Messages of acceptance

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 June, 2011, 12:00am


There was a time when mainland authorities would have considered Zhao Liang persona non grata. After graduating from the Beijing Film Academy in 1994, the 39-year-old made several documentaries about subjects which government officials preferred to hide from public scrutiny. He filmed drug-addled punk musicians, revealed police brutality in a small town near China's border with North Korea, and followed the plight of wronged villagers who braved state-sponsored beatings and belligerence as they attempted to air their grievances in Beijing.

While these films were largely banned on the mainland, they were warmly received abroad. Zhao's career reached its pinnacle in 2009 when Petition - the piece about the abused and aggrieved villagers - was shown as an out-of-competition entry at the Cannes Film Festival.

Another year, another festival. Four months ago, Zhao was in Berlin to introduce his latest film, Together. Again, Zhao has zeroed in on a social group which remains on the margins of mainland life. The documentary explores the difficulties Aids carriers face in confronting their own physical conditions and also in how others see them.

Unlike two years ago, when Petition premiered at Cannes with barely a mention in the country's mainstream media, Together's German adventure was documented thoroughly in print and online, with the film praised for having 'warmed Berlin'. The film also premiered in Beijing to much fanfare last month, with Zhao sharing the stage with government officials who never would have been seen near the filmmaker in the past.

And the officials were there for a reason: Together was commissioned by mainland health authorities as part of a drive to eradicate widespread public misconceptions about the disease - a situation which, ironically, was partly of the government's own making over the years as it stridently kept the issue out of public discourse.

Together is a complementary film to Gu Changwei's fictional feature Love for Life, a blockbuster romantic drama starring Aaron Kwok Fu-shing and Zhang Ziyi as two Aids-infected villagers who defy their condition and social ostracisation to get married. He's a recent divorcee; she's unable to get her otherwise disapproving husband to sign separation papers.

The central framework of Together is about the way Gu's production team accommodated six real Aids patients to work on Love for Life. Zhao says neither Gu nor the authorities interfered with his work on Together - in fact, he recalls how it was only through health officials that he managed to get the online contacts of some of the Aids patients he would eventually feature in the documentary.

In turn, Zhao says he established early that he wouldn't go out of his way to 'stir up trouble' for the authorities with this film. 'First and foremost, this is a collaboration with the Ministry of Health,' he says now.

'This was going to be unlike the things I did in the past, films which were mostly about thoughts I wanted to express. But in making this film, the first thing I thought about was to consider what its impact would be on the masses.

'For example, I could have located someone who's really colourful - say, a flamboyant figure who really lived his life to the full. It could have made a great story, and probably this is what I would have done if it was an independent documentary.

'But this couldn't be done here - I couldn't take someone like that to be a model, because it would have had a lasting impact on those watching it ... Sometimes, you have to adjust your value system under different circumstances.'

Admittedly, Zhao's film is a feel-good piece compared to nearly all his previous films. While some of his interviewees do relate dreadful experiences about how they contracted Aids and how family and friends deserted them, the sadness is countered by the way the three infected volunteers were warmly received on the set of Love for Life. Moreover, apprehensive crew members - who began the film concerned about having to live alongside Aids patients - are also shown talking about how their misguided views on Aids changed after spending time with patients including schoolboy Hu Zetao.

'I know other filmmakers have made documentaries about the rights of those infected with Aids. That's also what concerns me too - and that's why when I was first approached to make this film, I spent two months thinking hard about the project before I agreed to do it.

'But it was a great experience to work with a master like Gu and it's a chance for something I made to finally get seen across the country. Nobody [on the mainland] got to see Petition, and somehow the meaning was lost because of that.'

Zhao's standing on the international film festival circuit contrasts sharply with his anonymity at home beyond the country's artistic and intellectual circles. Having studied fine arts before he went to Beijing to study filmmaking, Zhao spent years working on video art, short films and photography before he completed his first feature-length documentary, Paper Airplane (2001), in which he records the lives of punk musician friends always chasing the next chemically or musically induced rush. In 2005 came Return to the Border, in which Zhao goes back to his hometown in Liaoning province to see how people viewed the North Korean refugees crossing the nearby Yalu River into China. And a year later he delivered Farewell Yuanmingyuan, about the rise and fall of artistic communes in a Beijing preparing for the 2008 Olympics.

The 2007 film Crime and Punishment reveals how border guards harass and harangue people. Most of these films, alongside Petition, were never granted general releases on the mainland; some, like Crime and Punishment and Petition, were shown at the Hong Kong International Film Festival.

Together has seemingly brought Zhao back into the fold - something the filmmaker agrees with, albeit hesitantly. 'Petition hasn't brought me that much trouble. I'm still doing a lot of promotional work for Together. Or maybe they didn't even recognise the fact I'm the person who did all those films,' says Zhao, laughing. 'I'm doing okay now - Petition hasn't driven me to the ground, at least, and I can still go on working ... but this film is probably a good opportunity to convince people that I'm not really this menacing danger lurking somewhere in the shadows.'

Zhao's detente with the establishment runs parallel to Gu Changwei's during the making of Love for Life. Having first come to fame as a cinematographer on some of the best mainland films of the 1980s and 90s - Zhang Yimou's Red Sorghum, Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine and Jiang Wen's In the Heat of the Sun - Gu's directorial career has been full of tortuous struggles with the country's censors. His previous two films, Peacock and And the Spring Comes, were closely scrutinised by the authorities for their candid portrayals of the harsh lives led by ordinary folk in small cities as the country recovered from the Cultural Revolution and embarked on market reforms.

Both films received much critical acclaim at home and abroad, with Peacock winning a jury prize at the Berlin festival in 2005 and Jiang Wenli scooping a best-actress award at the Rome Film Festival in 2007.

Love for Life, however, is Gu's most challenging feature to date. The title, Gu says, alludes to how he wants the story - about life in an impoverished village where many residents contracted Aids after selling their blood plasma - to reflect the way people struggle to attain happiness even in the face of impending doom.

But it was during the seven-month editing and post-production process that Gu's troubles began. His first cut came to more than 2 1/2 hours, which shocked his producers and distributors as that would have meant fewer screenings every day in theatres.

Gu eventually chopped the film down to the current 1?hours, but the re-edit was also done under censorial pressure. What the director envisioned originally was a film which looked at the general social malaise in contemporary China through the prism of a small rural community. Unsurprisingly, officials were hesitant about Gu's perspective, and the director was forced to leave out parts of the film which might have portrayed the country's inherent cynicism too harshly.

For example: the storyline about the rationale behind the misdemeanours of Pu Cunxin's brash blood merchant. What remains in the final cut is the romance between Kwok's bumbling Deyi and Zhang's long-suffering (but still utterly photogenic) Qinqin, plus several politically incorrect gags put in place for comic relief (such as when locals ogle Qinqin as she appears in a flimsy nightgown, and then mutter how they wished they had Aids - or 'the hot fever', as the disease is called throughout the film - so they could get it on with her).

Alongside Together, Gu's film provides as much a lesson about understanding and love as it does about how visionary directors struggle to survive in the highly unstable world of mainland filmmaking.

Love for Life opens on Thursday; Together opens in July