Listening to Chinese director Lou Ye this afternoon in Cannes, one can't help but feel he's guarded in his response to censorship and his past confrontations with the state controlled Film Bureau in his native country. In 2006, Lou brought the Tiananmen Square-themed film "Summer Palace" to Cannes after winning the Grand Prize at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. The Cannes screening resulted in the director's official banishment for five years by the censor board. Now, Lou returns to Cannes with "Spring Fever," inspired by the 1920s author, Yu Dafu and filmed clandestinely outside the "system." The film, which got a rather mixed response from the audience at Wednesday night's press screening, certainly does not seem to shirk from the possible backlash of authorities back home, however. This time, graphic lust and sexual taboos, not politics, may spark condemnation.
Evoking the graphic sex in John Cameron Mitchell's "Shortbus," which stirred the Cannes fest three years ago, full on sex with scenes that don't use cinematic trickery to imply intercourse hit the screen within moments of the film's opening and are peppered liberally throughout. Set in present-day Nanjing, "Spring Fever" is the story of Wang Ping (Wu Wei) whose wife suspects him of adultery. She hires Luo Haitao (Chen Sicheng) to spy on him and discovers that her husband's ongoing trist is with a man, Jiang Cheng (Qin Hao). Matters become more complicated when Luo Haitao and his girlfriend Li Jing (Tan Zhou) get entangled in a torrid love affair with Jiang Cheng.
"I didn't film homosexuality, I showed feelings and complex relationships," director Lou Ye said in Cannes Wednesday. "While evaluating these relationships, I show a complex world." For this film, Lou used unknown actors who were given near free reign on the set and all voiced that they weren't concerned with the official repercussions on their careers for taking on such explicit roles. "I was very free during the film," said stunning newcomer actress Tan Zhou who immediately drew attention from cameramen during a photo call prior to the film's press conference. "He gave us freedom to choose, we could express ourselves as completely as we wished," concurred Qin Hao. "This is the first time I've made a film as an actor," said Wu Wei. "I didn't think about any negative outcome on my life."
"Regarding these love scenes... It doesn't matter if they're homosexual or heterosexual, I shot them in the same way," Lou said when addressing China's general conservative approach to same-sex relationships. "Sex is important to life in general."
Apparently hoping to head off a conversation dominated by his history of run-ins with state censors, Lou Ye quickly gave a response to his feelings on censorship early on in the conversation, stating that he wanted the Q&A back and forth with assembled press to focus on the film and not the controversies of his career back in China. The subject nevertheless surfaced throughout Thursday's meeting with journalists.
"I hope nothing will happen when I go back to China. I always say, 'Don't be afraid of cinema.'"
And perhaps hoping to avoid any official backlash at home he added, "I don't think anything will happen. At any rate, I don't think about the future." When asked about the cinematic worthiness of China's official state studios, he seemed conciliatory. "The official cinema has a place. For me, cinema is a whole palate of color, but if there's only one palate, it's a negative thing."
With the film unable to penetrate China's official distribution system because of the ban, producer Sylvain Bursztejn said "Spring Fever" will find its way to Chinese audiences via an unlikely ally - pirated DVDs.
"Pirate DVDs are not my friend, I don't like them... [But] if that's the only way Chinese people can see my films, then this is an absurd reality," said Lou.
Whether the film will show in other areas without censorship, including North America, a more daunting obstacle may be how audiences react to the film as it makes its way to festivals.
"My job is to make films, the press' job is to evaluate the film. I don't think it matters either way if an audience applauds or not," said Lou when asked how he felt about the fact there was tepid response to his film after the press screening. And with that, most of the several dozen journalists in the room broke into applause.