Helmer risks much for his craft

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BEIJING -- Lou Ye was a student in love 17 years ago, when China's army gunned down an untold number of his peers.

Now a director, Lou has shot his fifth feature, the love story "Summer Palace," which borrows documentary footage captured around the 1989 massacre of democracy activists in Tiananmen Square.

"By the winter of 2004, I couldn't wait any longer," Lou says, sitting in his bare-bones office a stone's throw from some of the universities whose students were lost.

"My head was full of all the images and the lines from the script. It was like a traffic jam. I knew I had to shoot this film or I would never be able to shoot another," he says.

No stranger to trouble, the wiry chain-smoker with close-cropped hair, smiles wide. He ponders aloud his chances of escaping hot water for making -- and selling to Japan, South Korea and France -- a film that touches on events still officially deemed "a counterrevolutionary riot" by China's one-party Communist government.

The only Asian film in competition, "Summer Palace" went to Cannes this year without approval from censors in Beijing. Lou drew lots of attention (if only middling praise for his work) when he told reporters he was willing to cut the film for exhibition back home if the Film Bureau in Beijing only asked.

Before Cannes, censors told Lou they would not review "Summer Palace" because he gave them a bad print. An excuse, Lou says, given to avoid addressing the film's taboo content.

"They have to accept the rules they made. If we go to them to be judged, then they have to give a clear answer, yes or no," he says.

Willing to play by the rules at home, Lou will not abide Beijing blocking his work abroad.

"If 'Summer Palace' had a chance to be shown in Iran, then I would listen to censors in Iran. I believe that each territory has its own power but that each territory cannot influence the international market," he argues.

Beijing has created obstacles for the filmmaker before, such as in 2000, when Lou finished "Suzhou River." A letter from the government went out barring studios, labs -- anybody in the industry -- from working with Lou. Undaunted, he began preparing his next movie. A year and a half passed. Just when he was ready to begin shooting "Purple Butterfly," Lou was told to pay the Film Bureau $2,500 and a second letter went out, lifting the ban.

"Purple Butterfly" complete, Lou's troubles continued and spilled over into Japan. A distributor there pressured Lou to cut a depiction of the Japanese army's massacre of tens of thousands of Chinese at Nanjing and tack an apologetic proclamation onto the end of the film.

"I told them very politely that this was not asked for by any other country and I didn't want to do it for Japan," he says.

"Purple Butterfly" showed in Japan unaltered, which made Lou happy. "I completely understood why they wanted it cut though," he says.

Back from Cannes, Lou tried to resubmit "Summer Palace" but again was rebuffed by the Film Bureau. They were busy, he was told, with the Shanghai Film festival, which ended late last month.

"Things cannot go on like this for much longer," he says. "It's not only a problem for the system, but for the business and the market. For these reasons, it has to change."

Lou is busy preparing two new projects: one contemporary, one a science-fiction movie set in China 30 years from now.

"Being a Chinese director working in China I have to be optimistic. I have no choice," he says.
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