Time was when China was represented at the Cannes Film Festival by films the leaders in Beijing detested. From the late 1980s to early this century, directors such as Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou defied censors to bring their politically sensitive work to the French Riviera, winning sympathy and awards. Since then, those once-blacklisted directors have returned to Cannes with films that have Beijing's blessing. But just when the cultural apparatchiks thought the rebellion was over, along comes a former fashion designer with an unlicensed film about pimps - characters that are off-limits in the mainland's official cultural conversation. 'It's always been about taking risks,' says Zou Peng, the director of Sauna on Moon, which premiered on Wednesday at International Critics' Week, an annual programme alongside the main festival. 'I've long expected that this film will not be released back in mainland China. This doesn't really affect how I create films. As long as I can stick to my ideals, it's not a question for me at all.' It's not the first time that the 40-year-old native of Harbin, Heilongjiang province, has sneaked past mainland censors and brought his work to a major international film festival. His directorial debut, A Northern Chinese Girl, featured in Berlin and Hong Kong in 2009. While his first film was somewhat controversial - it centres on a 19-year-old woman entangled in Harbin's underworld - Sauna on Moon explores a profession that the government readily condemns. Set in Macau but mostly shot in Guangdong, the film follows the struggles of a brothel owner to keep his business afloat peddling the services of young women seeking a fortune that a factory job can't provide. Zou said his film offered a look into how people tried to keep abreast of massive social changes as the mainland lurched towards a market economy over the last 20 years. 'I came to Guangdong in 1991 and only left in 2005, so this is also my story,' he said. 'I worked in cities like Shenzhen and Dongguan and saw first-hand what economic development brought about.' Zou studied design in Beijing and developed fashion labels in Guangdong, but returned to Beijing in 2005 to study film-making. Graduating in 2008, Zou spent 2 million yuan (HK$2.39 million) of his money to finance A Northern Chinese Girl. Sauna on Moon cost him twice that amount, but he was backed this time by a mainland businessman who did not interfere with his work. 'He even said it's better for me not to tell him what I'm doing,' Zou said. His next plan is to shoot a story about the lives of gangsters.