Unequal rights

China's femme helmers fight for more while distaff producers thrive

BEIJING — China’s late leader Mao Tse-tung was fond of quoting the traditional saying that “women hold up half the sky,” and despite his many failings, the Great Helmsman did a lot to foster women working in the film business by focusing on equality.

Yet the environment for femme filmmakers has become tougher as the old state-sponsored, quota-based system gives way to a freewheeling market approach.

“When China was a planned economy, there was a quota system for film directors, so there were always 20 or 30 women directors. Now it’s dropped to less than 10 in the market economy,” says Li Shaohong, who won plaudits for her visually amazing “Baober in Love” and is prepping the release of horror story/psychological thriller “The Door.”

Li is one of the few women among the post-Cultural Revolution “Fifth Generation” of helmers, and she believes that increased competition for film funding, combined with a very traditional, old-fashioned approach to how women are expected to behave in China, provides both creative challenges and cultural difficulties.

“My personal feeling is that as a woman directing films you can make fewer mistakes than a man. If a woman director

doesn’t make a film for two years, she’s forgotten, but a man can stop for 10 years and he’s still the master. You can’t compare with the male directors. It’s very easy for people to say no to a female director and it’s easier for men to get their films passed,” says Li.

“Maybe it has something to do with the culture. As a little girl you’re told you have to work hard or you’ll never get married, but boys are told to concentrate on their studies. A whole generation of women don’t think they can go first ahead of men,” she says.

Many of the problems facing women in the Chinese biz are familiar all over the world to filmmakers, particularly women trying to put projects together. Censorship is rife in China, which means there are constraints on what a woman may or may not work on. In the absence of traditional investment routes enjoyed in the West, such as film foundations or banks specializing in film investment, the situation can be challenging.

“The risks Chinese film directors take are much greater; you have to take the risk on board yourself,” says Li.

Beijing-based helmer Ning Ying is another of the select crew of top females in the Fifth Generation. She has made five features and numerous documentaries and is best known for her “Beijing Trilogy,” which show how traditional ways of life in the Chinese capital are disappearing.

Ning’s latest film, “Perpetual Motion,” explores female sexuality and gender politics. It caused a huge stir in China, with the censors making major cuts to the dialogue and references to sexual politics, but it also generated controversy for its bold revelations on how women view men.

Despite the waves of scandal and interest generated by Li and Ning, the headlines are dominated by male directors such as Zhang Yimou (“Hero,” “House of Flying Daggers”), Chen Kaige (“Farewell, My Concubine,” “The Promise”) and Feng Xiaogang (“The Banquet”).

Women may not hold up half the sky when it comes to helming pics, but they are the difference between success and failure when it comes to promotion of the biz.

In China, women tend to work behind the scenes in production, often as the partners of powerful helmers such as Chen Kaige — his partner Chen Hong was pivotal in getting “The Promise” to the screen.

Although their public profile is often low, some of the most powerful players in the Chinese biz are women, particularly in the much more sophisticated environment of Hong Kong. Three are making marks on the international scene:

  • Ellen Eliasoph, managing director of Warner China Film HG has focused on making high-quality, commercial movies for a Chinese audience, and has overseen a string of successes in recent months, chief among them “Crazy Stone” and the Sino-Finnish fantasy pic “Jade Warrior.”

  • Barbara Robinson, Sony Pictures senior production exec in China, is a legend in Chinese film circles and has transformed arthouse interest into major international B.O. by spotting the potential in Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” She will receive the 2006 Visionary Award at the CineAsia exhib convention in Beijing in early December.

  • Nansun Shi is executive director of her husband Tsui Hark’s Film Workshop and is widely recognized as one of the most important figures in the Hong Kong biz. As a member of Film Development Committee, she has done sterling work on developing the industry in Hong Kong from the regulatory and financing side.

As China’s burgeoning capitalism continues to grow and impact the world, women working in film hope attitudes may some day parallel those of the West, and maybe Mao’s invocation will come true.

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