Few people have annoyed China’s censors as much as Lou Ye. The controversial film-maker has tackled a series of taboo subjects in domestic cinema – sex and politics, among them – and has been banned from making films on several occasions. As his relationship with the regulators worsened, Lou even opted for exile from the country at one point.
Lou first incurred official displeasure with his first film, 1995’s Weekend Lover, which follows the lives of a group of dissatisfied young people in Shanghai. Perhaps because of its bleak view of youth culture, the film was never released in China.
Undeterred, Lou took his second film Suzhou River to the International Film Festival Rotterdam in 2000. But he did so without seeking consent from SARFT, the industry regulator. As punishment, Lou was banned from filmmaking for two years.
After the ban, Lou then made Summer Palace, described by critics as one of the most controversial films to come out of China in the past 50 years. The film follows a female student over a 15-year period, from her home in a northeastern province to Beijing University. Lou was in controversial form once more, including scenes of full-frontal nudity.
More confrontationally still, Summer Palace touched on the student protest movement that erupted in 1989, a taboo subject. Presumably sensing the likely outcome if he stuck to the rules, Lou took the movie to the Cannes Film Festival, again without the permission of the authorities. This time he was barred from his profession for a five-year period.
Yet Lou did anything but lie low. Still technically banned, the director secretly filmed Spring Fever, a love story with a gay theme. He smuggled it out of China and it went on to become a surprise winner of a Cannes screenplay award.
Knowing that he had sailed too close to the wind in China, Lou then moved to France for three years and made two films there.
But after his ban was lifted once more, the director sought to mend some fences – on his own terms, as far as possible. His new film Mystery was released last week to Chinese audiences.
Mystery avoids politics but tells the story of a housewife (played by Hao Lei) who discovers that her husband has been cheating on her with the mother of her daughter’s schoolfriend.
Still, it wouldn’t be Lou if there wasn’t a little controversy surrounding his latest production. And this time around it stemmed from the filmmaker using his personal weibo to document SARFT’s censorship process.
Early on, Lou wrote: “I’m waiting for an answer: can the film be released on time without any changes, yes or no? The answer is so simple but so difficult – [the process] makes me feel disappointed and sad, but I also feel a sense of understanding and support… I just want a dialogue [with the authorities] and a dialogue is not a confrontation. There are no winners and losers in a dialogue. There are no enemies.”
Nonetheless, the authorities insisted on cutting some of the material. To show his defiance, Lou decided to give up his directing credit as a sign of protest.
“I made my mind up when the censors were making the edits. It was a very personal decision. Even though I ultimately accepted the de cisions of the censors, for me, as a director, I should have the final editing right. I spent over eight months studying every frame in the film before editing. And now you tell me you have to make even more changes to my film. I just don’t feel comfortable. Of course, you can say I’m being too sensitive. But I am sensitive. When it comes to my work as a director, I am very sensitive!” Lou told Sina Entertainment.
Judging from some of the comments online, many are supportive of Lou’s move, even if he seems to have adopted a more accommodating stance towards SARFT’s directives than in the past.
“At the end of the day, you get old and die whether you stay true to your principles or compromise on them,” one weibo user wrote.
Others appreciated Lou’s enduring rebelliousness. “It’s not just the film censorship system; in other areas too, our lack of resistance allows such an unreasonable system to continue to exist. We have to shoulder the responsibility to eliminate the system instead of finding excuses for our lack of resistance. Lou Ye, I support you. I love your movies,” another of his fans applauded.
In the meantime, Lou appears to be happy that his work is finally being shown in his home country. “To not have a film shown in China for such a long time – for any filmmaker – is very regrettable,” Lou admitted.
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