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Lin Zhao Changed My Life: Interview With Filmmaker Phoebe Liu

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Mia Ping-Chieh Chen | Radio Free Asia

Mao-era Chinese dissident Lin Zhao, whose birth name was Peng Lingzhao, was a writer who grew up near Nanjing, in the eastern province of Jiangsu. Initially a star student at the prestigious Peking University, Lin was branded a “rightist” and a “class enemy” in the 1950s for her criticism of then-supreme leader Mao Zedong’s Anti-Rightist Movement targeting intellectuals. 

She was executed by firing squad at Shanghai’s Longhua Airport in 1968 at the age of 36, and her family was ordered to pay five cents for the bullet that killed her. Filmmaker Phoebe Liu, director of “5-cent Life,” an English-language biopic of Lin Zhao, spoke to Mia Ping-Chieh Chen of RFA’s Mandarin Service about the links between her life and Lin’s:

RFA: Why did you want to make this movie? 

Phoebe Liu: During the Cultural Revolution, my family was politically persecuted. That is, my father was labeled an active counter-revolutionary and sentenced to 10 years in prison. The government didn’t address these injustices until 1979. With such a background, I was even more invested in politics and history. From the very beginning, I felt I wanted to shoot films that would portray the past for future generations. I use my film footage to show these events and people, because they should all be immortalized. It was still possible back in the 1980s in China to make films about politically sensitive subjects. But the censorship regime has gotten much tougher in recent years, so it wasn’t easy to do.

RFA: Why did you choose Lin Zhao’s story? 

Phoebe Liu: My mission as a filmmaker is to be different from others. I have never sought fame or fortune. I want to remain faithful to my roots. I made movies because ever since I was a child I have been politically persecuted. I experienced tragic events of the worst kind. I saw the tyranny of those in power and the unfairness of society. I saw the human tragedy caused by communism and totalitarian rule. This is what I want to convey. So I said I would make a film. I wanted to use my money to make a film of Lin Zhao’s story. After she changed my life and enabled me to become a Christian, I was no longer angry, and could forgive, but I was even more determined to pursue the truth. 

RFA: Did your conversion happen because Lin Zhao was a Christian? 

Phoebe Liu: I wanted to learn about Lin Zhao and what gave her that inner strength. Later, I read what she said in her letter … that as a Christian warrior, her life was given to her by God… She had her faith to support her all along. So I opened the Bible, started reading, and started participating in church activities. It was through Lin Zhao that I was baptized and became a Christian. 

RFA: I heard that you sold your house to raise funds to film this movie. 

Phoebe Liu: My father heard that I was making this movie and said that I was a traitor. He said, you studied film studies abroad, and you’ve been grinding the same arrow for 20 years, and now you want to aim it at the Chinese Communist Party. This is my dad criticizing me. He criticized me using language that others had used to criticize him during the Cultural Revolution. He asked who gave me the money, saying that it must have been overseas anti-communist forces. [But] I don’t need money from anti-communist forces or other people’s money. I just used my own money. 

RFA: Why was the film made in English?

Phoebe Liu: I couldn’t find anyone in China who was willing to act in this movie. So I went to Taiwan, but no Taiwanese actors dared to take part in it either. We couldn’t find any Chinese-speaking actors, really, not a single one.

RFA: You also changed the names of the characters in the film. Why was that?


Phoebe Liu: If you use sensitive keywords, then they won’t let you make the film in China. If we had used the original names, we might not have been able to shoot it at all. We were walking on thin ice. Someone actually realized it was Lin Zhao, and refused to work on it. The difficulties I encountered in shooting in China would fill an entire book, but I can’t talk about them. All the people who helped me are still living within that system, and they could get into trouble.

RFA: You are now working in Hollywood. Do you still feel China’s influence there? 

Phoebe Liu: There are some film festivals that China also sponsors. There are also some film festivals and filmmakers who also want to maintain good relations with China. They wouldn’t dare to take on my films, because of their China investments.

RFA: Do you worry about China’s influence in Hollywood? 

Phoebe Liu: I’m not worried. The purpose of this movie is not to make money, not to please the world, but to honor God. I know in my heart that I have nothing to fear. 

Copyright © 1998-2020, RFA. Used with the permission of Radio Free Asia, 2025 M St. NW, Suite 300, Washington DC 20036

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