Saturday, May 22, 2010

Reflecting on a Changing Society: Interview with Judge director Liu Jie

 In my last post I wrote about Li Jie's film Judge (Touxi), which recently appeared at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, and is currently screening in Beijing as part of BC MOMA's “Young Chinese Filmmakers” showcase.

Last weekend (Saturday, May 15) I was able to interview Liu Jie (pictured left at last year's Venice Film Festival) in Kubrick Cafe, next to the BC MOMA cinema, and ask the director about how he was able to get a film dealing with such touchy topics approved for mainland China.

It's interesting to compare Liu's attitude to that of some other local filmmakers. Although his answers are fairly cautious he seems to believe the situation vis-a-vis censorship in China is improving and that officialdom is becoming more reasonable in dealing with artists. In contrast, Zhao Dayong (director of Ghost Town and The High Life), was quoted in The New York Times last year as saying that submitting a film for approval in China was like "asking to be raped."

While there are certainly still limits to what filmmakers can deal with (Zhao Dayong's The High Life makes references to June 4, 1989 for example, which an approved film could never do), Judge does demonstrate that it is possible to make challenging work dealing with contemporary issues and still get it into mainland cinemas. Having said that, Liu's comments about “wanting to do something easier” for his next film hint at the effort he no doubt had to put in to get Judge through.

Thanks to Liu for agreeing to speak with me, Wu Jing at BC MOMA for putting me in touch with Liu, and Wang Yi for acting as translator during our chat.

First of all can you tell me a bit about your background and how you became a filmmaker?

I was born in Tianjin, but when I was young I moved around for my parents' work. My early schooling was in Baoding [a city about 140 kilometres from Beijing].

I took the national university entrance examination in 1986 and for one year I went to the Tianjin Academy of Fine Arts and studied painting.

I had a teacher who gave me a lot of suggestions at the art school, but at that time Chinese painting was not making any progress. He said you shouldn't study painting – go and study film. He showed me Yellow Earth [Chen Kaige's debut from 1984], and that really provoked my interest. I studied under another teacher who was very worldly called Tian Yang, and when I asked him whether he thought this was a good idea he said, “This is a great idea! You can try and go to the the Beijing Film Academy.”

I decided I didn't want to study painting any more, so I went back and took the university entrance exam again. At that time I knew nothing about film – in fact I didn't really know what a director did. My teacher suggested I study cinematography. I followed his advice and went to study film in 1987.

You mentioned the impact Yellow Earth had on you when you first saw it. Do you feel you have been influenced by the Fifth Generation directors of the 1980s?
I've been more influenced by [Taiwanese director] Hou Hsiao-Hsien, but I prefer to make films that are more dramatic – although I don't let the drama destroy the film's authenticity.

Your new film Judge is based on a true story. How closely does the film follow the facts of the original case?
Everything in the story is real. I took many real incidents and knitted them into a story.

Did you meet any of the people involved in the original case?
Parts of the story came from media reports, parts came from things that happened to people around me. I didn't directly interview the judge who dealt with this case. The original incident happened in Shaanxi, and the local government didn't want to walk about it any more. I interviewed a lot of criminal judges in Hebei province and they gave me their points-of-view on the case.

The judge in the film is actually a mix of many criminal law judges I know. Criminal judges are a very special group, very different from judges dealing with commercial or civil law. If you want to invite judges from these other areas to dinner they're more than happy to come and have fun with you and they're all very relaxed. But criminal law judges are under a lot of pressure.

Your last film [Courthouse on Horseback, 2006] was also about a character working in China’s legal system. What is it about this area that interests you?
I think this topic is really meaningful for society. My generation of directors tends to care more about people on the fringes of society. Of course I think these people should be represented, but I think the mainstream of society is more important. The legal system is a very important part of the mainstream.

 Above: Frontier justice - a still from Liu Jie's debut feature Courthouse on Horseback (2006).

Do you hope your films can help inspire change or reform within China's legal system?
If my film can help with reform of the legal system then that would really mean something. When I first heard about this story in 2006 I was really shocked. Something that happens today we think is quite normal, but ten years later we think it's really ridiculous [the incident depicted in Judge took place in 1997]. I was shocked by how much even I myself had changed. In fact the whole society has gone through a huge change since the late 90s.

Judge touches on a lot of topics considered sensitive in China. Did you have a lot of difficulty getting the film approved?

Yes, there were some difficulties but we overcame them all in the end.

What kind of difficulties did you encounter?

The most difficult thing was the fact that government departments were not sure about this, and they didn't want this talked about.

There were two reasons I think this film was approved. Firstly, the authenticity of the film. There is a special phenomenon in China – any films related to the legal system or legislative issues are not approved by SARFT [the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television], but by the Gong jian fa [Police Public Prosecutors Office]. So every single sentence and every detail in the film is very accurate – if there were any small mistakes they picked them up.

Secondly, I think the thinking of officials has improved. You can tell them that this is what really happened, and the aim of the film is not to say something bad but to look back at the truth and make people think about the progress we have made. It has become possible to communicate with the authorities in general.

This kind of system has disadvantages. It's really hard to say critical things about anything related to those department because it needs to be approved by them. You have to persuade them that this is real. I hope one day there will be one regulation for Chinese films, and that they only need to be approved by one organisation.

But I also want to talk about the advantages of the current system. It means you have a lot of free professional consulting, and they will point out a lot of things that are not right, and correct them [laughs].

Were there a lot of details in Judge changed as a result of the “consultation” process?

Yes, there were some.

 Above: The execution scene in Liu Jie's Judge, one of many sequences in the film depicting incidents usually considered "sensitive" in mainland Chinese features.

A lot of filmmakers in China choose to simply work outside the approval system, with the result that their films cannot be shown here. Is it important to you to produce work that Chinese audiences can watch in local cinemas?

Maybe ten years ago you had to shoot films that couldn't be approved, because ten years ago it was impossible to communicate [with officials]. But ten years later it is not necessary. I think if you are really serious and work hard it's very possible to be approved.

What are you planning next?

My original plan was to shoot a third and fourth film about the legal system. But I think it's a bit difficult now – I want a break, to change to another topic. I probably want to do something easier. I can't be at the vanguard all the time [laughs]. I want to make an historical film about the end of the Qing Dynasty.

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