By Julie Makinen
6:00 PM PDT, October 18, 2012
BEIJING — For most of the last two decades, director Lou Ye has angered Chinese authorities by making movies that touch on sensitive subjects like sex and politics and then by screening them at foreign festivals without official approval. He's had multiple films banned, and was barred for years from even practicing his craft.
His newest work, the dark melodrama "Mystery," looked like a chance for the 47-year-old to come in from the cold. Lou received approval from China's censorship body before screening his movie at the Cannes International Film Festival in May. After the festival, he registered the $2.6 million noirish tale, made with 20% French financial backing, as an official French-Chinese co-production.
But weeks before the mid-October opening of "Mystery" in Beijing, Chinese authorities told Lou to edit two scenes containing sex and violence. They also asked him, without explanation, to cancel the co-production agreement.
In China, the world's second-largest and fastest-growing movie market, friction between filmmakers and government regulators is a regular occurrence, yet often, the difficult back-and-forth takes place behind closed doors. This time, Lou took the fight public, posting documents online and blogging for weeks about each interaction and negotiation with authorities. The skirmish raises unsettling questions about Chinese officials' willingness to scuttle business deals and impose new censorship requirements, even after issuing approvals.
"This is the Chinese way. It's not good, but this is the way," Kristina Larsen, the French producer on "Mystery," said in a phone interview from Paris. "Basically in France, no one wants to go into co-productions with China — you have this different culture, and all the censorship. It's too complicated."
Over the years, Lou has suffered repeated censorship at home and enjoyed a growing reputation abroad. Officials from China's State Administration of Radio, Film and Television banned his first film, "Weekend Lover," for two years. His 2000 movie "Suzhou River" was also banned. "Summer Palace" — which chronicled a generation's political awakening and disillusionment amid the pro-democracy protests that led to the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown — was submitted to the Cannes festival without government approval in 2006, and afterward Lou was prohibited from filmmaking for five years. He defied the ban to make "Spring Fever," about a doomed gay affair, and the film won best screenplay at Cannes in 2009.
"Mystery" centers on a wife's discovery of her husband's affairs, and touches on some potentially sensitive subjects like the behavior of police. In his postings on Sina Weibo — the Twitter of China — Lou said officials had asked him to reduce the number of hammer blows in one bludgeoning scene from 13 to 2.
After two weeks of negotiations, Lou was able to declare a victory of sorts: He agreed only to darken the final three seconds of the bludgeoning sequence. And, to voice his displeasure, he said he would remove his name from the credits on the film — though it still appears on posters and other promotional materials. The film was scheduled to open in China on Friday.
"Mystery" was only the second official Chinese-French co-production since the two countries signed a treaty in April 2010, said Caroline Cor of France's National Center of Cinema and the Moving Image. Co-production status offers foreigners partnering with Chinese filmmakers certain advantages, such as an exemption from quotas on non-Chinese films.
Some foreign participants can also collect a higher share of the Chinese box office revenue than they would be entitled to if their film was considered an import. That has enticed a number of foreign filmmakers to seek to qualify their films as co-productions — though that was not the motivation in the case of "Mystery," Larsen said.
The recent Bruce Willis science-fiction film "Looper," which included scenes from China and featured a Chinese actress, was a co-production. Last year, Relativity Media rewrote its comedy "21 and Over" in the middle of production to justify shooting footage in China and qualify the movie as a co-production.
But with locally made movies losing ground to Hollywood blockbusters at the box office, Chinese officials have been more closely scrutinizing which movies can qualify for co-production status. In the first half of 2012, 65% of box office receipts in the country came from imported movies.
Chinese authorities have complained some co-productions had only token Chinese elements. "Mystery," however, is Chinese to its core. It was filmed in China, with Chinese actors, and in the Mandarin language. It is unclear why authorities wanted to declare it a purely Chinese production.
Zhang Xun, president of China Film Co-Production Corp., which oversees all co-productions in China, said she "wasn't familiar with the details" about "Mystery" and referred all questions to the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television. Although Larsen has been in frequent contact with Lou and his Chinese producer, she said it's unclear why Chinese authorities asked to cancel the agreement. Official inquiries by the French Embassy and France's National Cinema Center have yielded no response, she said.
If the agreement is scuttled, Larsen said there would be financial repercussions — at least on her end. In France, the movie would be ineligible for funds that could be awarded through the government to help defray distribution costs. It could also affect her ability to sell the film's TV rights. "Cancellation will affect our side more than the Chinese side," she said.
After ending his online war of words with officials last month, Lou wrote on his blog that he hoped China's censorship procedures would "become more transparent and eventually be canceled." He expressed support for adopting a movie rating system, which China currently lacks, and thanked fans for "paying attention."
"We are all responsible for this unreasonable movie censorship program," he wrote.
Tommy Yang in The Times Beijing bureau contributed to this report.
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