Many directors who have faced as much censorship as Li Yu would have hung up their hats: Her third feature, the social drama "Lost in Beijing," had to drop sexually explicit scenes and key plot lines. Its release was delayed several times. And, finally, about a month after hitting theaters in November 2007, censors pulled it altogether and banned producer Fang Li for two years.
Three years later, though, the 36-year-old filmmaker has managed to rehabilitate herself with Chinese film censors and produce an art-house hit she says stays true to her artistic vision.
The 17 million Chinese yuan ($2.6 million) youth drama "Buddha Mountain" has brought in 80 million yuan ($12.3 million) in mainland China since its release on March 4 _ an impressive figure for a low-budget, non-mainstream production in a market dominated by star-studded costume dramas and kung fu epics.
There has also been critical acclaim for the movie filled with soulful, meditative scenes reminiscent of the Hong Kong master of mood-building, Wong Kar-wai. One six-minute sequence simply pairs Peyman Yazdanian's synthesizer soundtrack with carefree images of the three lead characters loitering on a coasting train carriage.
"Everyone says it's spring time for art-house movies. I hope from now on all movies with a human spirit can achieve good results," Li told The Associated Press on Wednesday as she promoted the movie in Hong Kong, where the film will be released on May 5.
Li said, with "Buddha Mountain," she has finally figured out a way to preserve her integrity and get her work past Chinese censors and reach her home audience.
"As a director in China, I must move beyond a sense of resignation. I need to find a balance. You just use different ways to express what you want to express. ... It's a process of hiding your criticism. But the criticism, the most pointed criticism, is still there," Li said.
The censorship process for "Buddha Mountain" was not completely trouble-free. Set in the southwestern city Chengdu, the movie follows the relationship between three working-class youngsters and a grieving mother who lost her son to a car crash. Fan Bingbing _ one of China's top stars and recipient of the best actress prize at the Tokyo International Film Festival last year _ plays one of the youngsters while veteran Taiwanese star Sylvia Chang plays the mother.
For starters, Li had to revamp her plot. She originally wanted to make a movie about young people who sabotaged rail lines _ but censors thought it was too radical. She also toned down foul language and took out a urine-drinking scene and a scene where the characters block the demolition of a home. Land disputes have become a major flash point in a country undergoing a massive development drive.
"We had the history from 'Lost in Beijing.' ... We had to erase our stigma and convince the censors that I'm not a dangerous director. So I did a lot of work and communicated with them," Li said. "I also conveyed my sincerity that I want domestic audiences to see my movies, that I don't want to make underground movies any more."
Still, there were certain victories. Censors left in a scene where Fan's character forcibly kisses a woman who is part of a posse that stole money from her friend. They also left untouched a heated scene at a night club and the apparent suicide of Chang's character at the end of the movie _ a somewhat pessimistic ending for censors looking for "ethically inspiring" fare _ the term often used by Chinese officials that critics deride as code for propaganda.
Li said she was helped by the lobbying efforts of one censor impressed with her willingness to work with the board.
On the surface, China's strict censorship is motivated by the lack of a ratings system. All movies must be cleared for audiences of all ages. But critics say the absence of clear ratings standards allow censors to block politically questionable content at will.
Li bemoaned a lack of consistency.
While filmmakers in other countries are governed by explicit guidelines, "our decisions are made by people, so the standards are sometimes loose, sometimes tight," Li said. She said there was clampdown in the aftermath of "Lost in Beijing," a biting social criticism that examined the fallout from a foot massage parlor owner's rape of an employee, but now censors have become more tolerant.
While Li managed to find middle ground with Chinese censors this time, she is also wary of self-censorship. Now working on the script for her next movie, a suspense thriller, she has caught herself wondering whether certain plot details will pass censorship.
"I don't want to let my self-censorship conquer my creative impulses," Li said. "Otherwise there is no point in making movies."