Lou Ye almost courts controversy. The Shanghai-born director has, so far, received two filmmaking bans (though during one he shot Spring Fever, with its graphic homosexual sex scenes, on the sly). Four of his six films have been outlawed domestically, yet he still took one to Cannes to the chagrin of the authorities. He is the first Chinese director to show full-frontal male and female nudity. And then there’s the flaming tank scene set in a certain Beijing square in the late 1980s in Summer Palace.

Given this colourful history, fans may be disappointed to see Lou tone it down for Mystery, his latest film, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last month. For Lou, the Croisette is familiar ground: 2006’sSummer Palace was in competition for the Palme D’Or, while Spring Fever(2009) won the award for best screenplay. In Mystery, Lou distances himself from politics (there’s still sex) with a plot revolving around marital betrayal and murder. The first film he has made in China post-ban, it looks set to get a cinema release here early next year.

Since Lou last filmed in China there have been some changes. ‘Commercially, the Chinese film market has improved tremendously, there has been great change in terms of scale and the diversity of cinema-goers,’ says Lou, ‘but film censorship is the same old beast.’

Lou believes that self-censorship, the default for many Chinese filmmakers vying for cinema release, is fatal. ‘Compared to directors in other parts of the world, Chinese directors face harsh problems,’ he says. ‘But shooting in your native land is an organic thing and it is ridiculous that directors are not able to do so freely in their own country. I believe China can’t stop a director from filming.’

Lou, now 47, grew up in Shanghai – a city that he calls ‘deep and rich’and which features in two of his films, Suzhou River and Purple Butterfly – before attending the Beijing Film Academy in the late ’80s. He graduated with the so-called Sixth Generation that includes Jia Zhangke and Wang Xiaoshuai (Lou cites Jia’s Pickpocket as one of his favourite films).

Being immersed in the Beijing student troubles of that period was ‘a kind of luck’, according to the director. ‘It was a god-given chance to be able to personally witness the change of an era,’ says Lou. ‘Not that I wish for turmoil. But having gone through such an experience helped me realise what it’s like to feel free and happy. It was important homework.’

The period also provided ample material for Summer Palace, Lou’s most notorious film (2000’s neo-noirSuzhou River is perhaps his most accomplished). In the film, a wide-eyed student leaves her hometown to study at ‘Beiqing University’ where she meets a fellow idealist and falls in love. The pair’s intense sexual awakening builds as student protests crackle in the background. Grand spiritual disillusionment follows the resulting crackdown.

Summer Palace is the film I always yearned to make,’ says Lou. ‘I had thought about it since I graduated in 1989. What happened then greatly impacted modern China as a whole. The opening of this film represents my personal experience, a bit like a documentary. Yet by 2006 [when he made it] a long period of time had passed so I had some distance.’ Not enough distance for the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, who banned the director from filming in China for five years following an illicit Cannes screening. Summer Palace, consequently, never got a China release.

But while outlawed, Lou kept himself busy, splitting his time between Paris and China. ‘I never thought of giving up making films in China,’ he says. ‘As it was a period where I was forbidden from making films, I didn’t have to submit my films for [censor] review, so I didn’t bother worrying if they would accept them. Spring Fever was my special experience of freedom within the industry.’

Spring Fever, about a homosexual love triangle, was shot surreptitiously in Nanjing using an inexpensive DV camera. Aesthetically, it looks like a home movie. ‘Though there were some worries including the fear the filming would be stopped, this became my first work with such special freedom. I found the entire creation process joyful,’ Lou says.

To cynics, Lou’s gravitation towards the most sensitive of Chinese subject matters panders to Western critics. Is that fair? Lou thinks not. ‘When you start shooting a film, it’s hard to think who the film is for,’ he says. ‘In my films, such as Summer Palace, I wish to relate the Chinese spirit of that particular era. I think an examination of such sensitive incidents should be done by a Chinese person. Just like exploring the May 1968 protest in Paris should be reserved for the French.’

Instead, Lou says, his films are concerned with reality. The dramatic nature of his subjects simply reflects his experiences living through tumultuous periods of history. ‘It’s difficult for me to make a film where I don’t develop deep empathy with my characters,’ he says. ‘Daily life is what all my films present.’

Additional reporting by Xia Keyu.


Link to Time Out Shanghai