Itís no secret that film directing in both China and the West is a predominantly male mťtier. But try telling that to director Peng Xiaolian. Not only has she defied the odds with a string of critically-acclaimed films, but she continues to go against the grain by making films in Shanghai, her hometown. While the city has become an attractive backdrop for major foreign film companies (most notably Warnerís The Painted Veil starring Edward Norton and Paramountís Mission Impossible 3 with Tom Cruise), local filmmakers still struggle to get Chinese films off the ground. But Peng remains doggedly undeterred. The fifth-generation filmmaker insists upon shooting in Shanghai despite the fact that Beijing remains the best place by far to get a movie made in China.
Her latest film, Shanghai Story, was shot in 2003 and released in cinemas this year during the mid-autumn festival. The film, Pengís tenth, is about the legacy of the ďcultural revolutionĒ in todayís China. Shot in just 45 days, the film was selected for competition in five international film festivals and swept a record four Golden Rooster Awards [Chinaís equivalent to the Oscars] in 2004, as well as the Best Actress Award at the 2004 Shanghai International Film Festival.
Peng always writes her own scripts, including dialogue from real-life conversations she has recorded. Itís a method sheís used to great effect since her student days in the late 1970s when studying at the Beijing Film Academy with alumni Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige. Upon graduation and after a couple of art-house successes under the Shanghai Film Studioís umbrella -- Me and My Classmate (1986) and Womenís Story (1989) -- she furthered her studies at the New York University. In 1996, she returned to Shanghai, a city sheís since made her permanent home. In the last nine years she has directed no less than six feature films. Amongst them, Once Upon A Time in Shanghai (1999) achieved cinematic release in the US, while Shanghai Women (2002) was a sleeper hit in Japan, running for 13 consecutive weeks. In an exclusive interview with thatís she discusses the film industry, and her favorite movie themes Ė Shanghai and Chinese women.

thatís: What drew you to filmmaking?
Peng Xiaolian: When I was young there was no one to take care of me at home during the summer vacations so my mother brought me to the studio where she worked as a translator for Russian films. I saw there how they made and processed films. I thought it was what I knew best and so, in 1978, I applied for entry to Chinaís only film school at the time, the Beijing Film Academy [BFA].

thatís: Your generation Ė the first after the ďcultural revolutionĒ Ė is referred to as the ďfifth generationĒ filmmakers.
PX: Thatís what a lot of people call it. But I donít care for labels. Maybe itís important to others, but not to me. The most important thing to me is that people care about who you are, what youíve done, and if it actually makes sense.

thatís: Shanghai itself is a central feature of your films, Shanghai Story, Shanghai Women, and Once Upon a Time in Shanghai. You obviously have a special affinity with your hometown.
PX: Yes, Shanghai is like a character in my movies. The culture is so different from the rest of the country. Itís the most interesting, modern and artistic city in China. During the 30s and 40s there were many colonial concessions here. It was Ė and still is Ė a multicultural city. Itís like a foreign city in China. Thatís why I pay a lot of attention to Shanghai, to its culture and to people who live here.

thatís: It makes sense; you grew up here.
PX: Yes, since I returned from New York, I love Shanghai more than ever. Shanghai is to China what New York is to the US. When I grew up here, I never appreciated how interesting Shanghai was. Everything was so commonplace. New York gave me the critical distance to appreciate just how interesting Shanghai really is. It wasnít until then that I realized that Shanghai is the city I love the most.

thatís: Whatís your latest film Shanghai Story about?
PX: Itís the story of a Chinese family and set after the ďcultural revolutionĒ. During this time many people were hurt emotionally and thatís what the film is about. Chinese people couldnít cope with their feelings or with the shadows of this era. Shanghai Story is about a country Ė China - and its people. Itís about the lives of modern Chinese, their feelings and their thoughts resulting from the ďcultural revolutionĒ. So, this movie, like most of my films, is based on ordinary peopleís lives, which is what I really care about.

thatís: Was it difficult to put the project together and how was it received?
PX: I was lucky with the Film Bureau in Beijing which gave the film a very favorable reaction. The final cut passed through the censorship process without a single word being changed. We won many Golden Rooster Awards in 2004. All 22 of the jury members voted unanimously for Shanghai Story as the best picture. So people were really moved by the film. It was also the first time they gave the Best Director Award to a female director.

thatís: You like to use real-life dialogue in your movies. Why?
PX: In Shanghai Story, the family story had to be natural; that is, they shouldnít talk in a dramatic way. I wanted to give the film a docu-drama style. Actually we did a lot of beautiful photography and camera work so it doesnít really look like a docu-drama at all!

thatís: Shanghai Story features strong female characters. How has the situation of Chinese women evolved since you made Womenís Story (1989) and Shanghai Women (2002)?
PX: Womenís Story told of the struggle of three peasant women in the 1980s when China started to reform. They flee from the country to the city and fight to change their lives. The situation for women is very different now. I couldnít say itís better, just different. Shanghai Women (2002) is about women in the big city who try to find their own spirit and space in life. Chinese society today is changing in a very commercial way. Now a lot of women who try to be independent have difficulties getting a job, whereas itís easier for men. Company managers will hire a 45-year-old man but not a women older than 35. They encourage women to retire at 40 or 45. In the work environment they think a 30-something woman is already old! So thereís a gender and age issue here. Itís stupid. They just like pretty women and donít care whether theyíre smart or educated.

thatís: What about women in the film industry?
PX: Itís very difficult for women to make movies nowadays in China. The market is driven by commercial concerns, not cultural ones. In the Ď80s there were a lot of female directors. Now only a few women filmmakers make feature films. Most work in TV.

thatís: Is Shanghai the place to make modern Chinese films?
PX: Itís extremely difficult to make movies in Shanghai. I donít really know why. I donít think Shanghai will be the new cinema center in China any time soon. The Beijing film industry, however, is getting stronger and stronger. Not just because thereís the Beijing Film Academy, as people donít care about school. What they care about is the market, the current situation and the powers that be. Thatís what Beijing currently offers. Itís easier to make movies there and itís very attractive for foreign investors.
Shanghai is simply too complicated and weak.

thatís: Filmmaking also takes center stage in your next projectÖ
PX: Yes, itís a movie called Shanghai Rumba starring celebrated actor Xia Yu [Waiting Alone]. It deals with filmmakers in the late 1940s, their work, lives and loves. They try to make left wing movies and have a lot of trouble with the national government of the time. They try to shoot secretly and to protect their low-budget films. Nowadays we still face the same financing problems. Like the characters in the film, we donít have nearly enough money but we still try to make the best film possible.

Special thanks to Tomson Films and Runa Zhou.

(c) that's Shanghai Magazine
Chief editor: Steven Crane
November 2005 issue
Photo courtesy Mick Ryan

Guanzhou Chief editor: Christopher Cottrell
November 2005 issue