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Lost in SARFT

April 5, 2009 Leave a comment

“I thought there would be some trouble, though not this bad. When I heard their decision, I couldn’t help a bitter smile. It was the same thing that happened to me in the past, the same thing that many directors have experienced. I bet even the official who made the announcement was bored.”

For someone who has been banned from making movies in China for five years, Lou Ye doesn’t really seem too bothered about the decision. For the director whose trademark is combining the discussion of politically sensitive subjects (at least in the mainland), being told off by SARFT is something of an occupational hazard. Weekend Lover, Suzhou River and Summer Palace, all of which have the career-killing combination of covering sensitive political topics with a hefty dose of nudity, have earned the director the dubious moniker of the enfant terrible of Chinese cinema.

Summer Palace, described as the most controversial film to come out of China for the last 50 years, and Ye shatter sexual and political taboos of Chinese cinema – mixing the political upheavals of 1989, both in Germany and in Beijing around an sexually charged, and very explicit plot( which includes for the first time in a Chinese film, full-frontal nudity of both flavors). Now, I know that any French readers, raised on a diet of Betty Blue and the Emmanuelle movies would drag deeply on a Gauloises, and give a slight shrug of bemusement, but trust me, in China, this is a big deal.

Despite having his career stolen from him by the Chinese censor, Lou is remarkably upbeat about the whole, going as far to say that “The political system is more flexible, the economy is growing fast and the relationship between people is more equal.”, he firmly believes that things in China are better than they ever were. He’s adamant that his films are not political, although he has a harder time trying to explain why there is so much sex and nudity in the movie, he says that “I don’t understand why the authorities are so sensitive about 1989. They shouldn’t worry about it. The facts are out there already. Analysis of those facts still requires a lot of work. But I’m not trying to make a comment. This movie is just a love story set against that background.”. Lou Ye is not alone is suffering the wrath of the Chinese censor, at the start of the year, Li Fang’s Lost in Beijing was edited, submitted, re-edited, resubmitted. None of the adjustments to the story were good enough for SARFT, and, even after 20 minutes of footage was cut for Chinese audiences, the film was still banned, and then Li was banned from making any more films in China for 2 years. Shot in a realistic, documentary style, similar to that of Eric Zonka (the wonderful The Dream Life of Angels), the movie follows the stories of a masseuse, her abusive boss, her husband and her boss’s wife.

Like Traninspotting, the first half of the movie is very funny, in fact, it’s almost farcical. After her friend gets fired from the foot massage parlor, they go out and get drunk on their lunch hour, Liu then returns to have a short nap in one of the massage rooms. Her boss discovers her, and halfway through the physical act, they are caught by Liu’s husband – who works as a window cleaner and was cleaning the wrong window at the right time to catch his wife and her boss at it on one of the beds. The plot thickens when Liu falls pregnant, and her boss makes a deal with the couple to unofficially adopt the baby – his wife is unable to bear children. The whole deal will depend on who the father of the child is.

The apathy that the film promotes, and the constant bombardment of unfinished apartment blocks, the squalor that Liu and her husband live in, is unavoidable, indeed the directorial style is such that the film grabs you but the throat and rams apathy and the emptiness of a city existence down it. Even something like Trainspotting had a message, and had some delightfully self-centered moments in it, but after watching Lost in Beijing, there’s nothing but the empty, dreadful feeling that we’re all going to die. The surprising thing about these two filmmakers is that they say they are both willing to edit their films so that they can be exhibited. Lou Ye says that while he’s willing, the Chinese negotiations with the Chinese authorities have broken down, the government isn’t interested in giving him a second chance: “I think the most fundamental reason is that they think movies are a form of politics. If that was their opinion 10 years ago, I could fully understand. But the reality today is not like that. In 2006, films are part of the entertainment industry.”.

