No Labels, Please: Lost in Beijing Director Li Yu Breaks Down the Barriers

by Amanda Weiss for That's Beijing

Photo by Gu Zhongsheng
Photo by Gu Zhongsheng

A first, unfiltered impression: Li Yu is adorable. As she comes sprinting into the café for our interview, yelling rapid-fire into her cellphone, I can only think about how, well…cute she is. With her youthful energy, diminutive size, and trendy clothing, she might be a teenager. Li barks a final order, hangs up, and directs a radiant grin towards me. We begin.


This month, 34-year-old Li Yu releases Lost in Beijing, her third narrative feature. The film has already picked up accolades at the Berlin and Tribeca film festivals as well as the ire of the predictably irascible Chinese Film Bureau (“the censors”). Made with the same production company as that of Li Yu’s second feature, Dam Street, Lost in Beijing is a dark comedy about poverty, rape, and blackmail. Like many of Li’s films, reactions have been diverse. As Li notes, “The Chinese felt it was a pessimistic film, the Americans thought it was an hilarious black comedy.” (“Pessimistic” or “gray” refers to films deemed to be either politically or socially negative).


Li began her directing career as a documentarian for Chinese television. Attracted by the possibilities of filming “real lives,” both her first and second documentaries For Love and Sisters won awards at China’s national television station, CCTV. However, concerned about the impact her documentaries were having on the lives of her subjects, she eventually switched to narrative filmmaking.


Her documentary background has been a formative influence: “The best preparation for me as a director was filming documentaries, because you learn how people move and speak. This sounds simple enough, but it truly does teach you what is fake and exaggerated, and what is natural and real.”


Li’s first film, Fish and Elephant, was a lesbian-themed love story with strong documentary elements. Li hired women she discovered in Beijing gay bars to play the main roles; a few of the film’s blind date scenes also featured non-actors found through classified ads placed by the director.


Although Chinese audiences were shocked by Fish and Elephant’s subject matter, the film was warmly welcomed abroad. At the urging of an American friend, Li applied to the Venice Film Festival and was accepted. While she was excited to receive this approval, she also confronted her first bout of labeling. “People meet me and think, a girl like you couldn’t film a movie like this,” she laughs.


Li considers her second feature, Dam Street, to be both her first real “narrative film” and her most challenging film to date. Typically an intrepid filmmaker, she found having her script rejected for “pessimistic gang elements” a huge disappointment. With Lost in Beijing, Li feels like she has hit her creative stride.


When asked how she feels about being branded a “feminist director” for her films on lesbianism and female migrants, the café suddenly rings with peels of laughter. Li shakes her head, amused. “If I were constantly crying out about feminism, it would be like I automatically defined myself as a powerless, disenfranchised person. But I feel that just naturally existing is fine.”


Li takes a similar approach to labeling the films themselves: “We don’t need to categorize films as ‘commercial films’ or ‘art films.’ Films should be classified as either ‘good films’ or ‘bad films.’”


Although she is regarded as one of China’s leading new feminist and art house filmmakers, Li Yu rejects such labels. Classify her as you will—“Chinese director,” “indie director,” female director,” she just wants to make movies.