enigma, primarily defined by his sex worker identity. Fei sits inside that house all day doing what exactly? We never know. How did he survive before starting this line of work? What does Fei aspire to do after his retirement? We never know.
The gay relationships are depicted cynically. Fei has sexual encounters with numerous suitors, but they're commercial transactions with unpleasant outcomes. His character gets beaten, arrested, and fetishized on various occasions. Fei is involved with two significant romances, both unsatisfying in different ways. The movie doesn't focus enough on Xiaolai, a poorly developed love interest with vague motivations. Even though Long receives better characterization, Fei's treatment of him is patronizing. You'll have trouble championing Fei with either man.
Moneyboys excels in elegant cinematography. Each scene is brimming with exquisite style and thoughtfully composed artistry. This movie has a distinctive appearance, using medium & long shots to capture the picturesque backgrounds. However, this technique runs into limitations since it puts distance between the viewers and the characters, decreasing the intimacy. Some moments could've benefited from close-up shots to highlight the emotions better. Also, the static visuals force us to focus on the dialogue, which is fairly mundane.
Kai Ko has a big responsibility as the lead, but he does a respectable job carrying the movie with quiet dignity. His character becomes affectionate with many men, and each physical exchange is portrayed convincingly. His handsomeness is also an incredible asset, elevating the steamy moments based on his good looks. The actor secured a Golden Horse Awards nomination for his role in Moneyboys, receiving much praise due to the final scene. I'm not sure if his performance is on an award-winning level, but this film is certainly a solid showcase of his talents.
Moneyboys was panned by reviewers in Taiwan. Many couldn't overlook the regional inaccuracies of masquerading Taiwanese landscapes as generic Chinese places. The movie also faced criticisms over inconsistent local dialects from the cast. Initially, the director wanted to film in China, but the country's brutal censorship over gay content forced him to relocate. Regardless of the whereabouts, Moneyboys is an underwhelming product. The narrative tries to offer poignant commentary about sex workers, but the mediocre storytelling diminishes its thematic messages.
Moneyboys tries offering meaningful commentary about gay sex workers. However, the themes don't connect with me emotionally due to the cliched writing and excessive melodrama.
The movie has a few steamy romantic encounters, although nothing explicit is shown. Overall, it has a cynical view on relationships between gay men, signifying they are unhappy and doomed to fail.
Fei's actor (Kai Ko) gives a respectable performance with quiet dignity. His character portrays the various sexual encounters intimately and persuasively.
The final scene in the movie delivers powerful symbolism, representing Fei's liberation. I wouldn't interpret the open ending as too happy or too sad.
Moneyboys is beautifully filmed with distinctive style and thoughtful scene composition. This movie uses many medium and long shots to capture an artistic atmosphere.
Moneyboys is a stylish movie with solid acting performances. However, it underwhelms me with lacklustre characterizations, jaded romances, and a gloomy narrative.
Moneyboys Movie Explained
I had trouble liking Moneyboys from the get-go. A dark and gritty movie about sex workers isn't my cup of tea. The premise feels dated, like something seen in gay cinema years ago. There's Bishonen in 1998, Lan Yu in 2001, plus many Western films covering the same narrative. Decades later, Moneyboys is another reiteration of a familiar formula.
I went into Moneyboys with an open mind, knowing that stories about gay hustling remain relevant today. However, I'm not fond of this niche because the plots often follow similar trajectories. The lead character goes through a series of anonymous sex with the occasional violence, drugs, or sexual diseases. Sorry for the broad generalizations, but these topics don't inspire me after watching them dozens of times. Am I really in the mood for a movie along the same lines?
Although Moneyboys was filmed in Taiwan, the movie's setting takes place in a nondescript Chinese region. Initially, the director C.B. Yi planned to film in China instead. Yet, the country's ruthless censorship crackdown on gay content made his plans impossible, forcing him to relocate elsewhere. The location is an enormous elephant in the room, featuring a lot of geopolitical dissonance. For a story that is supposed to happen in China, we have:
- A subject matter that is banned in China.
- A lead actor who has been blacklisted in China.
- And filmed in a country facing hostile tensions from China.