Fang Li made over 50 cuts and reedits to Lost in Beijing in an attempt to appeased the government regulators, even then, after working with them in what the producer feels was total compliance, the film has been banned. The reason for ban was that the authorities believed that the producers were deliberately choosing themes that they knew were sensitive and controversial in order to pick up international accolades. That the directors have all engineered this to garner public sympathy from abroad to promote their movies to the lucrative western markets is the crux of the whole debacle. The “bleeding hearts and artists” of course will leap to the filmmakers defense, and champion Lou Ye for deciding to oppose the ban and team up with a Hong Kong writer to work on another movie. Fang Li and Lou Ye have repeatedly said that they have worked with SARFT in order to get distribution approval, after all there’s little point in making a movie if no one goes to see it. Lou Ye counters the accusations of sensationalizing the ban on on his film.”I feel that western critics don’t fully understand this film. They ignore a lot and focus only on Tienanmen and sex. But that is only a part of the story,” he says. “What is more important is what is going on inside the characters. This is a journey of the soul of a female Chinese intellectual. Such a trip could only happen here.” “I’ve never been antagonistic toward those official agencies. I’ve been feeling my way along. Where are the lines?”, asks Li.

Whereas SARFT may well approve the script for Summer Palace, they then ban the distribution of the movie because of the sex and the political tone of the movie. If the sex and political tone of the script was a problem, then it should have been rejected at the script approval stage, rather than wasting the time of an entire film production crew, actors and other creative talent that went into getting the film made. In contrast to the claims made by the film makers, the film banned not only because of the subject matter, but also because the film was technically below par for exhibition. The Beijing News reports that “the picture was too fuzzy, and the sound was too low.”, which would have caused some embarrassment to the Chinese people and government if anything less than a slick, well produce movies should ever appear in movie theaters around the world. “Lou Ye tried out some new artistic methods in this film, but the committee of censors judged it as not being up to technical standards. This struck a blow to the director, and he cannot accept this result at present,” so says producer Nai An. With Lost in Beijing, it’s a little different.

Obviously, Chinese cinema is a tool for exporting Chinese culture, and no-one wants to promote a culture that sees causal rape, child-selling and rapant sexual acrobatics when the Olympics is going to be held in your country in less than six months. The Hollywood Reporter was less than impressed with the movie, noting that audiences didn’t walk out of the movie because of the sex, degradation and generally crappiness of life in an Olympic city that is presented in the film, but that it was actually pretty boring. The bans of these two films, and the controversy generated thereof comes at a rather unfortunate time for Chinese movie fans. In December, an unofficial halt of the import and approval of American films came into effect. The ban was never announced in writing, but many suspect that it’s China’s reaction to the rather vitriolic complaints from the already rabid intellectual property rightists in the US. While the ban doesn’t seem to have originated from SARFT, “Enchanted,” “Bee Movie,”, “Stardust” and “Beowulf.” have all been locked out from Chinese exhibition. Things understandably came to a head following the comments of Susan Schwab, US Trade Representative at the World Trade Organization, who said “inadequate protection of intellectual property rights”. This was rather unfair as, on the 20th December, a Chinese court came down on Yahoo for deep-linking to MP3’s on it’s music search facility. IFPI applauded the rule, with John Kennedy saying that “The ruling against Yahoo China is extremely significant in clarifying copyright rules for Internet music services in China.”.

One of the problems with the censorship in China is that there is no definitive list of rules. For the Internet censorship there is no list of what sites are blocked and what sites are acceptable, websites are blocked and unblocked on an almost ad-hoc basis. During my research into the Internet blocking, courtesy of the Golden Shield project, I came across an interesting theory which postulates that it is that exact strategy that generates self-censorship in mainland China. Occasionally, people are reminded that censorship is in place, but it’s not always enforced. By making examples of individuals who do get caught, a reminder is sent that the government is watching.

While it’s written in the constitution of China that Chinese citizens enjoy freedom of speech and expression, there is an abundance of evidence that that is not the case. It’s true enough that other countries do censor films, my home country, the UK has one of the oldest and most controversial movie censoring bodies in the world. Countries where religion and politics meet also stringently scrub and cleanse media before the masses are allowed anywhere near it, the problem is that the Chinese government treats everyone the same, they make a decision and are so used to not having to explain the decision that everyone is left in the dark as to the reason why things work the way they work.

In October, when a group of Dutch marathon runners gathered to run around what had been promised as a tour of Beijing’s best and brightest “modern and historical” sites, they were, in actual fact, given a tour of Beijing’s wastelands – some of the buildings were so modern that they hadn’t been finished yet. The marathon date had been set at least one year in advance with all the participants. After running through mile after mile of highways and building sites, the runners only had one thing to say to the gathered press at the finish line: “We won’t be coming back.”. The reason for the sudden changes in the itinerary? The announcement, three weeks before the start of the marathon, of the biggest political event in the country, National Congress of the Communist Party of China.

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