Director Ang Lee did not look comfortable at the podium of a Shanghai hotel.
He was one of five featured guests at a "Shanghai International Film Festival" forum with the theme "Difference and Similarity: Relationship Between Chinese and Hollywood Films."
Shortly before the forum started, he asked this reporter, who served as the moderator for the forum, what he should talk about.
"But you are the expert. You make Chinese movies in Hollywood, remember?" I told him.
Ever the gentleman with "Confucian elegance" (ru ya), Lee admitted to the audience that he did not really enjoy all the hoopla, but had to go through it because he wanted to be nice to the local authorities and that would presumably make it easier for his new project, a film adapted from an Eileen Chang short story and set in the Shanghai during Japanese occupation.
That frankness might have startled his agent. But it amused Feng Xiaogang, the director of popular comedies.
Feng emphasized that the crowd was there mainly for Lee because that director represents "filmmaking at a strong position," referring to Hollywood.
Feng said that when you come from an industry of such strength, your geographic characteristics may not be a restriction any more. He cited the example of Hong Kong movies, with their Cantonese-tinged Mandarin. People from northern China not only do not reject it, but embrace it.
On the other hand, Feng's own comedies have been accused of being too Beijing-centric. "Foreigners told me they could not understand my movies. But they could understand Tian Zhuangzhuang's movies, which are obscure art films. Even I could not decipher his work," he complained.
"I hope someday foreigners will understand my movies. And if they don't, they'll feel bad about themselves," he said.
Lee was puzzled by something similar. His "Father-knows-best trilogy" (Pushing Hands, Wedding Banquet and Eat, Drink, Man, Woman) were well-received in the Chinese mainland though they were not formally released in China.
Then he made Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in China, but it never caught on with the local audiences. He asked Feng what went wrong.
Feng explained that marketing for the movie might not have been properly handled and piracy could also have been a factor.
Along the same lines, Lee said he could not understand why his movie about gay cowboys set in the American West (Brokeback Mountain) would resonate with people in Switzerland. He attributed it to the mystery of the cinema experience, where people from different stripes sit in the dark and share the same joys and sorrows.
"I've had some success making movies in the United States. That's not because my English is good or I understand that place better than others. It's because I approach the stories with a culturally Chinese perspective," he said. "I present Hollywood with a special mirror through which they could better understand themselves."
"Whatever films I make, be they Hollywood, European or Chinese, the important thing is I tell a good story."
He felt that Eileen Chang's Lust, Caution is one of these "good" stories. "It struck me in a similar way when I first read Brokeback Mountain." The male lead for the film has been rumored to be Tony Leung Chiu-wai. Lee did not refute it, but he said the leading actress had not been selected yet.
The movie will probably start production at the end of this year, he confirmed.
When asked by China Daily whether he would adapt a classic Chinese novel such as A Dream of Red Mansions, which many cineastes feel he is ideal for temperamentally, Lee said it would be easier to film short stories. But he said that, if well made, the story could be accessible to a Western audience.
"Adapting (the work of) Eileen Chang is risky enough. There are so many people who study her work and they are probably sharpening their knives now. As for the Dream it'll be like a moth flying into a flame," he said.
Lust, Caution is about a female student who seduced a Japanese collaborator but at the last minute sacrificed herself for the sake of love.
"There is something in the story that excites and frightens me at the same time. I don't know what it is. I hope to find the answer through filming it."
The serious exchange at the forum happened between Feng and Chris Lee, former president of production for TriStar and Columbia Pictures.
Chris Lee, who supervised movies such as Jerry Maguire, Philadelphia, and As Good As It Gets and has recently produced his first Chinese-language film Foot off the Ground, took a firm Hollywood stand against Chinese regulations as too tight for imports.
He said the nation's quota for 20 imported films a year was doing the Chinese film industry a disservice.
He said the market would do a better job flushing out most of the mediocre Hollywood releases.
In response, Feng asserted that he was not afraid of Hollywood competition.
"Chinese cinema is no longer at the losing end of the battle with Hollywood. The top three box-office films of last year were all domestic releases."
However, Feng cited the incident in South Korea where even filmmakers with strong box-office clout joined in the protest against possible rescinding of quota restrictions for foreign films.
"It is not enough that Chinese cinema has Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, Ang Lee and Feng Xiaogang. We need to have room for young filmmakers. That's why we still need protectionist policies," he said. "But there should not be too much protection. That'll make our filmmakers lazy and less competitive."
Feng was optimistic that in five to 10 years the Chinese film industry will be the second biggest in the world, next only to Hollywood. "By that time, we'll capture the market through cooperation with Ang Lee from inside and us from outside," he said.
However, it might take 50 years for the Shanghai International Film Festival to catch up with the Academy Awards, he predicted.
The curtains will be closed on the festival this weekend.
(China Daily June 26, 2006)