HAF: China’s Cai Chengjie Takes on Sexual Assault in Feature Project ‘Splash’

Rebecca Davis
·4-min read

Chinese director Cai Chengjie will follow up his Rotterdam prize-winning first feature with “Splash,” a new project that daringly takes on the topic of sexual assault. It has been selected as one of 20 narrative films to participate in this year’s Hong Kong-Asia Film Financing Forum.

The film will tell the story of 24 hours in the life of a female graduate student after she has been sexually assaulted, capturing her experiences from her point of view as she encounters different responses to the event from her parents, her boyfriend, her friends, the police, the university faculty, and the media. Cai, who was inspired to start the script last year by a real-life case that happened to a woman of his acquaintance, writes that he hopes to capture “the unspeakable pain women suffer and the exploitation they face in society.”

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It’s an ambitious agenda for a filmmaker hailing from a country where the word “feminism” has at times been censored from the web and young activists detained for actions as simple as planning to pass out stickers decrying sexual harassment.

While the subject makes for fruitful artistic territory, handled the wrong way, it could make the film a headache to get past China’s strict censors.

Producer Qian Yini remains determined to get “Splash” to the big screen. “Cai’s approach to his work is very sincere — he’s focused on the female protagonist’s experiences and reactions, and the story he wants to tell about the choices he sees women facing today, and so isn’t thinking so much about things from the perspective of those watching,” like the censors, she said. But “of course we also want the film to be able to hit cinemas so that more people can see it and reflect on it.”

Qian feels optimistic that it would be possible. The censors have a “supportive attitude” to films that are of “good quality from a production standpoint” and in an instructive fashion “allow audiences to reflect on their own lives” after watching, she said. Indeed, authorities have of late aggressively pushed filmmakers to work on so-called “social realist” topics.

“I think as long as the original creative intention is pure and doesn’t seek to exploit or use its topic to exaggerate or intensify conflict, then there isn’t a problem,” she said.

“Our film wants to get people to reflect on these bad societal realities; it isn’t preaching or using this subject to exaggerate or intensify, and so as an artistic product it has a positive value,” she added. “I think [the censors] hope to have more good films like this in cinemas.”

Cai’s written description of the film emphasizes that the work will be shot “objectively and realistically in a documentary style,” avoiding “extreme camera angles” and anything that would “distract viewers from the story.”

The helmer’s first film, “The Widowed Witch,” which he wrote and directed, made just $113,000 (RMB732,000) in China but sparked critical acclaim, winning the Hivos Tiger Award at the 2018 International Film Festival Rotterdam, as well as best narrative feature and best director at China’s influential FIRST International Film Festival.

Variety’s review called it “a circuitous feminist fable marking an imperfect but promising debut,” and a “challenging” film with “each frame rife with visual tension and detail.”

Qian said that she felt Cai’s second film would be more “nimble and agile” than the first, and come at a point when his aesthetic style has matured.

She said she was immediately drawn to the project when she heard its subject and approach. “We felt it was a very meaningful story with clear social value that would make people think,” she explained. “Since it occurs entirely from the female protagonists’ perspective, it also has very strong pacing and a great narrative rhythm — it’s a story that presses on at every stage until the culmination of those 24 hours.”

“Splash” is backed by Beijing-based Seshizi Motion Pictures, and has secured $103,000 of a projected $740,000 budget, with hopes of securing a new, young talent to anchor the film as the female lead. Currently in script stage, it hopes to begin production this year.

Watch the trailer for Cai’s first film “The Widowed Witch” below.

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