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on Aug 4, 2010

When officials at the state-controlled Film Bureau levelled a five-year filmmaking ban on Chinese writer-director Lou Ye (Purple Butterfly) in 2006—a harsh reprimand for unveiling his politically charged drama Summer Palace at Cannes that year without their approval—he did what any determined artist would under the circumstances: he went home and made another feature, right under the nose of the censors. It was a brave and headstrong move, considering Lou’s previous encounters with the bureau. His debut feature, Weekend Lover (1995), was banned for two years, and Suzhou River (2000), a moody, Shanghai-set twist on Vertigo that won top honors at the Rotterdam Film Festival, still cannot be shown in mainland China. But Summer Palace was a bigger act of defiance, as it violated China’s sensitivity to depictions of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, which are expressly forbidden, telling the 15-year story of a female provincial who leaves home to attend college, falls in love, and briefly gets swept up in the pro-democracy demonstrations at Beijing University. Lou’s periodic run-ins with the authorities have made headlines in recent years, and his knack for exploring taboo subject matter certainly hasn’t helped his cause at home. Yet his work has flourished on the international festival circuit, despite the harassment.

Lou’s latest drama, loosely inspired by the risqué writings of early-20th-century maverick Yu Dafu, is Spring Fever, the film he made in defiance of the aforementioned ban with funds from France and Hong Kong. Here, we are introduced to two men, travel agent Jiang Cheng (Qin Hao) and bookish Wang Ping (Wu Wei), embroiled in a passionate love affair. They steal moments together as they can—screwing feverishly at a backwoods retreat in the musky opening scene or making out in the back of a bookstore—before their relationship comes to a dead halt. Wang’s wife has hired a private investigator (Chen Sicheng) to follow him, and when he produces evidence of her husband’s indiscretions, she confronts Jiang at his office in a rage. Cutting Wang loose, Jiang slips back into his former life as a zesty drag performer. Embraced by his admirers but still disillusioned by romantic failure, he drifts toward Luo, the empathetic straight sleuth who’s been tailing him, and another complicated love affair blossoms. Shot surreptitiously in the eastern city of Nanjing with available light, Spring Fever is a deliriously erotic and anguished melodrama, where frenetic street scenes alternate with murky interiors in a dreamlike weave of events and locations, all bathed in cool dark tones. As always with the libidinal undercurrents of Lou’s films, sexuality is the measure and reflection of individual freedom, the lovers’ existential malaise representing social life under severe constraints.

Filmmaker corresponded with Lou Ye by email last week (without the benefit of a translator) to discuss censorship and sexuality, shooting without permits, and the dignity of freedom. Strand Releasing opens Spring Fever at the IFC Center on Friday.

Filmmaker: Could you tell me why the author Yu Dafu, often characterized as the D.H. Lawrence of China, was an important touchstone for you in Spring Fever?

Lou: Yu Dafu and his work are used as a mirror in the film, a mirror of today. I believe through such a reference, we’ll be able to sort out clearly a kind of thread, to see over the past 90 years how much we’ve moved ahead, how much we’ve changed, and also what has barely changed.

Filmmaker: Although we track two love triangles in Spring Fever, and get inside the heads of all five characters at different moments, it seems that it is Jiang Cheng’s journey—his realization that “flowers always know the season in which it is best to bloom”—that the film scrutinizes and evaluates most intimately. Did you and Feng Mei begin with this character?

Lou: Yes, Jiang Cheng is the core of the film. And obviously we side with him, even when in plight. We still believe in the power of nature and the happiness of a free life.

Filmmaker: Given the subject matter (i.e. a physical love that develops between a straight man and a gay man), I couldn’t help but think of Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together and even John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy. Have attitudes toward homosexuality shifted at all from tolerance toward acceptance in mainland China—and does film culture play a role in that at all?

Lou: Nowadays in mainland China, homosexuality is no longer a taboo subject, but still it’s a subject matter “not encouraged,” “not recommended,” and “not recognized.”  It’s quite the same as many issues in China now, which are not “unpermitted,” but not permitted either. From this semi-transparent totalitarianism, that’s a kind of “polite suppression” and a kind of “slow distortion.”  So I’d say, the plight of the homosexuals is in fact the plight of most of us. Therefore, the narration of homosexuals  has a very immediate realistic meaning.

