Yang cuts 'Mountain' for Chinese approval

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CANNES -- Chinese director Li Yang is recutting "Blind Mountain," his second tragedy about the callousness of the human heart, in hopes that the feature will get Beijing's approval for distribution at home.

A thematic sequel to his critically acclaimed "Blind Shaft," "Blind Mountain" was cut in at least 20 places in several rounds of review by the Film Bureau in Beijing over the space of two months. Finally, it gained permission to travel to Cannes as an entry in Un Certain Regard.

"Every time it was submitted, new suggestions came back," Li, who will turn 49 this month, said in an interview. "It was very difficult to get permission to come here."

The film is set in the early 1990s, when China's economic reforms freed some of the population of 1.3 billion to focus on earning money. The plot follows a female student who is kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery in a poor village far from home. She is surround by strangers indifferent to her plight.

"Many people know that women are sold in China and know it's not right but continue to have the tendency to tolerate it," Li said.

After being asked by censors to cut, for instance, a scene of a girl infant who was discarded due to the premium put on male children in China's largely agricultural society, Li said he still is hopeful that the film's message will cause its audience to reflect.

"The film is less about actual poverty than it is about a blind area in people's hearts in China. It is a criticism of indifference," Li said.

Also left on the censor's cutting room floor was a line of dialogue that touched on the expense and corruption of the country's rural health care system, Li said.

Because of China's strict control of all media, maintained in the name of keeping social order in a country so large, Li said he knew when he made the film that he would have to shoot alternate endings.

China lacks a film ratings system, and censors don't publish their criteria for what's acceptable, causing Li to bemoan what he calls Beijing's "one film fits all" policy. In the version of "Blind Mountain" he's now preparing for a potential theatrical release in China, the police are successful in capturing the kidnapper.

Sitting in the sunny garden of an apartment on the Croisette, Li's black hair is graying at the temples. "It's still a tragedy," he said of his film. "The girl's life has been devastated irreversibly."

To cast the film's young star, Li scoured universities for a student who spoke the dialect of Southwest China's Sichuan Province before he found Huang Lu at the Beijing Film Academy, where she is due to graduate soon.

Li, who is the son of actor parents from the Central Chinese city of Xian, spent 14 years in Germany and studied film in Cologne. He financed "Blind Mountain" with €600,000 ($809,000) raised with the help of individual overseas Chinese investors who chose to keep their names out of the credits.

"There are no companies willing to put money into films that are socially critical," Li said.

Even if a further-censored version of "Blind Mountain" were to get the go-ahead from Beijing for theatrical release in China, there's a strong chance few people from economic strata of society depicted in the film would see it because of the high cost of a movie ticket.

Moreover, there is nothing to guarantee that Li wouldn't have to cut "Blind Mountain" again for home video release.

Last year, director Jiang Wen's controversial film about Japan's invasion of China before and during WWII, called "Devils on the Doorstep," was finally released on DVD in China after years of being banned. Its depiction of cruelty between Chinese and Japanese prisoners of war had for years scared off even DVD pirates from selling it. When it was released through a legitimate vendor, it was substantially cut.

"This is an indisputable reality," Li said about dealing with the censors at every stage. "I feel helpless."

Yet he is quick to point out that since the early 1990s there also has been positive change for those he refers to as society's subalterns, change in the form of lower agricultural taxes and the lowering of educational costs for the rural poor.

StudioCanal is handling sales for international and Japan and Alexandra Sun of Tang Splendour Films Ltd. in Hong Kong is handling sales into the rest of Asia.
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