Co-directing for 30 years, meet world cinema’s enduring couple

November 18th, 2011 - 12:39 pm ICT by IANS  

Mumbai, Nov 18 (IANS) Without doubt, the Chinese husband-wife pair of Li Qian Kuan and Guiyun Xiao is one of the world’s most enduring cinematic couples. Together they have battled censorship, helped usher in film reforms and co-directed 21 feature films in 30 years.

When asked about the secret of their longevity, Guiyun says, “We do it for the sake of art and not the preservation of our individual pride.”

The Beijing-based couple is in India for the Indian premiere of their latest film, “The Star And The Sea” at The Golden Elephant 17th International Children’s Film Festival, India, now on in Hyderabad.

Asked whether they fight and both reply with a vehement “yes”.

“There are times when both of us insist on doing something our own way and it does get hard to resolve. But the good thing about the arts is that unlike mathematics where two plus two has to be four, in art it can be eight. Differences can be married and we have found that the resolution of our arguments have actually made our films better,” Guiyun tells IANS.

“When I am right, he follows and when he is right, I follow,” she adds.

Filmmakers for the past 50 years, they also have over 200 hours of television programming.

The world has seen many filmmaking couples like, say, James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow, but none that have managed to not only stick together as a couple but also continue to co-direct films for so long. Cameron and Bigelow have never directed a film and they separated over a decade ago.

Li butts in, “Being a husband-wife pair co-directing a film shortens the filmmaking cycle. So what a lone director would do in two months, we’d do in one. It saves money, time and energy.”

Guiyun adds, “Sometimes while I am still shooting, he is already on to post-production for the same film.”

The harmony between the two was visible during the interview with IANS. While Li began the interview, after answering a few questions he let Guiyun take over, busying himself with sketching a portrait of the reporter and butting in only when required, to add something to what his wife says even as the translator frantically tries to translate back and forth.

The couple first met in film school in Beijing in 1958-59. Li was Guiyun’s senior, doing a course in art direction while she was studying film direction. After film school, they married but couldn’t immediately start making films; the reason - the cultural revolution of China.

“For the first 10 years of my life, I couldn’t make any films because of the cultural revolution. Those were my most energetic years,” says Guiyun with a shadow of pain darkening up her face for a moment.

After the revolution had settled down in the seventies, both started working in different projects separately. In 1981, they co-directed their first film. From 1981 to 1998, they made 20 films on varying subjects; about war, children, peasants etc, many of them being big-budget historicals. Between 1998 and 2010, as seniors of the Chinese film industry, they began another fight - that against excessive Chinese interference and censorship in cinema.

“For 12 years we did not make any films as we were focussing on benefiting the entire Chinese film industry. We have had to fight, but today censorship is much more liberal and people can make films with very few problems from the government because of the multiple reforms that we have managed in the system,” says Guiyun.

Ask then whether a young filmmaker can make a film about and shoot in Tibet today, and they say that if the film is not highly political one can. Li gives the example of a new film, “Zhuan Shan”, about a young man from Taiwan who cycles all the way up to Lhasa, Tibet, to fulfil a brother’s wish.

Li, who’s chairman of the prestigious China Film Association and president of the China Film Foundation, both highly prestigious positions, gives an example of government patronage of cinema in China.

Every year an average of 15 films are directly funded by the government, while many other films are subsidised or partly funded by the central government and many more given money by local governments.

He gives the example of the multiple award-winning 2010 film “Aftershock” for which the local government of Tangshan gave a ‘gift’ of 60 million Chinese Yuan.

There’s a lot that cinematic couples worldwide could learn from world cinema’s first cinematic couple, and the governments of the world, including India’s, from the Chinese government’s patronage of the arts.

(Satyen K. Bordoloi can be contacted at

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