i Yang describes himself as a heartless man who never loses sleep, or dreams, except when he is busy with a film. The famed independent Chinese director had to wait nearly a decade for his latest work, Blind Way, which explores child exploitation, sexual abuse and street beggars to gain a public release in February 2018.
The film is the last in a landmark trilogy. Li’s first film, Blind Shaft, a crime drama about scamming coal miners released in 2003, was critically acclaimed, winning more than 30 awards worldwide, including the Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Achievement at the 2003 Berlin International Film Festival.
Li’s second work, Blind Mountain, was made public in 2007 after a three-year ban. His third work, however, has received a cold response from moviegoers since its premiere at the Beijing International Film Festival in April 2017. Li told ChinaReport that he despaired the work was weak in narrative and power following his decision to compromise with investors and censors.
As an independent director, Li always has problems to deal with – and financial shortfalls have proven irksome. While working on Blind Mountain, a movie about a female university graduate’s attempts to escape a poor rural family in Shaanxi Province after she is sold into marriage, a production company that had planned to invest in the film suddenly withdrew. Li was forced to scrounge up what money he could from other sources and ultimately shot the film with a tight budget in less than a month.
Most of the cast are not professional actors. Director of photography Jong Lin told ChinaReport the unique script prompted him to take the job almost as soon as it was offered, despite the pay being only a third of the market rate. Lin is the well-known cinematographer of Ang Lee��s “Father Knows Best” trilogy, which includes Eat Drink Man Woman, Pushing Hands and The Wedding Banquet.
“In an objective and calm way, Li has perfectly displayed the ignorance of rural people and shown human evil as an inherent survival instinct of creatures,” Lin told ChinaReport. “It is like seeing from the perspective of God.”
Born in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province in 1959, Li received professional training in film production at Beijing Broadcasting Institute (Communication University of China) from 1985 to 1987. At the age of 28, Li went to Germany to brush up his skills in art and film. He would live there for 14 years before leaving in the year 2000. Back then, Li had grown unfamiliar with Chinese society and its film production environment – and he deliberated over whether to become a film director or a businessman. But when he read Liu Qingbang’s novella Sacred Wood, he made up his mind to make it into the film Blind Shaft.
“At that time in China, no matter whether it was the big screen or the small screen, the only popular works were about emperors and playful interpretations of history. Few directors wanted to focus on the cruel aspects of our social reality,” He Sanwei, a friend of Li who happens to be a famed journalist, told our reporter.
As part of his film production process, Li enjoys viewing the naturalistic drawings of the 19th Century French painter Jean-Francois Millet, to whom he said he was deeply indebted. Millet was known for his depiction of peasant farmers and everyday life, which contributed to Li’s own process of artistic creation and film production. But many critics were taken aback to learn that a film director like Li, who had received professional training, would take such a simple and primitive approach to film production in Blind Shaft.
“Li has delved into the world under the shaft as well as the dark side of human nature from the very beginning,” He added.
To date, the film has not been approved for release in China. But it has been circulated among a handful of Chinese audiences through illegal pirated editions. Li said he hoped for his work to reach a much wider Chinese audience.
To allow his second work, Blind Mountain, to appear on the Chinese big screen, he changed the plot and even conjured up a “happy ending.” The film was a success, and Li turned his attention to homeless children in China’s cities. He decided to make a film – but the script was killed shortly after it was submitted for approval.
Li said he almost abandoned the script. Three years ago, however, his mother suffered a stroke, losing the capacity to speak, and was confined to bed. Li for the first time felt the helplessness and the transience of life. The incident prompted him to adjust the script and present its themes in a relatively mild and indirect way.
“This [Blind Way] is an unsatisfactory work, but I am glad that it finally got permission to be shown nationwide in theatres,” Li told State-run newspaper the Global Times.
Li said he came to see the necessity of compromise when shooting a sensitive film in China. “For any artistic work, it is closely connected with the time and cultural context,” Li told our reporter. Once again, Li had to endure a shortage of cash, and of actors. In Blind Way, Li even played the male protagonist, Zhao Liang. He also worked as the director, scriptwriter, producer, art director and film editor.
“It is usually a difficult task for a film director to hold several positions simultaneously, but Li Yang is an exception,” Wang Bowen, the cinematographer on Blind Way, told ChinaReport. “Li knew it would bring about risks but he had no choice.”
The main character, Zhao Liang, is a successful singer who loses himself and becomes cynical. Li had many friends in music circles, including Chinese rock icon Cui Jian, and drew inspiration from these singers to flesh out the role.
Unlike Blind Shaft and Blind Mountain, most scenes in Blind Way were shot in cities and required in-studio dubbing. To cut costs, Li submitted the film for approval in advance but never imagined it would take more than a year to get permission. When he was working on overdubs, he found it difficult to recapture the emotion of the original dialogue.
Key scenes in the film, featuring the story of a blind girl named Jingjing who is purchased by human traffickers and forced to beg on the streets, were also cut to produce a “clean version.” Li said the cuts had seriously affected the natural development of the plot and the dramatic conflict. Nowadays, Li said, he can deal with censorship and treat it as the responsibility of the producer. But he can also accept the criticism of moviegoers because it is a director’s obligation.
“I compromised because I did not want my work to become another underground film,” Li said, arguing that he tries to speak for people on society’s bottom rung, but in most cases that voice is not easily heard. In July 2016, Blind Way was finally approved for public release.