In the movie, Lan Yu (藍宇 / 蓝宇 Lán Yǔ), played by Liu Ye, a poor architecture student from northern China desperately needed money. (According to the novel, he was about 16 or 17 years old and a virgin.) It is the late 1980s. Meeting an acquaintance, Li Zheng (Li Huatong), who suggested to Lan Yu that the youth turn to prostitution, supposedly for one night only, to remedy his financial situation. Naively, Lan Yu agreed. That night, he arrived at Li's bar and pool hall to meet his John. While there, Li introduced him to a successful businessman and international trader named Chen Handong (Hu Jun). (Li is also Chen Handong's lieutenant and one of the few people knowing of his sexual inclination.) Lan Yu is evidently smitten for he left with the older man rather than the man he was to meet. The night they spent together was not only a sexual, but also an emotional awakening, for the boy. While Lan Yu immediately fell in love with Chen Handong, the older man, who was very closeted, wanted no emotional relationship, only sex. He tried his best to avoid any attachment whatsoever with the youth, instead he showered Lan Yu with money and expensive gifts. His efforts to turn Lan Yu's love for him into a dependent, loveless relationship failed until Lan Yu discovered Chen in the middle of the seduction of a young college athlete. Crushed, Lan Yu left Chen's apartment. They would not meet again until 4 June 1989, when Chen went looking for Lan Yu, fearing for the youth's safety amid the army's Tiananmen Square crackdown. Finding Lan Yu dishevelled and distraught, the incident reunited the two and opened a new chapter in their relationship.
Lan Yu received positive reviews from critics, and won numerous awards in various movie festivals throughout Hong Kong and Taiwan, including Liu Ye's win for Best Actor at Taiwan's 38th Golden Horse Awards. It was also an official selection at many major film festivals, including the Sundanceand the 2001 Cannes Film Festival.