Li Yu's film "Lost In Beijing" traveled a hard road to this week's Berlin Film Festival, where it is competing for a Golden Bear. The director had to fully re-edit the work five times, making 53 changes and a 15-minute cut before China's film censors gave it the go-ahead to enter the competition. Li, whose film tells the story of a sexually charged relationship between a Beijing massage-parlor boss and one of his female employees, was forced to eliminate shots of dirty streets, prostitutes and gambling--as well as of the Chinese national flag and Tiananmen Square.
On the surface, it looked just like another example of Chinese film censors wielding their axes. But the fact that the filmmakers and censors were having a dialogue at all is actually more a sign of liberalization than of excessive government control. "Previously, a film like this would have had no room to negotiate," says "Lost in Beijing" producer Fang Li, head of the Beijing-based Laurel Films. "Now at least, [the censors] are willing to listen."
"Protégé," a hyperrealist film that explores heroin street culture, pushes the limits even further. Starring Daniel Wu as an undercover narcotics agent in Hong Kong's lucrative heroin trade, "Protégé" is a co-production between China, Hong Kong and Singapore; the film is opening this week in all three countries (and later this month across Asia). With its shots of beautiful poppy fields and disheveled junkies shooting up, the film never would have made the cut in China a few years ago. But through close collaboration, the film companies and the authorities worked it out. It's a mutually beneficial arrangement: filmmakers are willing to compromise for a chance to crack the huge Chinese market, and government officials have come to appreciate that such films can help bridge the cultural divide with the well-heeled Chinese diaspora.
Indeed, filmmakers are pointing to much improved relations with China's Film Bureau, which is willing to communicate with them at an earlier stage, giving suggestions and advice about what may be too risky. "The veil is being lifted," says Andre Morgan, whose Hong Kong-based company Morgan & Chan co-produced "Protégé." "Decisions are not just arbitrary; they're open to discussion. That's very refreshing and encouraging," he says, adding that in some other countries there's not even room to negotiate.
The shift started last summer, with the release of the low-budget caper-comedy "Crazy Stone." The film, about a bunch of thieves competing to steal a precious stone, broke barriers not only with scenes of corrupt local businessmen, unpaid factory workers and dirty squat toilets, but also by parading as pure entertainment, without the requisite social message expected from Chinese films. Then in January came the horror film "The Door" --a rarity in a country where ghosts and anything supernatural have long been considered taboo.
Still, certain sensitive subjects--such as sex, religion and poverty--remain off-limits. And filmmakers still must overcome the Evaluation Committee, which makes the final recommendation to the Film Bureau after viewing the finished film. Members of the committee share one common trait: they're old and conservative. "They're like grandparents selecting movies for their grandchildren to watch," says Fang.
Critics also worry about filmmakers' compromising their artistic vision to please the censors. But those who have run the gantlet believe it is worth the trouble. "I have conflicting feelings about the final product, but I'm happy the film will be shown here [in China]," Fang says. "To keep the door open, we need to communicate, even argue." And nobody benefits more from their bickering than China's moviegoers.