The phrase 'acts against humanity' brings to mind images of horrific deeds committed by genocidal tyrants and fundamentalist militias - not the first draft of a screenplay by a 37-year-old independent filmmaker. But that's exactly how the mainland's film censors described Li Yu's rough draft for her fourth movie when she submitted it to the authorities.
'Maybe it's because of the story being about some kids planning to derail trains,' Li says. 'But the film's more than just that. The kids are thinking of doing it because they feel neglected by society; they see on the news how [President] Hu Jintao visits the sites of train wrecks, so they think they can get the attention they crave if they manage to get a train off the rails.
'It's pretty strong stuff, my original premise - but it's so obvious it's not a film praising terrorism,' Li continues, sighing. 'And they had to say my film would be inhuman or something.'
Such overreaction probably stems from Li's track record of making films that tackle social taboos and then taking these films to international film festivals without official approval. Her rocky relationship with the authorities came to a head four years ago when she defied official instructions and insisted on screening an uncensored version of her last film, Lost in Beijing, at the Berlin International Film Festival. It was shown complete with scenes deemed inappropriate by the mainland authorities, including one in which the film's protagonist is raped by her drunken employer. The film caused a furore and led to her being branded a 'troublemaker'.
'That film has surely landed me on their blacklist,' Li says. 'The censors have been coming down on me pretty hard since then. While other filmmakers can just submit a synopsis to get approval for shooting, I have to send in a complete script. And even then they comb through it so many times ... I've been scrutinised on a different standard. But that's probably what you have to put up with if you want to be a filmmaker on the mainland these days. Now I want to transcend these barriers rather than confront them head-on.'
Li says she's now a more reconciliatory figure than the firebrand who made waves with Lost in Beijing. Her new strategy, she says, is to create sugar-coated stories - and the result is her rewriting her 'anti-human' treatise into Buddha Mountain. It's a seemingly heart-warming drama about the growing friendship between the bitter middle-aged Peking Opera actor Shang Yuqin (played by Sylvia Chang Ai-chia) and the three unruly but kind-hearted youngsters who rent rooms in her flat in Chengdu. The derailing element in the original script has been reworked; instead, the young rebels (played by Bolin Chen Bo-lin, Fan Bingbing and Fei Long) are seen joyriding on trains to escape the mundane and socially oppressive existence they lead at home and work.
What brings these characters together is their shared feeling of alienation from their surroundings - and such ennui could be interpreted by censors as a danger to society. While the film's title and its penultimate sequence - in which the four protagonists gleefully help rebuild a dilapidated temple - suggest an arrival at inner peace, their world-weariness does anything but conform to mainstream doctrines of social harmony.
'It's a film about how the [mainland] Chinese are living without any beliefs,' she says. 'For those who believe in the [rule of the] Communist Party, they can just look around and see how the land is still rife with unfairness. Buddhism? That's always been a very pragmatic practice here - people don't do religion if they aren't vying for fame and fortune. The fact that Shang decides to take her leave at the end is an indictment of how beliefs fail people at the very end.'
Li says her reality check about her country came early in life, when she began working at a television station in her native Shandong province when she was 16. Starting out as a presenter of variety shows and children's programmes, Li eventually became a host of daily newscasts - a job that dismayed her, she says.
'I left that job because I realised how there's hardly any authentic news being broadcast on TV,' she says. 'It's all made up to conform to what the government needs. You have these stories about national leaders visiting a suburb in Beijing and this woman darting into view and praising the government because she could rent a flat for 70 yuan (HK$84). It turns out the woman is a local official - where in the city could you get a place to live at that price? The viewers are not that easily conned.'
Li left for Beijing and joined Life Space, a current affairs programme on the official Chinese Central Television. 'It was a much better programme when I joined - it was the time when it was seen as the platform for testing whether we could tell the truth,' she says. 'It worked really well. But as is usually the case on the mainland, once the leaders hear of it, the show's pretty much finished. Now it's just another ordinary programme playing the same main melody.'
Li made several acclaimed documentaries before she left the station, and she says she could feel censors closing in on her. 'The dominant thinking was: let's try to tailor ideas so that we can get some money to finish the films. It's not what I wanted to do, and that's why I decided to leave that and begin making fictional films,' she says. 'Of course, I discovered later how doing that means getting into a tangle with censors all over again!'
In 2001, Li made her first feature film, Fish and Elephant, with money from selling her own flat. The project not only left her with nowhere to live, she also had to play cat-and-mouse with the authorities during the production, because the film revolves around a same-sex relationship - something that was (and still is) a no-no in mainland social discourse.
The dreaded call from the censors finally arrived after her film won an award at the Venice Film Festival. 'They asked me what's going on - and I actually was ignorant enough to ask the caller who he was,' she says, laughing. 'When I eventually understood what he was going on about, I said I would pay more attention and show them the film next time - but they said, 'No, you have to show us the script before you make the film.''
Li did exactly that with her next project - and saw her idea, about a man leaving prison after serving a sentence on trumped-up rape charges, instantly shot down by the censors. 'The screenplay won an award at the Pusan film festival, but they just banned it. Their comment was that the story was 'too grey'. I was really shattered by that - what does that actually mean?'
By turning the screenplay into a story about a young woman facing an unexpected pregnancy, Li finished her second film, Dam Street. That film was plain sailing compared to her next film, Lost in Beijing. Recalling that saga in 2007, Li says she was as frustrated by the censors as she was with the media's sensationalist reporting about the film's sex scenes.
'They basically ignored the artistic and social value of the film,' she says. 'The press were preoccupied with the sex - and the authorities were furious about how we were supposedly promoting the film. But we didn't know the journalists so we were very helpless over the whole episode. I heard Hu Jintao's wife watched our film and [Ang Lee's] Lust, Caution and decided they were harmful to public morals, and banned them.
'There's so many unfair things going on in China today,' she says. 'My experience is nothing - at least I didn't get convicted for what I do, or subjected to what Ai Weiwei is going through. But as a filmmaker, you have to make yourself invincible here - I've heard of so many gifted directors who couldn't cope with it and decided to become businessmen. I'm dancing with my hands cuffed, I guess.'
Li says she's preparing to make a suspense thriller that features a murder at its core. 'I don't know whether this can pan out,' she says, laughing. 'The situation has become stricter by the day. I think it remains to be seen whether the authorities are just going to come in and crush everything, or whether they will just leave a little space for us to breathe.'
Buddha Mountain opens today