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Love without censorship

Love without censorship

Beijing Film Academy trained director Cheng Liang has found creative freedom that he lacks in his day job working for a government-owned studio making short internet-released films. Last November his film, My Spiritual Medicine, made over nine days for just RMB 40,000 ($6,322, €4,803), was watched an incredible three million times during its first month online. The film includes a plot that would never be allowed by a state-sanctioned studio – a gay love story. Cheng tells Gay Star News about the origins of the film and about the craze for gay comics among teenage girls.

Where did you get the idea for the film and the two intertwining stories?

I first got the idea of shooting the old lady’s story. She’s a real person. She used to be my neighbour. She hasn’t left her apartment for 26 years. She has OCD. She washes her hands for five minutes. She thinks the world outside is dirty. I love her. I think she is very strong.

But I thought, on the internet people won’t want to watch an old person’s story, I need a fresh story to go with it. I heard that there’s a craze for young teenage girls to read anime comics about beautiful gay men. A lot of Chinese girls like it. It’s called Danmei. It’s a very popular culture these days. So I think if I put two beautiful guys in my film, the audience will like to see it. 

How did you choose the actors for the gay storyline?

Our main actor is Japanese. He is a jazz player in New York. He and his girlfriend came to Shanghai and helped me to short the film for free. He liked the story, but he is not gay. The other guy might be gay. He’d never acted before.

Of the whole group, no one had worked in film before, except me. I prefer that because I think Chinese films are not very realistic. Chinese actors are not natural.

Was it a deliberate decision to just show the kiss between the two men?

During my day job, I shoot films for the government. They don’t like gay films. They are totally forbidden. On the internet, I have total freedom, but I must decide where to draw the line.

In the film there’s just one kiss between the two men. I shot two versions. One where they kiss, and one where they just sleep. But when I was editing I decided to test the ground a bit and put the kiss in.

Youku.com [China’s YouTube] has an officer who controls what goes on to the website, nothing too sexy or too much violence. And he said it’s ok. He likes it!

Did you receive any negative reactions to the film?

I think maybe a fifth of people who see my film don’t like it. Some because it has a gay story line, they leave comments. But they are not in Beijing or Shanghai, they are in [second tier] middle cities or western cities.

Some don’t like it because it has a Japanese actor in it. Many Chinese don’t like Japan.

But most people like it, one person said: ‘It changed my mind. I think that being gay is a beautiful thing,’ which made me very happy.

How did you chose the title of the film?

I found two guys in Beijing who do a radio show called My Spiritual Medicine. I emailed them to ask them for songs to use for the soundtrack. They never play new music. They play all old style music: 60s/70s last century, the golden time, rock n roll. They suggest I use the name of their radio show. Also I find some spirit in the name. It’s the name of a song.

If it’s released on the internet for free, how do you make any money from the film?

I haven’t earned a single Yuan from it. I have two companies, so I have a little money to shoot the film. I gave it for free to all the websites.

Now Youku like my work and they want me to shoot one or two films every year. They will give me some funding. They get so many people coming to the site from my film. One click on Youku is one Yuan, so they made more than three million Yuan [$474,328, €306,276] from my movie.

Is the film really about gay issues, or about lonely people in general in a big city like Shanghai?

Ah, I’m so happy you got the spirit of this film. The old lady is lonely, when the boys can’t be together they are lonely. I also want to say that gays are so lonely in China. They can meet together, have some activity in special bar, they can’t tell their parents. For Chinese people it’s very hard to say to their parents, ‘I am gay’ or ‘I am a lesbian’.

Would you ever make a film with a lesbian storyline?

I pay attention to lesbian lives, but I need to feel something before I make a film about it. I also think I’m not a very good director of gay story lines because I can only touch the surface, because I’m not a gay and I’m not very deep in gay life.

Do you think the government will ever change their mind about allowing gay story lines in mainstream cinemas in China?

About 10 years ago there was a very famous Chinese film called Lan Yu about a gay couple. At that time Chinese film is more open. Now it’s more restricted. Just because now we have a different government. This government is very strict.

The government make a lot of money from films, but they don’t know that the most important thing is to let the culture be free that can make the imagination fly. They restrict so we can’t do anything.

But I think the internet is a good chance. This film is a miracle. It shows that a gay story line can be the most famous short film last year. It’s amazing. 

Watch My Spiritual Medicine here: