Q&A | Li Shaohong: A reflection of life across the border

For at least one brief moment in this city’s recent history, Macau offered something entirely unique and perhaps irreplaceable: it was a mirror reflecting the lives of people across the border.

This poetic description of Macau was offered yesterday by Chinese director Li Shaohong, who is in the special administrative region to attend the screening of her film, A City Called Macau, at the International Film Festival & Awards – Macau.

Li Shaohong is part of China’s Fifth Movement of filmmakers, credited with having overthrown the traditional storytelling methods of Chinese cinema in the post- Cultural Revolution period. She is considered by some to be the country’s top female director.

Her 2019 Chinese-language drama examines the excesses of Macau’s gambling industry, from its liberalization at the start of the century to the anti-corruption campaign of 2014, which wiped vast sums from the market. Based on a 2012 novel by Yan Geling, the story follows a female casino broker who brings wealthy high-rollers to the betting tables, only for them to be later stricken by gambling addiction.

In Li’s Macau, all types of people find themselves drawn to the casino – government officials, businessmen, entertainers and so on – and here they find certain activities, prohibited at home, now possible. The confluence of a great variety in people gathering in such a small place makes for an interesting film setting, explained Li through a translator. “Here in Macau, you can see a reflection of the lives of mainlanders,” she said.

Was there a certain risk involved in making a film in China about gambling, an activity that the mainland authorities generally frown upon? A kind of bet on a bet?

Li Shaohong – Yes, it was indeed a bet to make a movie about gambling. I think this is the first movie about gambling in Chinese cinema [… and] I did have the intention of making audiences aware of the dangers of gambling. Also, this movie is set in a period in which China has been opening up and reforming and so it reflects that period of time quite realistically. That was a challenge too. Then the censorship process took about a year and so we missed all of the major film festivals last year. When the film was shown in Chinese cinemas, the slot [it was given] was not the best, to say the least. However, I am quite satisfied because what I wanted was to show this film to audiences and that has been accomplished. We also had a good reaction from the market, especially with the younger generation of moviegoers, who seemed to like the film and gave it a high rating.

The period between the handover and the 2014 anti-corruption crackdown is something of a historical landmark in Macau, both a dawn and twilight moment. What interests you about this historical context?

Li Shaohong – The film is set in a very interesting period after the handover when the gambling industry became the main industry of Macau [fueled by] the gamblers coming from mainland China. Unlike Hong Kong, which is [primarily] an international port, Macau and China have historically enjoyed very close ties. And there are all sorts of people coming from mainland China to Macau to entertain themselves [in this period] – there are government officials, business people, entertainers and artists – from all strata of society. [With this confluence of people in a space outside of the mainland] certain things that could not have happened on the mainland took place in Macau. Here in Macau, you can see a reflection of the lives of mainlanders.

How much of Yan Geling, author of the 2012 novel on which A City Called Macau is based, was present in the making of the film adaptation?

Li Shaohong – The author, Yan Geling, is very popular when it comes to film adaptions. Many of her books have been adapted into films and a number of television series. But she doesn’t write much about modern day life in China. This is one of the few stories she has written about the present. When she was writing the novel, Yan had already told me about the stories [contained] within the book. She then wrote a draft of the script as well. I became very interested in this story after learning it is about a female character set in modern-day China. I like the very unique angle of this book; from the perspective of a female observer [documenting] this important historical period of time. I asked her to retain this perspective of the female observer in the first draft of the script.

What was it about the censorship process that stalled A City Called Macau for over one year?

Li Shaohong – It was about the subject matter of gambling. This is really something unheard of in Chinese cinema. As we know, problematic gambling is bad and so countering the problem is a good thing. The government censor is more concerned with having too many casino scenes in the film, which might be seen as a way to promote gambling. As filmmakers, we have quite the dilemma in terms of how to tell the story without promoting gambling at the same time. The censors were quite strict not to show anything which appeared to encourage people to gamble. For example, we had certain scenes where the protagonist would enter a casino trying to show a friend how these games work. These scenes were deleted in the final cut.

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