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Fighting off the wolves
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Liu Zhenyun is one of the most misunderstood novelists in China. Each time his latest novel is released, he is buried with boos and catcalls. "But later, I'm bombarded with cheers, even from the same bunch of folks," he says.

"Perhaps my attempt to try new tricks fails to impress my readers and critics. Or, it is just that they are getting used to my style and unwilling to watch me taking risks and making a fool of myself," explains Liu during a book launch for his latest novel I Am Liu Yuejin (Wo Jiao Liu Yuejin).
Nonetheless, the 49-year-old writer, who often crosses over to movie script writing and even acting, never yields to criticisms.

"I always move on amidst heaps of criticism over my 25-year writing career. But when a new novel is completed, I have to turn to a new direction since I am no longer in the same mood. I must turn a deaf ear to my critics when I trek on a new path," he says.

Hailed by critics as a "Neo-realist writer", Liu refuses to be pigeonholed and claims I Am Liu Yuejin, his fourth full-length work of the genre, marks "a new turn".

Liu's new novel hit the bookshelf early this month, with at least 200,000 first-edition copies printed, according to Jin Lihong, the publisher of the book with the Changjiang Literature and Arts Publishing Group. Jin anticipates a good harvest from this "insightful yet dark-humored novel".

Liu says his story is a subversive parable about a sheep that eats wolves.

It is how the weak and downtrodden unexpectedly get an upper hand. "Only in my novels I can make the impossible possible. "

The plot involves a countryside chef searching for his lost bag and dealing with different bands of deadly killers.

"Sheep and wolves are metaphors I make use of to express a new angle we look at today's world," he says.

Liu believes the world is full of uncertainties and endless accidents and coincidences. "The world is out of the control of human kind. In addition, that is where drama comes from and I want to explore in my novels."

His protagonist Liu Yuejin "exposes the absurd, irrational logic of some people in today's world".

Liu's characters are true to life, critics say. "No matter if they are a he or she, a nobody, a superrich, or a high ranking official, each has his or her weaknesses, worries, fears, hopes and whimsical dreams," says Yang Xuemei, an editor with a publishing house in Beijing.

Chef Liu is a mild-natured migrant worker who is tortured by his broken marriage. The chef tries every means to safeguard his own interests. He is smart but powerless.

In his search for his lost bag of money, Liu Yuejin breaks promises, playing a deadly game with dangerous enemies, including a real estate tycoon, corrupted officials, the mafia, vendors, prostitutes, private eyes, and subcontractors.

"Life looks smooth and perfect. However, when looking underneath, one may find holes, cracks and misfit joints. I intend to do a justice to the incongruity of life in my stories," explains Liu who prefers to call all his novels "comedies" instead of "tragedies or tragic-comedies".

"For centuries, playwrights, writers, and scriptwriters are fond of writing about tragedies. But in my eyes, all tragedies are comedies," says Liu.

Readers may find Liu's short stories and novels characterized by a restrained, matter-of-fact narration that also conveys strong satire and humor. His compassion for ordinary people at grass-root level of society, his disgust with abused power, and the out-fashioned mentalities shines throughout.

The new novel has drawn mixed reviews from the readers. Some view the work "a long-winded story, sandwiched with self-satisfied social commentary, and psychoanalysis of the protagonists", while others praised the novel for its "relentless revelation of the bare truth of contemporary life, convincing depiction of the characters, and breathtaking, humorous narration". The Beijing-style language is colliqual and character names are borrowed from pop idols and classicals. Li Yuchun (Super Girls), pop legend Madonna and Green-faced beast Yang Zhi (Outlaw of the Marshes).

Han Sanping, head of China Film Group Corporation, is extremely confident about the appeal of Liu's new novel and has invested about 10 million yuan (US$1.3 million), turning the book into a movie of the same title. It will open on Thursday .

"The movie appears more dramatic than the original novel. And the pace picks up quicker than the novel does," Liu admits, adding that director Ma Liwen only made use of part of his novel.

Liu is script-writer, producer and plays a bit role in the movie, directed by Ma, an emerging female director, whose poetic, cozy low-budget flick You and Me won awards at the 18th Tokyo Film Festival in 2005 and Chinese Golden Rooster Film Festival in 2006.

Over the years, Liu has collaborated with director Feng Xiaogang, arguably one of the most successful blockbuster-makers in China alongside Zhang Yimou. One of the most eye-catching and commercially successful co-operations between Feng and Liu is Cell Phone.

In Cell phone, TV anchor Yan Shouyi lies to his wife and friends, but is eventually betrayed by his cell phone. Raking in more than 50 million yuan in box office, Cell Phone, became the China box office champion of 2003. Based on the film script, Liu wrote a novel of the same title, which sold more than 300,000 copies.

"Everyone utters thousands of sentences a day. Only a few sentences are true, useful and meaningful. In other words, people's mouth betrays their heart. Cell Phone is to tackle this theme," he says.

Unlike many of his peers, Liu believes writing TV and film scripts can only help sharpen his skills and offers new angles of looking at life.

"Script writing is as challenging as novel writing. So is acting. As a novelist, I have indeed benefited a great deal from my experiences in the filmmaking sector," he says.

"A movie does not harm the original novel. Instead, it promotes people's awareness of your novels," he says.

"Did you notice that there are so many remakes of films based on good novels? In addition, usually people read the novels before watching the movies. I believe novel has a longer life span than movies. And you can read it anywhere you want," he says.

In Liu's view, watching a movie based on his novel is like eating spicy fast food but reading his original novel is like eating a rich feast.

"You need to slow down a little and pay attention to the refined taste. And after eating the meal, you could have a pleasant memory," he says.

Due to his active involvement in filmmaking, critics have labeled Liu a "commercial" novelist. However, Liu does not feel ashamed.

"Not so many Chinese writers can earn a descent living by writing short stories or novels today. If their works do not sell well, how could they survive as writers?" he says.

"Due to the lack of money, a writer can no longer pursue lofty goals in his literary career. I hope more and more writer will be commercially successful. It is a good thing for both writers and their fans."

(China Daily November 26, 2007)

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