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'Red Light' seeks a revolution

Sexually-charged indie film challenges censorship

BEIJING –- “Red Light Revolution,” an independent comedy about a laid-off Beijing cab driver who opens a marital aids shop to make ends meet, illustrates the ironic difficulty of portraying on screen a frank discussion of sex in the world’s most populous nation.

Melbourne-born and Beijing-raised writer-director Sam Voutas, said he made his “first film with a budget,” in the hope that it would get a theatrical release in China, where gray government guidelines limit the portrayal of sexual activities on film.

At a time when China’s boxoffice is booming and moviegoers are demanding greater variety from an industry that plays to the middle because the lack of film ratings, Beijing’s leaders appear set on promoting media that is in synch with their own views of “harmonious society.”

Filmmakers who wish to capture modern Chinese city life as it actually is, with humans being human -- swearing, procreating and hustling to get ahead -- face a challenge if they wish their work to be seen.

So Voutas, 31, and his partner-producer Melanie Ansley, a half-Chinese Canadian reared in Shanghai, knew that in order to make “Red Light” ring true as a Mandarin-language film they’d have to shoot it following a well-worn indie path: sans government approval and with an eye on foreign film festivals as a means to exposure.

In “Red Light,” Shunzi, played by Zhao Jun -- a Chinese Jack Black in manner and shape -- is frequently foul-mouthed, is seen suction-cupping a rubber male prosthetic to his forehead and selling both condoms to minors and an anti-impotence drink to the elderly.

“One Chinese producer we saw who had a connection to SARFT suggested we set the movie in a tea shop,” said Ansley, referring to the State Administration of Radio Film and Television, with Voutas chiming in: “But nobody wants to see a film about a tea shop and I wanted to make a commercial movie.”

Voutas is convinced Chinese would want to see his movie about an everyman of sorts in a city where there are now more than 2,000 licensed sex shops -- up from just one in 1994, Ansley said -- and restaurants selling virility soup made from deer antler or tiger penis.

Although there is no nudity in “Red Light,” and Shunzi’s clothed arousal is twice blocked from view by an intertitle announcing “This Shot Has Been Deleted,” the film, also starring Vivid Wang as Shunzi’s business partner Lili, still might offend censors whose rules bar films from “promoting obsceneness” and “depicting scenes of prurience.”

SARFT’s Jan. 2008 rules followed quickly on the heels of the blacklisting of actress Tang Wei for her steamy performance in director Ang Lee’s “Lust Caution,” and the cutting of 20 minutes of so-called “porn” from the theatrically-released version of “Lost in Beijing” starring Fan Bingbing.

 “If I felt there was no hope of getting ‘Red Light’ screened here I wouldn’t be trying to work with Chinese companies,” said Voutas. “Sex toys have been used since imperial times. Nothing we’re discussing in the film is illegal these days, it’s just not talked about on screen.”

China is the world's largest producer of sex toys.

Voutas points to the last example of a China-made film he can think of that tried to tackle the modern day sex lives of 1.3 billion people: “Two Stupid Eggs,” a Chinese version of Pablo Berger’s “Torremolinos 73.”

Although director Agan’s 2007 “Eggs” was about a sexually estranged Chinese couple that turns to making sexual education films to pay the bills, it relied too heavily on innuendo, Voutas said. In the Spanish original, the lead characters turn to making porn films, a practice illegal in China.

Voutas, who plays an adult toys mogul in “Red Light,” researched the film at Shanghai’s annual Adult Care Expo, where there are no adult films for sale and a little-visited booth where white lab coat-wearing health experts waited to discuss dysfunction.

At the Sexpo, Voutas and Ansley convinced sex toy makers such as Beijing-based Orange Net -- whose online catalog is among the largest of its kind in China -- to donate some of their products.

With such in-kind investment, Voutas was able to stretch a limited budget to pay and house cast and crew during a 27-day shoot on a RED 4K digital camera in locations around the capital, including the well-known alternative music club D-22 in the university district.

Voutas, Ansley and executive producer Jane Zheng (“Gasp”) are submitting “Red Light” to film festivals around the world in the hope that overseas exposure will convince a Chinese partner to take a risk on distributing a version here, even if it has to be cleaned up.