China Indie Director Wins US Award, Lines Up Opera Mockumentary

Donald Li Minghang

Donald Li Minghang hopes his film about a faded opera style will get the green light.

SHANGHAI – Beijing-based writer and director Donald Li Minghang walked the halls at the 14th Shanghai International Film Festival on Sunday at a loss for who might buy his dark comedy Close Encounter of Mahjong.

Even as China’s domestic box office booms with big budget co-productions, Hollywood imports and homegrown films from a handful of non-state studios, independent Chinese filmmakers such as Li are finding themselves alienated by vague censorship rules and a lack of access to cash.

He admits he’d have a hard time selling Mahjong in China because gambling on screen has proven taboo with China’s film censors, but Li, who first met The Hollywood Reporter at the 13th SIFF last June, did have good news to report.

The film, which stars TV actor A Wei as a ruthless gambler trying to cheat a foreign visitor at the classic Chinese tile game mahjong, won the Indie Spirit Audience Choice Award for Best International Film in Colorado in April.

“The American audience laughed the whole way through. I never thought that could happen with a Chinese movie,” said Li, also pleased to report that after he handed a copy of his film to a Polish guest at the Beijing International Film Festival in March, he learned he’d given it to the head of the Warsaw International Film Festival. “He called to invite me to Poland!” exclaimed Li, who will visit that country in October with his film as an official selection.

“This film is a film for the foreign market, it’s not one that’s going to get distribution in China,” said Li, who shot the movie with less than $60,000 raised by a friend. “Everybody told me I should change the ending to have one of the gamblers turn out to be a cop who busts everybody to send a moral message, but I couldn’t do it,” Li said.

Next up, Li has chosen to work inside China’s vague system, where censorship rules often depend on who’s interpreting them. “This is so confusing to me.  There are no clear rules,” Li said, deciding this time to seek approval from the Film Bureau at each step of the way for his project tentatively titled Flying Heart.

A mockumentary he wrote and in which he’ll star with his 80-year-old father, Flying Heart is the story of two generations struggling to raise money for their art.  This one presents different challenges.

In the days of high-rolling investment into China’s movie infrastructure, where real estate groups and theater chains, some owned by the studios, are plowing millions into building more than four new screens per day, few exhibitors paying high rent for new multiplexes are willing to take a risk on any titles that seem remotely art house.

"As soon as they hear I’m making a movie about my dad the artist many say this project is dead,” said Li, who’ll persist, but with a plan.

His ammunition? Li’s father was a famous singer in the Chinese Geju theater tradition, the popular style in the 1950s and 60s as communism bloomed in China, which adopted Western opera’s sets and plot structure but told Chinese stories laced with state propaganda about model workers.

In fact, Li Xi, was a big star who played the lead in Xiao Er Hei Gets Married, one of the classics of the genre best known for The White Haired Girl. He played opposite Guo Lanying, an actress still considered a folk song heroine, and was friends with a screen villain of the same era, one Ge Cunzhuang, the father of one of China’s most famous present-day actors, Ge You.

“By the 1980s, when television started up in China, there was no more of this opera and my dad started to have to prove that he’d once been a great artist,” Li said. “Now I want to get all these old stars together and tell our story in a funny way, about their struggle to be remembered and my struggle to get my movies noticed.”