Since filming Weekend Lover in 1990, director Lou Ye has produced seven additional films. But though his movies have received awards and attention at international film festivals, only one has screened in the Chinese mainland.
Lou was issued a five-year ban from Chinese authorities, following his 2006 film Summer Palace, set against the backdrop of Tiananmen Square in 1989, the time of Lou's own coming-of-age.
Without receiving approval from authorities, Summer Palace participated in the Festival De Cannes in 2006, violating an article in the Regulations on Administration of Films.
Lou now makes his comeback to the Chinese film market with his latest film, Mystery. This is his second film approved for screening in the Chinese mainland and the only Chinese movie selected in this year's Festival De Cannes.
"I'll have a try and see if I can work in the current system. But I do not know how far I can go," said Lou.
When Lou and Nai An, film producer for Summer Palace received the ban from The State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, both were shocked. Lou was 41 then, at the prime of his career.
Lou said his first reaction was, "now how can I feed myself?"
Nai said to his friend, "Lou Ye, I know you will never starve."
Nai was right. Though it was difficult to find domestic support, the international market was receptive.
"My films always have an international market. It's not difficult to receive overseas financing for low-budget films," Lou said in an interview with Nanfang Daily.
Money aside, however, there were other issues.
"We were not in a good place [at that time]," said Nai. "We felt many people were looking at us and thinking, 'they are done, they are finished'. That pressure was in our minds."
Lou wishes to remain quiet about his temporary exile. In the winter of 2006, Lou went to Iowa in the US, when Chinese American writer Hualing Nieh invited him to an International Writing Program launched by the University of Iowa.
Lou remains thankful to Nieh. During this time, Lou read, participated in film courses at the university, and socialized with new friends.
After the program wrapped up, he shot two films: Spring Fever (2007) and Love and Bruises (2009).
Darker glimpses of life
Born in 1965, Lou is considered one of the forefront members of the sixth generation of Chinese filmmakers.
Lou first studied painting, then spent three years learning animation and and two years working at the Shanghai Animation Film Studio Liu later chose to enter the Beijing Film Academy over China Central Academy of Fine Arts, graduating in 1989.
"Mystery was like Spring Fever, I wanted to shoot a film about contemporary times," said Lou. "So Mei Feng (screen writer for Mystery) and I looked for stories from the Internet. Compared to something scripted, online stories are closer to [reality]."
Lou's films tackle sexuality, gender, obsession, and death, often sparking controversy.
"Sex is part of life and can be used to analyze a character. You have different feelings about a character [depending on] the character's sex life, especially in a movie," Lou said.
"If a person thinks there are no dark sides in his life, this thought is false. If a person thinks his future is [completely in his own control], then he is misleading himself. I myself like a simple life," Lou told the Global Times.
Though most critics thought Lou's five-year ban was an unfortunate blow to his career, Lou regards those years as his happiest, as he did not need to worry about whether a film would be approved.
Filming Love and Bruises was like fulfilling a dream to Lou.
"When we were studying at Beijing Film Academy, most of us longed to live life in a different culture and shoot films in a different environment," Lou said. "It was a dream, and I am fortunate."
Lou opposes censorship in films, citing it as a violation against the freedom of art and suggests implementing changes to better accommodate films in the future. For example, Lou recommends a rating system, for starters.
As Mystery is about to premiere, critics are eager to see what Lou has been doing for the past five years.
Lou is unconcerned about box office figures.
"The economic payback of a film is very important but does not relate much to a director's work," he said.
"In the film industry, a project will not get investment if it is unprofitable. But some movies do well, despite predictions."
"The movie industry is a risky industry," he added.
Lou doesn't concern himself with making his films available to a wider audience. "Like documentaries, art films are for a certain type. That is reasonable," Lou said.
"It's OK for me to just survive," is something Lou often remarks.