Li Yu may be the only woman making money by directing films in China but she’s sick of the ‘China’s female director’ label. When asked about it, she feels numb. ‘No one cares what the label says if the wine is good,’ she says, in characteristically metaphorical fashion.
So far, her films have achieved a decent vintage. Li, 38, has produced some of the most successful arthouse Chinese films of the last decade, for which she has won a slew of awards. She also has Fan Bingbing on speed dial, after working on three films with the actor. The first, Lost in Beijing
(2007), premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival and won Li a cult reputation for being a bit of a badass, due to the inclusion of some censor-baiting nude scenes. In 2010 Buddha Mountain
won the best actress and best artistic contribution awards. It also did surprisingly well at the Chinese box office, securing 72 million RMB, a substantial amount in a territory that doesn’t typically reward indie fare.
With Double Xposure
, though, Li pitches closer to the mainstream. Set in Beijing, the film is a psychological thriller about a young cosmetic surgeon Song Qi (Fan) whose childhood trauma has led her to create multiple personalities. One of these selves may have killed her best friend Zhou Xiao Xi (Huo Siyan) in a fit of jealous rage after Song discovers she is having an affair with her boyfriend, Liu Dong (Feng Shaofeng). Though human relationships and rich characterisation are still central to the plot (as they are in her previous works), this time Li says her latest film uses a more conventional narrative structure.
is superior to Buddha Mountain
, if you compare the intensity and complexity of the story,’ she claims. ‘I want to discuss how people cope with their desires, and how they control them. Chinese people sometimes have difficulty showing affection and their emotions can become trapped. I’m one such person, so what really fascinates me is looking at how to express them, how love is revealed.’
The search for meaning in the modern world is another theme visited by Li. In Buddha Mountain
, a grieving mother teaches a group of rebellious youngsters some lessons on living, just as they teach her to re-embrace the world.
Li believes the manifestation of internal conflict affects the fabric of a culture; that through introspection modern Chinese society can be better understood. ‘Double Xposure
tries to perceive the truth about our times, through a young woman who is longing for change,’ Li says. ‘Through this story, audiences will perceive the sense of loss and seeking for meaning that contemporary people face, as well as their hunger for love. Psychology is always a favourite topic,’ she adds.
Such close scrutiny of the human soul requires dexterous acting. Li is often credited with bringing out the ‘best’ of Fan, who has appeared in some of the biggest Chinese films in the last five years (The Founding of a Republic, Sacrifice, Sophie’s Revenge
). It appears to be a relationship of mutual benefit: Fan is often decorated with best actress awards for roles in Li’s films. ‘We grew together, building mutual trust gradually,’ says Li. ‘For this film, the protagonist needs to portray complex emotion. The audience needs to touch her soul through a fleeting expression in her eyes. When I was writing the script [Fan] just appeared in my mind.
] has been the hardest one to make for both of us,’ Li adds. ‘I don’t know what kind of exchange we will have in the future, but we are on the road, and we can discover more from each other.’
Li draws further creative inspiration from her partnership with Fang Li, an independent producer, who has co-written many Li Yu scripts (including Double Xposure
). Their creative process, as Li puts it, is to have an ongoing conversation occasionally yielding flashes of genius – and the odd row. ‘We become clearer about our goal and expectations after lots of quarrels,’ Li says. ‘But when I eventually enter that “flow” state, writing becomes effortless. I am not usually even conscious my fingers are typing. I finished the first Double Xposure draft in two weeks.’
This time, Li has managed to avoid upsetting the censors. She first attracted official interference with Lost in Beijing
, which tackles rape and irked censors with its below-the-neck action. Authorities banned the film. Buddha Mountain
encountered difficulty, too. Li says that some things needed to be deleted, and the current edition is not the one she wanted to release. ‘I would describe it as a weak cup of tea,’ she says, breaking again into metaphor, ‘it has some flavour, but wasn’t allowed to brew.’
Though Double Xposure
keeps its distance from sensitive topics, Li is happier with it than with her earlier work. She is looking forward to seeing it in the cinema. ‘The most satisfying moment is not when people tell you they like it,’ she says. ‘It’s when they critique it. Then I feel they have really understood what the film wants to say.’ Double Xposure
is currently on general release.