When Zhang Yuan
released East Palace, West Palace in 1996, its
bold exploration of the power play between a police
officer and a gay man set off alarms among China's highly
sensitive censors. Authorities confiscated his passport to
prevent him from promoting the film overseas, and the
movie was never shown on the mainland.
A decade later
state-run media lavished praise on the director's Little
Red Flowers -- a seemingly innocuous story
about a rebellious child at a kindergarten.
So now critics
are questioning whether China's former ''underground''
directors have compromised their artistic independence for
acknowledge they have, but they also say China's strict
censorship standards have loosened and that truly talented
filmmakers can still make critical films within the
also say finding an audience for their art-house movies in
a market dominated by commercial blockbusters is a bigger
problem than censorship. None of the more mainstream
films by former underground directors have become
major box-office draws.
''There are many
movies I want to make but I can't. Sometimes I think I'm
wasting my time,'' Zhang told the Associated Press recently,
saying that he tries to strike a balance between
expressing his ideas and pleasing censors.
''It's a very
difficult path to take,'' he said.
Li Yang, who
directed 2003's Blind Shaft -- a dark picture
about greed and illegal coal mines in China -- also
acknowledges caving to censors.
''How can you not
make compromises? It's impossible,'' said Li. Blind
Shaft, which garnered several international
awards, was never authorized for release in China, although
it's widely available on pirated DVD.
making some changes to his latest film, Blind
Mountain, about a young woman who's sold to a
farmer as a bride, so that it would pass the censors, but
declined to reveal the changes. Directors are required
to submit both their finished film and the entire
script to censors.
directors may be willing to compromise is that they yearn
for a connection with their home audience, said
director Li Yu, whose 2003 lesbian-themed film Fish
and Elephant was banned.
can understand 50% or 60% of what we're trying to say in
our movies -- China's cultural background, interpersonal
relationships, the difficulties that government
policies create -- that's quite good. But the people
who truly understand our movies are Chinese themselves,''
say, however, that they've been able to stand their ground
as China shifts away from treating movies as propaganda and
censors become flexible.
known for his stark portrayals of working-class struggles,
said he rejected two requested cuts to his 2006 movie
Still Life, set in a small town about to be
demolished to make way for the Three Gorges Dam, but was
still allowed to show it in China. The film, Jia's
sixth, was his first to be screened on the mainland.
Jia said his
newest movie, the documentary Useless, which
highlights China's gap between rich and poor by
juxtaposing the life of a fashion designer with
small-town tailors, cleared censors without any cuts.
''If you change
your fundamental principles about creativity and your
understanding of society for the sake of getting your movies
released, you might as well not make movies,'' Jia
Director Lou Ye,
once banned by the Chinese government, said censors are
more lax than 10 years ago, with fewer changes or cuts being
And Li Yu says
critical movies are feasible, but ''if you portray
negative things they have to be conquered by righteous
themes in the end.''
Li just went
through a difficult censorship process with Lost in
Beijing, a powerful movie about a foot-massage
parlor owner who rapes and impregnates an employee, then
pays her so that he can keep her baby. After heavy editing,
the film has been cleared but still hasn't been
Xiaoshuai, who made his China debut with his ninth movie,
says the bigger obstacle is marketing alternative films amid
the popularity of big-budgeted commercial epics.
Unlike the United States, China doesn't have a
separate art-house circuit.
There's also a
newer community of underground filmmakers who shoot
digital movies without government approval but don't meet
much interference from Chinese officials.
Du Haibin says he hasn't run into problems showing his
films at bookstores, bars, and university campuses.
''I'm used to
this way of working. What I appreciate the most about it is
the creative freedom,'' he said. (Min Lee, AP)