Dynamic duo

Top director and actress hope to rekindle past glory

Gong Li w

Cheers to that: Gong is once again working with Zhang Yimo

Actress Gong Li was paid as little as Rmb200 for her role in Red Sorghum. The 1987 film, directed by filmmaker Zhang Yimou –­ then little-known – was Gong’s debut role while still at film school. The film went on to win the Golden Bear Award at the Berlin Film Festival and propelled both the actress and the director to wider fame.

The duo then worked together on more than half a dozen films before parting ways in 1995. More than a decade later, they reunited for Curse of the Golden Flower (2007). And now they are working together again: in Zhang’s latest offering Coming Home, Gong stars with actor Chen Daoming, another long-time collaborator with the director.

Coming Home follows the story of an intellectual (Gong plays his wife) sent to a labour camp during the Cultural Revolution. The movie is an adaptation of The Criminal Lu Yanshi, a novel by Yan Geling, author of The Flowers of War, another book that Zhang took to cinema screens.

Film critic Hu Xingeng, who has seen a rough cut of Coming Home, is overwhelmingly positive about the movie. “Zhang Yimou unveiled China’s blockbuster era with his film Hero. But who would have thought that a decade later, when the country has become sick and tired of commercial films, it is Zhang who leads us back again to more art-house production,” he told media. “Coming Home’s soulful storytelling is simplicity at its best. Gong Li’s performance is also very impressive.”

But what’s surprising is that a film about the Cultural Revolution, still a taboo subject, was even made in the first place. In fact, the Yangtze Evening News reported that after seeing a rough cut of the movie, Mao Yu, deputy secretary of China’s film bureau, sang its praises, saying that it is on par with Black Coal, Thin Ice, which won this year’s top prize at the Berlin film festival (see WiC226). “The film deeply resonates with the audience. It is so thought provoking that it will prove to be the touchstone of the nation’s film industry,” Mao gushed.

Mao’s enthusiastic endorsement follows a separate announcement that Black Coal, Thin Ice had also got the green light from the censors and will show in cinemas from March 21. There had been concerns that it might not make it past the film bureau because the subject matter also deals with contemporary social issues (like corruption).

Might the recent moves signal a more relaxed approach to censorship? Some seem to think so. Last July the State General Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television said that it would no longer demand that filmmakers working on projects about “ordinary topics” need secure full script approvals before going into production.

Most filmmakers doubt that the the new (but vaguely worded) guideline will bring drastic changes to the industry, but they do agree that it is a move in the right direction.

“It is a signal that the censorship process is easing,” the director Gao Qunshu wrote on his weibo. Hong Kong director Peter Chan also thought it was a step forward: “It’s evident that there are gradual changes. Slowly, censorship is changing.”

But Feng Xiaogang, another directorial heavyweight, still isn’t satisfied with the new guidelines. Last week he again made a public call for more artistic freedom for the film industry. “Don’t make directors tremble with fear every day like [they’re] walking on thin ice,” Feng pleaded during the meeting of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).

Last year, the filmmaker called censorship a “torment” at the Chinese Film Directors Guild awards. Previously, he has also lashed out at regulators for their “ridiculous” oversight (see WiC120).

Feng’s frustration probably stems from personal experience. Both of his blockbuster hits Assembly (2007) and Aftershock (2010) had to be dramatically altered to meet the censors’ demands. In fact, Assembly was nearly banned as the Film Bureau thought that it glorified sacrifices in war.

“We don’t have a ‘film censorship law’; to kill a film or not depends on the examiners. Is their patriotism, political judgement and artistic taste better than ours, the directors?” Feng was quoted in the media as saying. “We, as directors, on the one hand have to rack our brains to cope with the authorities. On the other hand, we also need to ingratiate ourselves with [the] consensus. Exhausting!”

Encouraged by Feng’s outburst, the actor Jackie Chan, another member of the CPPCC, then lent his support.

“If a film is heavily censored, cutting out all the ‘sharp edges and corners’, its box office performance will suffer drastically,” Chan warned.

The comment is more surprising coming from Chan, who usually toes the party line. But the martial arts star said that he isn’t afraid of speaking his mind: “I know there’s a risk to saying this, but I don’t care now, because it seems normal that I speak inappropriately.” WiC would agree. Chan has a history of off-piste remarks (for example, wishing that there could be more tsunamis, see issue 214). But in this case he seems to be speaking more sense.

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