Li Yu, filmmaker


Li Yu has just emerged from an ordeal worthy of Alice in Wonderland. One of China's few up-and-coming women filmmakers, Li's says her third movie, "Lost in Beijing," tells the story of two families, one rich and one poor, thrust together in harsh circumstances in China's booming capital. Shining a light on class conflict and modern sexuality, "Lost" rocked the state's notoriously prudish censors. Li submitted the 112-minute original five times only to have censors ban it and then, after much lobbying with her producer, Fang Li, the censors reversed their decision in a rare compromise: go to Berlin, they said, but first cut 15 minutes. Due for its world premiere In Competition on Feb. 16, Li won't yet reveal which version of the film she will unveil. Has she bowed to the pressures of working in China, or will she share her art uncut, putting herself at serious risk of being blacklisted at home? Li Yu spoke with The Hollywood Reporter's Beijing bureau chief Jonathan Landreth.

The Hollywood Reporter: Your earlier films were recognized at Venice and Berlin. Can you describe your feelings about the importance of overseas recognition?
Li Yu: To me, the overseas recognition is just a good sign of my Chinese stories getting understood by the audience outside of China. I always feel happy being understood by the people in China and overseas.
THR: Your earlier films dealt with lesbianism and teenage pregnancy. Your new film "Lost in Beijing" is understood to be pretty sexual and has caused censors to ask for cuts. What's it like to work in a system that judges your art before it's finished?
Li: Of course we all love to have freedom to express ourselves as a film director, but I have to deal with the reality in my country. I feel bad when my film is forced to be cut. But I will feel good if we can make a step forward every time when we fight to get our new film approved. I have hope for China's future system.

THR: Are there changes to that system for the better or worse going on now?
Li: For sure, the system now is better than before. At the least, we can have communications with the Film Bureau at the script stage and in the finished film- reviewing process as well. We are looking forward to seeing a more open system and younger Evaluation Committee.

THR: Where did the story for "Lost in Beijing" come from?
Li: The story was initiated when Mr. Fang Li, my producer, and I were drinking coffee at a street side coffee stand in September 2005 at the Toronto International Film Festival presenting our then-new film "Dam Street." Looking at Toronto's city life, Fang and I suddenly started chatting about our city, Beijing, and we decided immediately to write a story about Beijing today.

THR: With urban China's new-found wealth, how are women dealing with the fast pace of change relative to men?
Li: In today's China, especially in more developed big cities, women have become freer due to their financial independence. But one of the biggest challenges they face is the increase of affairs happening for married men whose incomes are much higher and attractive to younger women who become "er nai," or the "second wife" or mistress.  There's more pressure on married women these days. More and more professional women are seeking the singles' life.

THR: Why is Berlin the right festival for "Lost in Beijing"?
Li: For two reasons: One, we finished shooting 27 days ahead of schedule, so Fang told me we may get the three-months post production work done in one and a half months. Two, I had very warm memories of the Berlinale from when I was there in 2002 in the Forum with my first film. The festival gave me a big cake when they heard I had to leave early, before I could be handed a small award for my film. I remember that cake in my life.

THR: How was filming with Tony Leung and Fan Bingbing, one an established star, the other an up-and-comer?
Li: Tony is a very experienced actor with an outstanding performance in "Lost in Beijing." He is very fast and can always understand what I want from him and can give it to me quick. Bingbing is a very smart and hard working young actress. She has great potential. I really enjoyed working with them both.

THR: You've been described as one of China's few rising female directors. How does that make you feel?
Li: Making films is already not easy in China. As a woman director, I just feel more pressure because many times people wonder about my experience and my ability to assert control.

THR: With Beijing about to be the focus of so much international attention because of the 2008 Olympics, it would seem to make sense to have changed the name of your film in English from 'Apple' (the translation of the Chinese title and the lead character's name). Was this your choice and what does your film tell us about China's capital today?
Li: To begin with, our new film "Ping Guo" ('Apple' in Chinese) always has been called "Lost in Beijing." Only after we submitted our script to the Film Bureau, were we told we couldn't use this name because of the sensitivity of the name of Beijing. We were forced to change the name in Chinese.

THR: Who wrote the script for this film? Please tell us about that process.
Li: My partner, Fang Li, and I wrote the script together. We created the story and we wrote the script together. The first name was "Life and Death in Beijing" and we changed the name to "Lost in Beijing" two months after we had the first draft.

THR: What books, films or other art did you consume recently that may have had an influence on "Lost in Beijing" and how?
Li: The big changes in Beijing, the dynamics of Beijing's life, multimillions of immigrants now living in Beijing -- these were the biggest influences on "Lost in Beijing."

THR: Please describe your next project.
Li: I will work with my partner Fang Li again on the next project. He and I have two or three stories on the line. We will decide which story goes first maybe by April.