The great thing about a controversial film is that noise follows it everywhere. As I interview Li Yu, the director, and Fang Li, the co-writer and producer, of Lost in Beijing, the Chinese movie that won friends at the Berlin International Film Festival and should – those friends thought – have won the Golden Bear, the lobby of Berlin’s Marriott Hotel resounds with building noise.
Drills, hammers, muffled expletives. It must seem a home-from-home for Ms Li and Mr Fang, who come from a People’s Republic also under intensive reconstruction. That is the theme of their film, a comedy drama about relationships in today’s changing Beijing. So abrasively modern is the movie, in its tale of a massage-parlour boss who forces himself sexually on a young employee and then “buys” her baby with the aggrieved assent of her window-cleaner husband, that China’s Film Bureau imposed demands for 15 cuts.
The cuts were haggled over, long-distance, by Fang before he showed an unexpurgated version to festival-goers. There we were, goggling at sex scenes, at a subplot about a fired masseuse who becomes a prostitute and is killed (the main section pencilled for excision by the censors) and (another contentious segment) the episode in which the window-cleaner becomes the lover of his rival’s wife.
“The censors hated that,” says Fang. Adultery between a young man and older woman goes down badly, he says, with a committee composed of “retirement-age administrators and older filmmakers”. So it was less the movie’s actual sex, or even its subversive hints of institutional corruption (a hospital doctor changing the results of a DNA paternity test), that bothered the Film Bureau. It was, Li follows up, the fact that “the whole film’s mood is very dark and shows things about modern China they don’t want outside people to see”.
“There are a lot of things we wanted to present as a black comedy,” says the director, a petite, polite 33-year-old with glints of steel, “because relationships in China are changing so fast with economic growth that sometimes people don’t even realise they’re changing. We didn’t intend a political message, just to describe a real society.”
They do. The sex trade. The adoption market (although the filmmakers deny they are satirising the long-flourishing baby trade created by China’s penalisation of couples who have more than two children, in the country, or one in the cities). And rampant urban crime. Li’s background in documentary television influenced the film’s handheld immediacy of style: “It suits the story because we’re talking about a noisy, uncertain society where everything is in movement.” And Fang’s background as a scientist and businessman may have enhanced his forensic curiosity about a nation in flux. “Every time you pick up a newspaper today, it’s filled with scandals, crimes, murders. The crime rate in China is rising in direct ratio to economic growth, or possibly even faster.”
But China’s rulers do not want movies made on such matters. Their aversion has left its mark on film history: an entire group of Chinese directors, once dubbed the Fifth Generation (Chen Kaige of Farewell My Concubine, Zhang Yimou of Raise the Red Lantern and Hero), was famous – in Zhang’s case still is – for making films set in the past that often have encrypted messages about the present.
Today’s cautious increase in liberalism, says Li, allows filmmakers to tell stories about 21st-century China. But freedom is still monitored and in many cases punished. Directors can have their careers stopped if they overstep the mark, and the winning of top prizes at recent European festivals by two films with modern settings, Jia Zhang-ke’s Still Life at Venice and Wang Quan’an’s Tuya’s Marriage at Berlin, has not made politburo members dance in the streets. When I ask Li what a festival award would mean for her film, she says: “It would be a catastrophe. If the film wins a prize, the prime minister or someone on that level will want to see it himself to discover what the fuss is about.” And that would be bad? “Very bad.”
Fang says the biggest shadow over freedom, right now, is the 2007 Communist party national congress. “It’s a very important event. Everything must be made to look prosperous in the new China. Next year, when power structures are stabilised and new policies set in place, there will be more confidence and more tolerance.”
Li is less optimistic. Next year is the Beijing Olympic Games. More trouble for artists wanting to exercise liberty. “In 2008, too, they will want to present China in the best light. The government still wants to use the arts as a propaganda tool, to present the best image of the country to the outside world. They don’t want to show a real society. They don’t want people to see dirty streets, or to know there is prostitution in Beijing. It’s ridiculous. They are lying to themselves and to other people. China is becoming more free economically, but artistically, in terms of freedom of expression, it’s moving slowly or staying the same.”
Yet the outside world would be far more impressed, wouldn’t it, by a China boasting a free cinema and free culture than by a China continuing to pretend it has no crime, or no Aids, or no prostitution, when the whole world knows it has?
Li offers me a polite, tactful smile, but no reply.