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China: Out From The Shadows


For more than a decade, Chinese film director Wang Xiaoshuai had to accept that his work would not be shown in his own country. While his movies won accolades at international film festivals, they were banned at home. Why? They presented an unvarnished picture of contemporary Chinese life that didn't conform to the Communist Party's idealized version of reality. "I've been struggling for my independence as a director for 12 years," says Wang, 39, who steadfastly refused to soften his artistic vision to get past the censors.

Now Wang's determination has finally paid off. His latest offering, Shanghai Dreams, which won the jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival, is the first-ever Wang movie to be shown uncensored in China. "It is a very heavy, very sensitive, and very individual story," he says. "I was afraid [the censors] would say no."

Indeed, the bleak story revolves around a long-taboo subject: how the Communist Party's burning desire to build a powerful China at all costs led to tragic consequences for ordinary people. In a story that is partly autobiographical, Wang's movie portrays a family caught up in the Party's call to develop China. The family has moved from Shanghai to the remote province of Guizhou, and, at the father's insistence, is now struggling to return to the big city.

The unhappy family, whose members don't agree about the disruptive move back to Shanghai, are victims of Mao Zedong's Third Line policy of the 1960s. Paranoid about Soviet and U.S. attack, Mao moved whole industries and the families working in them to China's hinterlands as a "Third Line" of defense. The story takes place in the 1980s, when China has begun to open to the world and allow more freedom, but is still in many ways a deeply conservative place.

The movie is dedicated to Wang's parents and to all people who experienced China's Third Line. Wang was a youth in Guizhou's provincial capital of Guiyang before his father moved the family first to the more developed city of Wuhan when Wang was 13, and then finally to Beijing two years later. After four years studying painting at a prestigious art high school, Wang decided film was his true love, and won a coveted slot at the Beijing Film Academy in 1985.

Shanghai Dreams is unusual for a Chinese movie in its focus on the story of an individual, says Wang. Traditionally, Beijing has viewed films as propaganda vehicles. "They liked movies to picture the people as one group, or collective, who are all thinking about one thing together," he notes. China's film bureau has exercised control over everything from deciding who can be a director to how a movie is funded to whether it can be shown at all. "I've wanted to convince people that films can be art -- they are not just a product or propaganda," says Wang. "In my films I want to show how individuals struggle for the right to live their own lives."

With Chinese cinema under siege from Hollywood offerings and rampant DVD piracy, Beijing's film authorities have decided to start letting directors decide what movies to make, says Wang. But he doesn't expect rapid change. "I made underground films for 12 years before I was allowed into theaters," he says. "Now we might have to wait another 12 years before China can have a strong independent film industry." This pioneer of Chinese filmmaking thinks the wait will be worth it.

By Dexter Roberts


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