Hong Kong Filmart: Asian Film Awards Best Film Winner Lou Ye (Q&A)

Lou Ye - H 2013
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The mainland Chinese director talks about how he deals with censors, seeing a silver lining in his tussle with red tape, and the relevance of a story about the blind leading the sighted into the light.

The day before flying into Hong Kong to attend the Asian Film Awards, Lou Ye was in Hangzhou to receive a director of the year award at an independent film festival. "And they showed Mystery too," he told The Hollywood Reporter hours before he was honored with a best film prize for the thriller, which is about the horrific fallout of an extra-marital affair. "And then they had the audacity of presenting me that award. They are really something, those people."

Then again, Lou Ye is no longer the blacklisted troublemaker the mainland Chinese authorities used to brand him as. His first film, Weekend Lover, sat in limbo for two years before getting a release; he was twice banned from making films – in 2001 and then 2006 – as punishment for bringing films to the Rotterdam and Cannes festivals without getting official clearance.

When censors approved Mystery to be shown at Cannes last year, it became his first officially endorsed production since 2003’s Purple Butterfly. But six weeks before the film’s domestic release in October, the censors called Lou again and demanded another round of censoring, eventually issuing a demand that he reduce the number of blows the main character lands on someone in an assault.

Lou refused, and after intense discussion, he reached an agreement with the officials by fading the scene to black three seconds before it ends. Dismayed by this late demand for changes, the director took his name off the credits – though he still travels to promote the film (and receive awards) when it tours the festival circuit.

The Hollywood Reporter: Since the film debuted at Cannes, a lot of things have happened – what do you think of this latest struggle against the system?

Lou Ye: It’s quite a struggle, given it’s just over a few seconds of the film. But still I thought it’s worth it – because it’s through this exchange with the authorities that I realized these days you can engage in a conversation with them. They are willing to discuss things with you – there’s some bother in there, but I think it’s a pleasant experience overall. And it’s not just me: I think my producers and the Film Bureau thought so, too. This episode showed it’s not a big deal – we can just talk it over.

THR: Do you think changes will be afoot now that the transition of power has finally concluded?

Lou: I do hope there will be changes, and I have seen some changes – such as how the Film Bureau is to be merged into another department. But things are just beginning.

THR: What are the major results you think you achieved from these exchanges?

Lou: The film was released in cinemas at the end of the day – so for me, personally, it’s a change and a sign of changes in the way the censorship system works. When the film could still be shown in cinemas after I refused their directives after the second censorship process, it’s progress for both [me and the officials]. Not a big step, yes, but still some changes.

THR: When we met at Cannes last year, you talked about how civilized the censorship system is now, compared to the treatment you got in 2006 for bringing Summer Palace to Cannes without permission.

Lou: You can communicate with them now, you can bring to the table all the questions and problems you have and try to work out a solution with each other. Sure, I wish I didn’t have to have this conversation with them about these changes – and it’s something I regret of having to do – but still it’s a good thing. I would credit to the way both parties have tried very hard to find a way out.

THR: Have you already wrapped the shoot for your latest film Massage? Why were you interested in adapting Bi Feiyu’s novel in the first place?

Lou: I have completed most of the shooting. I have been close friends with Bi, and after reading the published novel, I think it suits me, the characters in it. In the book, Bi discussed the daily lives of all these blind masseurs and how they deal with the darkness they are in … I asked him once why he wrote this book and he didn’t offer me a direct answer. Instead, he told me this story about how he was leaving one of these massage parlors and there was this blackout. And it’s actually one of the blind workers who led him out of the building. They were very familiar with the surroundings because they had to go in and out for work. And this is the image I have: a person who can see being led into the light by a blind person. It’s something which carries a lot of meaning and it’s something I totally agree.

THR: So the story has been approved by the censors and all that?

Lou: The book itself won an award when it came out, so there shouldn’t be a problem. And the screenplay went through the censors, so there shouldn’t be a problem. Well, at least that’s what I hope.