Subscribe to the APA Newsletter
Since moving from CCTV to filmmaking, Li Yu has developed a reputation at home and abroad for her provocative narrative features about modern China. Her latest, Lost in Beijing, has been gathering steam from Berlin to New York City, and is on its way to becoming Li's international breakthrough.
The world seems to be an oyster for director Li Yu. The 31 year-old is a rising star in the mainland Chinese filmmaking world, stirring media buzz with three critically acclaimed works since 2001.
Conversing casually at the Tribeca Film Festival lounge, the soft-spoken young director says she has had to challenge many social and sexual barriers to reach her goals -- a personal quest not unlike those undertaken by the characters in her latest feature Lost in Beijing, which received an honorable mention for its screenplay at this year's festival.
As a female director, Li acknowledges that she continually has to confront the long-held prejudice within the male-dominated Chinese film industry that woman are merely pretty faces and can't make movies. Producers tried to persuade Li to act instead of toiling behind the camera. "Nobody would fund my projects, so I sold my house to make my first film," Li recalls. Her hard work paid off indeed. Li made her 2001 directorial debut with Fish and Elephant, which won the Elvira Notari prize at the Venice Film Festival. In 2005, her second picture Dam Street scooped up the C.I.C.A.E. award at Venice. Her latest offering, Lost in Beijing, was nominated for the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival before mounting its successful North American premiere at Tribeca.
Peppered with stark irony and witty humor, Lost in Beijing points out the absurdity of life in modern China. The film is based on a true story Li read in the local newspaper. Chinese actress Fan Bingbing plays a masseur named Liu Pingguo, who joins a cohort of young women from provincial cities seeking better job prospects in Beijing. At the Golden Basin Foot Massage Parlor, Liu rubs businessmen's feet and often succumbs to workplace harassment. Things take a surprising turn when the parlor's owner Lin Dong (Tony Leung Ka-fai) rapes the drunken Liu one day, while her window-cleaner husband Kun (Tong Dawei), half-suspended in the air, witnesses in shock outside. The cuckolded Kun threatens to take Lin to court, but to no avail. He then resorts to extort money from Lin's infertile wife Wang Mei (Elaine Jin).
Controversy swirled as the Chinese authorities failed to ban the sexually-explicit film from entering this year's Berlin Film Festival. Li concedes that for the mainland version, 15 minutes of Lost in Beijing were cut since the mainland Chinese censorship bureau forbids on-screen sex between older women and younger men (but not the reverse), as well as male nudity. Even shots of dirty water splashed in Beijing streets were deemed "unpleasant" in the eyes of the Chinese authorities. But international audience can enjoy the full, uncut version.
Li hopes audiences and critics can look deeper beyond the media hype over the sex scenes. "China is experiencing an economic miracle right now and everybody is busy making money. Sexual relationships are also relationships, right? The emotional void of its people needs to be fulfilled as well."
As a former news anchor for the mainland Chinese news giant China Central Television (CCTV), Li came across many riveting tales and interesting figures on the job, but she grew increasingly frustrated with the editorial censorship imposed upon her. "China has no real journalism; I was only a teleprompter reader," she says. Li reckons the best way to tell the truth and push the envelope is through documentary, the genre she engaged with at the start of her filmmaking career. "As a director, I am very aware of what's happening around me: the reality. I am more reflective of the present, trying figure out how people are caught up in the whirlwind of events," she says.
One such present reality concerns internal migration. None of the main characters in Lost in Beijing hail from Beijing -- they are sojourners from different parts of China trying to stake a fortune in the capital. They are literally lost in the city's conflicting new morality and are thrust together through chance circumstances. The tragicomedy has many poignant moments, especially when Lin unmasks his tough façade and faces his childlessness, and the two estranged women who eventually develop a special rapport for each other. By the film's end, Liu gathers the courage to take control of her life, offering the grim picture a solace of hope. "Many Chinese women are like Liu -- they just follow what other people are doing and let their men make the decisions for them. It could be a long and painful path until they are 'awakened' and become independent and free-thinking individuals," she says.
With skillful camerawork and a dramatic narrative, Li has pasted together a wonderful visual collage of the old and new Beijing, and chronicles the clashes between the upper class city dwellers and the underclass. The migrant workers clam inside the dilapidated quarters in hutong alleyways; meanwhile, money-obsessed bosses race through Beijing highways in their Mercedes-Benzes and reside in the glitzy news structures that have sprouted up in all corners of the city.
Fan and Leung deliver refreshing performances. A rising Chinese fashion queen who is best known for flaunting her face in glossies and for waltzing on runways, Fan embodies a pitiful and demure worker. Meanwhile, Hong Kong superstar Leung personifies the many repugnant and greedy Cantonese entrepreneurs who earn big bucks with their sprawling businesses in Beijing. It is surprising to learn that such emotionally rich performances stem from Li's single acting instruction: "to talk and walk like a human being."
The plot may sound bizarre and the characters' follies laughable, but Lost in Beijing illustrates the bleak reality many mainland Chinese have to wrestle with: how to navigate and adjust oneself in the new value system and social order taking root in China's hybrid socialist-market economy. "Modern Chinese people are more rational and smarter than their predecessors, but they have to come to terms with the fact that many things in life cannot be reconciled and balanced out so easily," says Li.
While action-packed Chinese costume dramas and dark social commentaries on rural China (most notably by Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, and Li Yang) win accolades and score commercial success around the world, Li believes audiences would be better served if they are exposed to more varied subject matter. "Chinese films should not be just about peasants in villages. I want to show the world the predicament of different people as they struggle to make a living in big cities like Beijing," she says.
The Beijinger says her hometown is a treasure trove for filmmakers. "There's an endless supply of good stories here. I'm always surprised by what goes on in the city. I want people to feel the pulse of Beijing undergoing sweeping changes. Foreigners can experience with us the new era through these films," she says.
Date Posted: 5/25/2007