BEIJING — Europe has a tradition of providing sanctuary to emigre helmers, banned in their East Bloc home countries and forced to ply their trade in exile in Paris, Berlin or London.
Similarly, Chinese helmers have moved to Europe to continue making movies after being banned at home, but the situation is complex and even contradictory.
Chinese directors, without exception, remain fiercely proud of their Chinese heritage, no matter how draconian the ban, but are willing to explore cooperation and co-production models with Europeans.
Some of China’s most gifted directors have had bans slapped on them.
Zhang Yimou was once barred for his early movies, though he has been clasped to the official bosom for nationalistic epics such as “Hero.”
Tian Zhuangzhuang was banned for 10 years in 1992 when his “Blue Kite” offended the Chinese authorities for being too critical of the effects of the Cultural Revolution.
Jiang Wen, whose latest pic “The Sun Also Rises” screened at Venice and Toronto and is due to open shortly in China, was banned for five years for “Devils on the Doorstep” because it seemed to sympathize with the Japanese position during World War II.
Among those who have turned to Europe for assistance and artistic inspiration is Lou Ye, who was muzzled for five years after he screened “Summer Palace” at Cannes last year before it was approved by government censors.
A love story set against the backdrop of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, “Summer Palace” was banned for its explicit sex scenes while also earning a five-year ban for producer Nai An. The protests remain a thorny issue with the Chinese authorities, who still condemn them as “counterrevolutionary.”
This was Lou’s second ban — he was prohibited from filmmaking for two years in 2000 for producing “Suzhou River” without official approval.
In conversation, Lou talks of his love of China and his need to make movies in China. Making movies in Europe is an option for him, and he’s certainly interested in European funding models, but he says, “I am Chinese. I want to make Chinese movies.”
At the same time, the international dimension is strong in his work, he says, and he and his screenwriter wife Lin Yi have strong links to Germany and France. Lou shot many sections of “Summer Palace” in Potsdam, outside Berlin.
The pic is a joint production between Dreamfactory and Laurel in China and European partners Rosem Films in France and Flying Moon Filmproduktion, with support from France’s Fonds Sud subsidy pool.
Li Yu’s “Lost in Beijing” caused quite a stir when this exploration of the urban-rural divide unspooled uncensored at Berlin, and it looks likely to be banned in China, too. The movie has decidedly European sensibilities, which translates in some quarters of China’s Film Bureau as having a lot of nudity.
The pic’s release has already been delayed until after a major Communist Party congress in mid-October.
“Everything has to be peaceful and harmonious before the congress,” says producer Fang Li, who was also involved in raising coin for “Summer Palace.”
A Chinese director schooled in Germany who has also come in for official censure back home is Li Yang. Li’s first feature, “Blind Shaft,” was a remarkable piece of filmmaking, telling a bleak story of migrant workers in the coal industry. It won a Silver Bear at Berlin in 2003.
Li Yang has made Europe his home and has lived in Germany for 14 years.
The 48-year-old, a former actor with the China Youth Arts Theatre, was born in the northern city of Xi’an to an acting family. He studied film directing in Beijing and Cologne, Germany, where he worked as a TV camera operator and uses his own money and private funding to pay for his movies.
“But I’m still a Chinese director. The films I shoot are about China, and I understand the real situation at the lowest level of society,” he says. Li’s “Blind Mountain,” which screened at Cannes, is also awaiting approval once the party congress is over.
One way in which Europe has supported Chinese filmmakers over the years has been with kudos and awards at film fests, which are like oxygen to a banned pic as they bring an international spotlight to bear and secure a better run on the absolutely essential arthouse circuit.
During his banning, Zhang won the Golden Bear for “Red Sorghum” at Berlin in 1988 and the Silver Bear for “The Road Home” in 2000 as well as the Golden Lion for “The Story of Qiu Ju” at Venice in 1992 and for “Not One Less” in 1999. Chen Kaige won the Palme d’Or for “Farewell, My Concubine” at the Cannes fest in 1993.
Jiang’s “Devils on the Doorstep” won the Grand Prize at Cannes in 2000, but was not screened in China. It proved very popular in Europe.