Despite such a Draconian approach, clearly Beijing underestimated the staying power of this driven 39-year-old director, who has long refused to compromise his artistic integrity to win over China's censorious film authorities.
After making his name as one of China's seminal underground directors, Wang won the prestigious Jury Prize at the 58th Cannes Film Festival for his latest offering, Shanghai Dreams. And in a sign of changing times, this partly autobiographical look at a family caught up in the turbulence of 1980s' China has won approval to show in mainland theaters -- a huge breakthrough for both Wang and China's beleaguered film industry.
BusinessWeek Beijing Bureau Chief Dexter Roberts met with Wang over a long lunch in a Japanese restaurant in Beijing on June 18. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:
Q: How did you decide to become a film director?
A: My father was an actor on the stage. However, he told me that a person would have much more independence working as a painter. He thought that as a director one [was totally controlled by the government].
So I started studying painting at the middle school associated with the Central Academy of Fine Arts. When I was 15, we moved to Beijing. At that time, the first of the so-called Fifth Generation of Chinese films [a mid-'80s movement spearheaded by young filmmakers such as Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou] started coming out. These movies were a shock to everyone. From that moment, I knew I wanted to make films and that I wanted to study to be a director.
Q: After 12 years of censorship, why are the film authorities allowing you to show your latest movie?
A: Last November, the film censors came to me and said we are ready to forget about your past. We want to reform Chinese cinema because otherwise we realize it's dead. We told them, "We already know that -- we've been saying that for 12 years."
They said, "From now on film will not just be propaganda, but film can also be a product. You can sell it and market it." During these past years, a lot of Hollywood films have come to China and are taking over the [film] industry. So the film bureau realized it had to face reality. One question was how to deal with underground film directors [like myself].
They realized things had to change. Before, as a director, you had no control. You might spend $200,000 making a film, and then it would be censored and you wouldn't be able to earn a penny back. Everyone knows that China has a billion-plus market, but film directors have been unable to make any money. It's amazing, really.
Q: Can you tell me a little about how your latest film, Shanghai Dreams, first got approved?
A: The film bureau asked me to send a 1,000-word synopsis. At first I wondered whether I should make it sound softer -- in many ways this is my toughest film yet. Then I decided that this should be a test of their new openness. So I didn't make it any softer.
Then they asked whether they could take a look at the whole script. They were afraid that I was still a bad guy and was tricking them. [Shanghai Dreams] is very heavy, very sensitive, and a very individual story. Actually, I was afraid [the film censors] would say no. They told me, "Your past is past, and we have reformed." And they approved it.
Q: And can you talk about the story and what inspired it?
A: It's a very individual story. It's half about my background. It isn't about the larger community, and so it's the complete opposite of what the government traditionally said a film should be. They liked movies to picture the people as one group, or collective, who are all thinking about one thing together.
My story focuses on one family and how they face their fate -- and in particular how they face one moment in Chinese history. It takes place just after the Cultural Revolution, when China has just begun to open up, but much of the old ways are still there. The father is unconsciously rebelling against his fate -- even as he is unsure what his fate is.
Q: What do you think is the role of a filmmaker?
A: From the beginning, I've wanted to persuade people that films can be art. They aren't just a product or propaganda. In my films, I want to come back and face individuals and show how they struggle for the right to live their own lives. This is a new thing for the audience in China. This isn't an old-style film telling them to love the Communist Party and their country.
Q: Now that China's film authorities are opening up, what do you see ahead for the Chinese film industry?
A: Now, Chinese directors are saying we need to learn from Hollywood, and that making movies is all about making money. They seem to have forgotten that films can also be art. Today in China, most directors are completely focused on the box office, and people will laugh if you don't make lots of money from your films. I realize that I should concentrate on making kung fu and action movies if I just want to make lots of money.
But if the Chinese film industry that used to be completely controlled by the Chinese government now just wants to copy Hollywood, we will have lost again. Give us 10 years, and we still won't be able to compete with Hollywood-style movies. So I want to tell people, let's not forget that in China we have our own culture and own history.
Someday I hope China has small cinemas like the art-house theaters I have seen in the U.S. and Europe. That would give us a place to show our less commercial films too. Iade underground films for 12 years before I was allowed into theaters. Now we might have to wait another 12 years before China can have a strong independent film industry. EDITED BY Patricia O'Connell