Fifth generation director Li Shaohong’s career has spanned the entire length of the Chinese film market’s rise, from its days as a state-run industry churning out nothing but social realist films to its current stage of supporting ever more sophisticated and lucrative blockbusters and genre films. The current head of the China Film Directors’ Guild, she spoke to Variety about her latest project, the war film “Liberation,” which was pulled from China’s national day period of films, and her drama “A City Called Macau.” 

Li’s drive as a filmmaker is to “stick as close to life as possible,” she said.

“It’s not just a single cataclysmic war or event that can change a country — the process of rapid change over the past 30, 40 years has been just as upending. People my age really have gone through every stage of that development, and have experienced so much. This makes me interested in realism.”

She says tried to bring a chronicler’s attention to her film “A City Called Macau,” which is set to screen as a special presentation at the International Film Festival and Awards Macao and helped mark the 20th anniversary of Macau’s 1999 return to Chinese sovereignty.

“The film is about the recent decades of economic reform, about Chinese people suddenly having money and not knowing how to spend it or come to terms with it, both emotionally and literally in their lives,” she said. “It’s all about how individuals face the ups and downs in their lives, how someone who was nobody can become a high-powered leader, and then a gambler, and how those rises and falls either destroy you or help you grow.”

Her interest in the story of individuals grappling with big changes also led her to direct the $14.2 million (RMB100 million) war film “Liberation,” which was originally scheduled to release in October as a tribute to the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic, but was pushed back without explanation. It is now scheduled as a New Year’s film, set to release on December 29.

The film appears to have been rebranded as a rescue film, with a new Chinese title that now translates to “Liberation: Finally Rescued,” and a different, more uplifting poster that looks up at soldiers whose silhouettes reveal a shining Communist star.

This October’s National Day holiday saw the biggest slate to-date of what in China are called ‘main melody’ films — patriotic movies that tend to depict historic military battles or the lives and accomplishments of Communist Party leaders. While most this year were quite heavy on the politics, Li told Variety in an interview before the cancellation that hers leaned more genre.

She’d chosen to take on the project because it was about ordinary people against the backdrop of big historical change. “It’s a different angle from the other films that are all from the perspective of the leaders and officials. I thought it would be more interesting and better suited to a genre film.”

But as it was her first war film, she didn’t have the self-assurance to do it alone, she said. 

“I thought shooting a war film might be dangerous. And because I hadn’t done it before, I was worried I wouldn’t do it well, or that it wouldn’t look realistic enough, so I thought it’d be a bit too bold to direct it myself,” she explained. She pulled in Chang Xiaoyang, who’s been an assistant director on films such as 2007’s “Mongol” and Zhang Yimou’s “Hero,” as her co-director. “I chose a male director with experience shooting war scenes, and only after creating such a structure did I have the confidence to take it on.”

While she imagines that “Liberation” won’t necessarily stand up to American or Korean war films, she hoped it will at least stand out against other Chinese takes on the genre as the first Chinese war film unfolding in an urban setting.

“The hardest thing about shooting urban war films is the architecture. You can’t entirely depend on CGI and effects; you have to have some real sets, which have to look right but also be able to be destroyed,” she said. Much of it was shot at the Hengdian World Studios, where she halted construction on an outdoor set of the Shanghai Bund they were building and turned it into 1940s Tianjin.

In Li’s assessment, Chinese war films have lagged behind because of a lack of technical know-how, but now the genre is “developing very quickly” thanks to collaborations with Western firms. London-based Double Negative did all the effects for “Liberation,” marking the first time the company has done a full Chinese feature film, though it did a portion of the effects on Huayi Brothers’ war epic “The Eight Hundred” as well, she said.

That film was abruptly cancelled and pulled from the summer theatrical line-up, presumably over censorship issues. Li declined to comment on the film’s future prospects, but praised its production values, noting that they spent two or three years just building out the sets.

Li’s career has spanned the entire breadth of the development of China’s film industry. She began working out of the state-run Beijing Film Studio at a time before the country underwent capitalist reforms. Her film

The Chinese film industry has come a long way from where it was when Li began her career out of the state-run Beijing Film Studio, at a time before the country underwent capitalist reforms. Her 1995 film “Blush” was a landmark: after it won that year’s Silver Bear for outstanding single achievement at Berlin, it came home to become country’s first ever film to have a theatrical box office divided between producers and the distributor.

They’d shot it for RMB2.5 million ($380,000 at current exchange rates), and it made RMB28 million ($3.95 million in today’s money). Before reform and opening, she’d had “no real concept of money or where it came from.” Suddenly, everything was changing. “It was mind-blowing. At the time those figures just blew us away – we couldn’t believe the money. It showed everyone the potential of the box office financial model.”