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Li Yu used to be best known as a rebel art-house film director, largely thanks to her first feature, Fish and Elephant, a bold lesbian story, and her third film Lost in Beijing, which was dropped by cinemas due to its gloomy depiction of the city and explicit sex scenes.
But the 39-year-old has learned over her 12-year directing career to tame the demon inside with wisdom.
She has made consistent efforts to succeed in an environment that does not always open its arms to art-house films because of a strong belief in her audience.
Her last film, Buddha Mountain, revolves around three dropouts from school and their lonely landlady, an obscure Peking Opera player. Li wrote and directed the story for people "deserted by the rapidly developing era". No one expected the film to be a box office hit, but with a budget of only 10 million yuan ($1.58 million) it earned 80 million yuan.
A boy who failed the college exam told her he watched the film eight times.
"I love sharing my feelings with audiences, so I will not give up filmmaking," Li says at her studio, an apartment hidden among beauty salons, small companies and restaurants. "China's environment for filmmaking is not that exciting, but we have brilliant audiences."
To keep her audience, she has compromised. She used to make spicy films, but now she makes milder ones.
She had to remove a scene of the three teenagers planning to attack a train to show their anger at society in Buddha Mountain, but her latest film Double Exposure, a thriller, had no difficulty being passed by the authorities.
Starring Fan Bingbing, a household name in China and the new heartthrob Feng Shaofeng, the film has beautiful faces, suspense, murder and affairs. Protagonist Song Qi works as a consultant at a plastic surgery clinic. She kills her best friend who has an affair with her surgeon boyfriend, and is tortured by guilt and endless hallucinations.
Li wrote the script in four months, before and during which she talked with her psychologist friends.
"Their brains are like huge refuse dumps," she says. "I am not saying all things contained in them are negative, but they offer some clues about what's wrong with society and people today."
For example, one issue she wants to discuss in the film is plastic surgery. She raises a question: Why do people wear a mask when they already have one to survive in society?
As a former investigative reporter for China's biggest TV network, CCTV, Li is never satisfied with simply making a sensational story.
Another subject she talks about in the film is people losing themselves in money. In the second half of the film, Song Qi starts a journey to look for inner peace, during which Li reveals how drastically money can twist one's whole life.
How money changes and tortures people is not a fresh issue in Li's films. In Lost in Beijing, which raised great controversy and displeased the authorities, the power of money is shown when a rich man rapes a migrant worker; in Double Exposure, it is shown in a woman's journey of self-discovery.
Li does not shy away from talking about her changes, compromises, frustrations and yearning for wider recognition.
"I used to be fragile, because I was obstinate. Contradictory, but that's what things are. If you insist on climbing a mountain that you cannot at present, you will feel frustrated."
What she is doing now, she adds, is working to be removed from a black list. "I want to do some special film that audiences can see in cinemas, so I have to acquire some techniques and wisdom to be taken down from that list. If I don't care about audiences and the box office, I can stay on that list as long as possible and make films exactly the way I like, but I do care about them."
What she has not changed is her belief in her audience. In a test screening of Double Exposure, people from various professions outside film circles were invited. Students, accountants and technicians gave their interpretations of the story.
To Li's joy, not all of them focused on the murder or affair. Some captured why the film is titled Double Exposure immediately, some realized her attempt to address some serious social issues, and others drew pictures to accurately illustrate the complicated relations between the characters.
"Do not ever under estimate audience," she says.
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