Many reviewers in Taiwan have criticized Moneyboys, unable to overlook the embarrassing regional and linguistic inaccuracies. The movie has distinctive Taiwanese landmarks and local dialects, but it unsuccessfully tries to pass off these characteristics as Chinese. You pretend the story takes place in a different country, but you don't do a good enough job concealing the cultural discrepancies. The questionable optics, the poor immersion, and the weak authenticity are scrutinized by these moviegoers.
However, the director faced a tough dilemma. He wanted to highlight the Chinese gay community, whose voices are stifled by the homophobic government. Yet, it's impossible to produce a LGBT movie in China under the current political climate. The director was forced to compromise and moved the entire production to another country, which couldn't be an easy undertaking. He must've faced many challenges in his filming process. Nonetheless, he persisted to tell the stories of a highly marginalized group in China. This determination is admirable.
Fei and Xiaolai
The Fei and Xiaolai relationship isn't conveyed skillfully in Moneyboys. Xiaolai only appears in the beginning for a short time, goes missing throughout the middle, and emerges again near the end. We don't spend enough time with his character. He was supposed to play a significant part in Fei's life. Yet, we know so little about Xiaolai's background, personality, or relationship with Fei. Moneyboys has failed to develop a compelling love interest.
When Fei met Xiaolai near the end, their reunion didn't feel impactful. We're barely acquainted with Xiaolai, who has gone missing for too long. Worst of all, his character doesn't even receive that much focus in the final act. Fei seemingly spends more time interacting with Xiaolai's wife than Xiaolai. Xiaolai's limited screentime isn't meaningful either, and his scenes reveal very little about himself.
The lack of character development for Xiaolai undermines the central romance in Moneyboys. Maybe the movie should've spent more time establishing his character at the start. Give us more relationship scenes other than singing karaoke and a quick romp in the bedroom. Or perhaps the film could've reintroduced Xiaolai earlier, giving us more substantial interactions between the leads. Either way, Xiaolai desperately needed extra screentime to make his romance with Fei engaging.
Fei and Long
By comparison, Moneyboys does a much better job developing Long's character. He was properly introduced, showcased his distinct personality, and went through a fleshed-out journey. Long also has plenty of interactions with Fei, going through ups and downs in their rocky relationship. In fact, the movie focuses on Fei and Long so much that their bond completely eclipses Fei and Xiaolai.
Yet, Fei and Long's scenes together don't feel that romantic. Their dynamic consists of Long throwing himself at Fei, who acts bored and barely responds. Evidently, one of them loves the other person more, creating an imbalance in their rapport. Fei's interactions seem patronizing at times, treating Long like a burden. It's like, "Ugh, this guy from my village is annoying me." or "Ugh, now he's stealing my client." I never get the impression that Fei likes Long adoringly, a sentiment that amplifies once Xiaolai reappears near the end.
I wasn't surprised when Fei and Long broke up, going their separate ways. Their drastic differences in personality and priorities made them an incompatible couple. However, I was annoyed we spent a long time establishing Long's bond with Fei when they weren't even endgame. If these two weren't going to be the final couple, we didn't need that much emphasis on their relationship. Make their scenes more concise. Fei's other love interest, Xiaolai, could have used some of that screentime instead.
Guo Yong and Xiangdong
Moneyboys features a minor romantic subplot between the two supporting characters, Guo Yong and Xiangdong. Basically, these two former lovers are feuding since Xiangdong abandons his gay lover to marry a woman instead. Their relationship draws parallels to many gay men who settle down in heterosexual marriages to fit into society.
To be honest, this storyline feels cliched and melodramatic. The confrontation at the wedding is embarrassing. The dinner scene where Xiangdong cries leaves me cringing. It doesn't help we barely know the two characters, solely defined by the relationship drama. Guo Yong and Xiangdong only exist because the filmmaker wants to make a statement about gay men in straight marriages. While I understand the social commentary, the movie isn't very graceful in executing its messages.
Kai Ko is a polarizing Taiwanese celebrity with a controversial career. I think the public opinion of him is pretty divided. His acting skills have both admirers and detractors. Personally, I think he delivers a solid performance in Moneyboys, demonstrating restrained yet dignified emotions. He's also involved in many male-on-male encounters, comfortable enough to tackle those scenes convincingly. Plus, Kai really does have leading-man good looks, the type of handsomeness that makes you understand why he's famous.
In addition, Long's actor (Bai Yufan) does an impressive job in this movie. He's buoyant and charismatic, translating this energy splendidly on screen. He brings lots of enthusiasm to his portrayal. I also think it's pretty daring for a young Chinese actor to take on high-profile LGBT projects in recent years. I bet many other actors would be advised to turn down this sensitive role, fearing the uncertain repercussions to their careers in China. It shouldn't be this way, but sadly that is the reality for countries ruled by oppressive governments.
Moneyboys makes a unique casting decision, which you may or may not have noticed. The same actress (Chloe Maayan) portrays three different characters throughout the movie, changing her appearance dramatically with each role. To be honest, I don't think this detail has a significant impact. However, it's a quirky piece of information to mention in the trivia section!
Moneyboys is a stylish movie, packed with atmospheric visuals. Every scene is thoughtfully composed, experimenting with different camera placements and lighting arrangements. The storyteller consciously films the movie using medium & long shots, observing the characters from a noticeable distance. It forces you to pay more attention to the surroundings, ambiance, and dynamics between the characters.
Fei's character is closed off about his emotions. However, you can see how he feels by observing his body language and positioning in a scene. Around friends, he sits nearby, talks openly, and behaves comfortably. Around strangers, he stands away, sulks sullenly, and avoids intimate interactions. I really like this cinematic technique, although it runs into some limitations. Everything appears too distant, making it harder to connect with the characters or resonate with their emotions. The artistic vision looks elegant, but perhaps it's a bit impractical.
Moneyboys Ending Explained
Moneyboys has an ambiguous ending where Fei's future is left in the balance. He reunites with his ex-boyfriend Xiaolai near the end of the film. However, Xiaolai's new life is drastically different nowadays. He has quit his moneyboy career, gotten married, and settled down with a family. Fei feels indebted to his ex-boyfriend, who got arrested and lost mobility in his leg after the assault from years ago. Fei understands his actions have caused Xiaolai's life to take an unexpected trajectory.
Surprisingly, Xiaolai's wife is open-minded about her husband's past. She actively encourages Fei and Xiaolai to pursue their romantic connection. The heterosexual family unit is only a facade, and she accepts the two men still have feelings for each other. The wife doesn't mind if Fei moves in with their family. As Fei entertains the idea, Long is jealous and thinks this living arrangement is preposterous. Long wants a future with just the two of them. When Fei remains non-committed about a relationship, Long decides to leave him.
Xiaolai and Fei's final interaction takes place without any dialogue. They meet on a bridge, coming face-to-face. As Fei draws on a cigarette, Xiaolai removes it from his hand and takes a smoke. It's an intimate gesture, signifying that Xiaolai longs for a connection with his former lover. The two meet make eye contact silently. It's clear they still love each other, but we don't know the status of their relationship. Does Fei move in with Xiaolai's family, hiding as a secret lover? Or does he continue his career as a moneyboy, living alone now that Fei left him?
The final scene shows Fei sitting in his house by himself. The doorbell suddenly rings, but he ignores the noise and doesn't react. This doorbell is symbolic of urgency, demanding Fei to make a decision about his life. Does he stay or does he go?
- He could go answer the door, uncertain of what awaits him. In other words, Fei could go live with Xiaolai's family, even though he doesn't know how that unusual arrangement will work out for him.
- Alternatively, he could remain in his current position and not answer the door. In other words, Fei continues his career as a moneyboy and not go anywhere. He would be comfortable with his independence, yet feel miserable about his loneliness.
Moneyboys doesn't provide a conclusive ending about Fei's decision. We never find out whether he goes to live with Xiaolai or continues his career as a moneyboy. Instead, the movie cuts to an earlier scene of Fei and Long dancing in the club. You'll remember this moment because it's one of the only times Fei seemed happy and relaxed. The ending shows a lengthier version of the scene, where Fei danced merrily without inhibition. As per Long's advice, Fei enjoyed himself and lived in the moment instead of worrying about his circumstances.
Moneyboys references this scene in the ending to illustrate Fei's enlightened mindset. His character spent the entire film going through the motions apathetically. Now that he's on the cusp of a significant life decision, Fei reminisces one of his happiest moments in recent memory. As Fei danced the night away, he was liberated from his worries. He should apply that same positive energy to the rest of his life. Whether he goes with Xiaolai or continues to live independently, Fei has developed an important mantra. Just enjoy the moment and do what makes him happy.