Censored In China, Director Is Happy In N.y.

Posted: February 08, 1991

NEW YORK — Film censors in China banned Peng Xiaolian's Women's Story for what they called "morally deficient female characters."

Chinese film critics said "it was a bad movie, that it was too melodramatic, that the women weren't beautiful and that they cried too much," the 37-year-old director recalled recently, sitting in her tiny apartment in Greenwich Village.

Once abroad, however, Women's Story, which shows how such feudal influences as forced marriage and compulsory abortion still pervade women's lives in rural China, fared much better. It has received critical acclaim at film festivals around the world, including a standing ovation at the Women's Film Festival in Paris, and it is one of six films featured in "The Cutting Edge III," a series of new international films under way at International House, 3701 Chestnut St.

"The studio wanted me to change my characters," says Peng Xiaolian (pronounced Pung Sheyow Lee-yen), who is scheduled to attend the screening of her film tonight at 8. The film will be repeated tomorrow, Sunday and Tuesday.

"They didn't want the main character to have an affair with a married man. They didn't want one of the other characters to insist on having a third child," because it's against China's one-child-to-a-family policy. "But if I changed all those things, all my ideas would be gone," she says.

Like a number of other Chinese directors, Peng has journeyed West in the hope of finding greater artistic freedom as well as the economic and educational resources to continue her work. She is in the master's program at New York University's film school, where she was first invited as a visiting scholar in 1989.

"Here I can learn so many different things, talk to so many people, watch so many movies," she says enthusiastically. "In China, we don't have the chance to see a lot of movies from other countries. During the period of Mao Tse-tung's Cultural Revolution, we couldn't watch any foreign films at all. In New York, I can say anything, tell people any strange idea I have, and nobody cares. In China, it was not always easy for me because I'm too direct and outspoken, and I offend people easily."

Peng certainly can lay to rest any lingering stereotypes about the reserved Asian woman. What she thinks, she says.

She tells a story about how, during the filming of Women's Story, she loudly cursed an older technician, to the amazement of the 100-or-so extras and crew members. In a culture that requires absolute respect toward one's elders, it was a real affront. It made such an impression on her colleagues that afterward, they used Peng's choice of profanity in a wry attempt to ''show respect" to their elder director, Peng.


However, Peng seems more capable of inspiring amusement than anger. She has a stand-up comic's knack for telling stories in her unique style of English, and this sense of humor and feisty spirit have helped her adapt to life in the United States.

She lives in a tenement-style apartment in the Village, complete with

bathtub-in-kitchen and two cats inherited from a previous tenant. The space is small even by New York standards, but it beats the four-to-a-room living that was hers in densely populated Shanghai. "For the first time, I have my own private work space," she says.

In Women's Story, three peasant women from a rural village travel to the city, where their varied experiences lead them to greater awareness of their own power and potential.

Peng says she has a special empathy for such women because, in something of a reverse journey, from the time she was 15 to 24, as a result of the Cultural Revolution, she was exiled from Shanghai to the countryside to work alongside peasant women planting rice.

The children of artists and intellectuals were often "re-educated" through manual labor to "overcome" their bourgeois background, she explains. Her father, a writer and minister of propaganda in Shanghai, and her mother, a translator of film dialogue, were jailed for alleged "counter-revolutionary activities."


Separated from her parents and home, Peng alleviated her loneliness and isolation by keeping a daily journal and writing short stories. These exercises of the imagination proved useful when, after the Cultural Revolution, she returned to the city and began studying filmmaking at the Beijing Film Academy. Upon graduation, Peng was offered an assistant-director position at Shanghai Film Studios. The first film she directed, Me and My Classmates, received the Golden Rooster award (the Chinese Oscar). But her second film, Women's Story, released in 1988, did not go smoothly.

In China, film studios are controlled by the government, which funds and approves films. Studio heads, unable to imagine that a project about peasant women could be profitable, did not encourage its production, and it received the smallest budget allotted that year.

What does the future hold for Peng? Among other projects, she is seeking funding for a documentary on female students from China living in the United States. For the director, moviemaking remains a passion that even fear of the unknown cannot diminish.

"Being a filmmaker," she says, "is like falling in love - you never know what will happen next."

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