Director Zhang Wei on the Challenges of Making China’s First Transgender-themed Film

Chinese entrepreneur-turned-director Zhang Wei is becoming known for naturalistic portrayals of the marginalised in China’s rapidly changing society, including “Factory Boss,” about a factory owner who desperately takes on low margin jobs from Western conglomerates to keep his business afloat, and “Destiny” (“Xi He”) the tale of an autistic boy’s struggle to get an education. “Boss” won the best actor prize for actor Yao Anlian at the 2014 Montreal World Film Festival.

Zhang has just announced that he will shoot what is being touted as the first feature film from his country focussing on the difficulties of transgender people there. Titled “Rib,” it will depict a teen born into a devoutly Christian family in the Zhejiang province whose mother becomes deeply destabilised when she discovers he wants to transition from male to female, according to a statement. In the ensuing conflict they overcome their differences and both face the rife prejudice against the local underground LGBT community.

Transgender issues are increasingly surfacing in China. The country’s first transgender job discrimination case was widely reported earlier this month. Being transgender is still classified as a mental illness in the country. But there are also reportedly indications of slowly shifting attitudes. These include the country’s most famous sexologist, Li Yinhe, announcing last year that her longtime husband was born female – and underlining that she considers herself heterosexual – and the stellar success of male-to-female transsexual dancer Jin Xing on mainstream TV.

While attending the Far East Festival in Udine, Italy, Zhang Wei (pictured) spoke to Variety about the challenges of treading new cinematic ground in China’s censored but changing film industry.

Your film “Destiny” depicts the difficulties of a family contending with autism in the city of Shenzhen, which is a symbol of the Chinese economic miracle. What drew you to the subject matter?

I was inspired by several news items published in 2012; I was really touched by them. But that aside, in all my movies I try to explore fate, or “Destiny,” as the film is titled. In this film there is a mother of a mildly autistic child who also has an acutely autistic brother, so she cannot escape the destiny of her family’s DNA. There are things we have no control over, and autism is one of them.

Have there been any other movies about autism made in China?

Yes, there is one made in 2010 titled “Ocean Heaven” [starring martial arts superstar Jet Li as a terminally ill father grooming his autistic son to survive on his own] but the angle in “Destiny” is completely different.

Just like “Destiny,” “Rib” will be loosely based on true events. How did you get the idea for your upcoming transgender-themed film?

Actually all of my films are based on news items about social issues. I read an article about a young person in the Zhejian province who wanted to change their gender while growing up in a devoutly Christian family. I found that very inspiring. As an artist, as a film director, I depict contemporary Chinese society in my films. But I want to underline that any society has social problems; no society is perfect or spotless. In my films I’ve chosen to represent this aspect of society, but I have hope and always show love [for my country]. I’m tackling these problems in a patriotic way.

On that note, what can you tell me about how you are contending with censorship in China? In the press release announcing “Rib” you were quoted as saying you were grateful to have obtained permission to shoot the film.

I have no comment on that for the moment. I may have more to reveal in the future when the film starts shooting. With “Destiny” the government carefully examined the movie and has allowed it to be released without any cuts, at least for now.

You were also quoted as saying you are determined to make this movie “despite any roadblocks I might face.” 

Yes, no matter what, I will make this movie. I’m not sure when, but it will get done.

Have you done research in the transgender and LGBT community in Zhejiang province?

Yes, I have been doing interviews. I’ve been doing my homework for quite some time, but I’ve got more to do.

U.S.-based NGO Asia Catalyst estimates there are 4 million trangender people in China and says they face severe discrimination. What are some of the difficulties they are facing?

I don’t want to comment on that because I haven’t finished doing my research. But I can tell you that on my creative team there are people who are transgender and people who are Christian. We want to make the script as real as possible.

Will “Rib” be the first feature film to tackle the transgender theme in China?

Yes. I ventured into untapped business territories as an entrepreneur, and now I also want to do new things and embrace new challenges in my artistic career.

You are a business man who later in life decided to become a filmmaker. Why?

I always wanted to become a film director but I didn’t have any money, so I had to become a business man first.

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