Filmmaker: Apart from revisiting Yu Dafu’s work, how did you prepare for production on Spring Fever? Was there any research involved, either for you or the cast?

Lou: We suggested the cast and crew that they read some articles from the Internet, the history of Chinese homosexuality, and we also arranged some meetings and talks to help them know better the background of the story. It’s mostly the same as what we did for other productions. There’s not much difference.

Filmmaker: After Summer Palace, you were banned from filmmaking for five years by the Film Bureau. Obviously, you defied this injunction and made Spring Fever with finances secured from France and Hong Kong. But did the ban present with you with any logistical difficulties in terms of the actual production, either with local authorities while shooting in Nanjing or in casting the film or processing the footage?

Lou: The ban equals a spiritual imprisonment for a filmmaker, and the ban itself is against the Chinese Constitution, so of course it has great effect. I’m very lucky and also very happy that I can keep on working. When shooting Spring Fever, indeed we had to be prepared that at every minute our shooting might all of a sudden be stopped by someone. This “alert always” was actually the same circumstances for the characters in the film. During the actual production, I obtained lots of support from the cast and every crew member, including those in charge of the locations we shot in. They knew I was banned but they still supported me. I truly appreciate their support.

Filmmaker: Do you think the censors regard you more as a threat or a nuisance?

Lou: In fact, there’s absolutely no need for the censors to regard a filmmaker as a threat or a nuisance. A film is not that dangerous. That’s why I told the Chinese media: “Do not fear film.”

Filmmaker: Zeng Jian’s cinematography in Spring Fever is gorgeous. He’s captured so much detail with available light and handheld cameras. Could you explain what visual strategies you wanted to adopt for this film and how those were important to different facets of the story you were telling here? I’m thinking not only of all the rainfall and those murky, dimly lit interiors where we (barely) see bodies intermingling, but also the restless, drifting, at times romantic kineticism of the street scenes.

Lou: The cinematographer Zeng Jian was camera assistant on Purple Butterfly, director’s assistant and editor on Summer Palace. This is his debut film as a cinematographer. He did an excellent job. And we reached the common ground of making a film in the way of home video, in the simplest way. We found that you can find touching moments in these most simple and most direct images. It’s about life and memory.

Filmmaker: Why specifically did you choose to shoot the film in Nanjing? And does the club where Jiang Cheng performs actually exist?

Lou: For this film, Nanjing is a grey support. It’s somewhere between the north and south of China, between political (Beijing) and commercial centers (like Shanghai). And the night club does exist. It opens every day.  We were actually making a documentary. All the performances are their daily program.

Filmmaker: Spring Fever is heady, melancholy, and even, at times, disorienting, which makes it perhaps less accessible for mass audiences. It’s an old question, but does it concern you at all that the tastes of most moviegoers are oriented more toward sensation and celebrity, rather than emotional and intellectual depth?

Lou: I believe what I like is just one of the many tastes among most people. Every film is different, and every audience who goes to the film is different as well. So if a film can meet with the audience who likes it, how lucky it would be. Let’s pray for it!

Filmmaker: In general, for any number of reasons, I think most filmmakers shy away from raw, matter-of-fact depictions of human sexuality. But a few—like Michael Winterbottom in Britain, for instance—have a certain fearlessness when it comes to erotic love scenes and unglamorized frontal nudity, as you seem to. Is it simply a matter of wanting to be as honest and as real as possible, or is there some other artistic motivation?

Lou: Human sexuality is an indispensable part of a natural and free human being. From how you face sex, you will see clearly your attitude towards freedom and nature. Total frontal nudity is not the most important, and I didn’t do that here. In the film, a flower, a human body, and the social background of that person are actually the same, while sexuality is revealed through male bodies. That’s the most important part of this problem.

Filmmaker: What originally gave you the inspiration and self-confidence to become a filmmaker, and what course of study did you follow while you were at Beijing Film Academy?

Lou: Keisuke Kinoshita’s Twenty-Four Eyes/Nijushi no hitomi is probably the very first film in my memory. While I was at BFA, I studied many courses, including the French New Wave, New German Films, and Italian neo-realism.

Filmmaker: What’s the most vital thing to you about being an independent filmmaker in China today, apart from fulfilling your personal artistic ambition?

Lou: Freedom.

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