Macau allure attracts biz

Recent construction boom could make filming tougher

HONG KONG — Macau was booming this year as a location set, but it could go bust with the arrival of casinos galore.

While Macau’s exotic look has been popular in films from Josef von Sternberg’s 1952 “Macau” to “Indiana Jones,” this year, four productions have shot in the picturesque city.

But the recent construction boom could make it much tougher to film in Macau. Productions need local tech crews and possibly extras, a scarce commodity these days.

So where have tech crews and people willing to be extras gone?

They’re earning a steady buck with the new casinos, a stable prospect compared with the occasional 10-week film shoot.

So scarce were the pickings that Mandarin Film’s “City Without Mercy,” aka “Po Jun” and helmed by Wilson Yip (“Dragon Tiger Gate”), dropped its plan to shoot there in favor of Hong Kong. Pic, was expected to start shooting any day.

The gangster-themed pic needed 250 extras for a particular scene. Instead of bringing people from Mainland China and Hong Kong to Macau for the shoot, it made more sense to just bring people to Hong Kong.

So while Macau may not draw as many projects in the future without built-in support, it hit screens in a big way this past year.

Recent pics “Exiled” from helmer Johnnie To, “Isabella,” “Invisible Waves” and the upcoming “Home Song Stories” all shot at least in part in Macau. Despite a rash of glitzy new gambling joints, the former Portuguese colony of about half a million people still has an exotic feeling, with an odd but alluring combination of European and Chinese influences.

Squares are tiled in beautiful swirling designs and the architecture points to its Old World history, but in tropical shades of pink, green and yellow. Windows are covered with wood shutters and the blue and white tiled street signs bear both Portuguese and Chinese names.

To’s “Exiled,” which screened at Venice and Toronto, is set in 1998 Macau, the year before the colony was handed over to China.

“It looks like a place far away, but production-wise the location is still close” to Hong Kong, says Shan Ding, general manager for To’s Milkyway Image.

Macau can be reached by ferry in an hour or by helicopter in about 15 minutes. But don’t forget your passport: It’s required for entry.

To has said he chose the location for his mafia drama because of its “strong European flavor — the alleys, the streets and architecture have retained their Portuguese and Spanish influence.” But Macau is still Chinese — and the dialect is Cantonese, which is what’s spoken in Hong Kong and throughout Southern China.

This makes Macau, a special administrative region of China, familiar for people from Hong Kong, Ding says. While To’s decision to shoot in Macau was “a creative decision as opposed to a practical one,” Ding says, it proved to be affordable as well. While the production brought most of its crew from Hong Kong, it arranged subsidies through film shingle Media Asia for ferry transport and hotels in Macau.

“Exiled” is set to bow in Hong Kong on Oct. 19. Also from Media Asia is drama “Isabella,” which won a Silver Bear for music at Berlin. Helmer Pang Ho-cheung says he chose to shoot in Macau simply because, “It’s a very beautiful little town.” For all its charm, however, Macau proved more expensive than a Hong Kong shoot due to the added expense of crew, hotel and food, according to Pang.

Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s film noir thriller “Invisible Waves” also had parts filmed in Macau. The Fortissimo pic preemed in competition at Berlin this year. Another Fortissimo film, “Home Song Stories” helmed by Aussie Tony Ayres, also is expected to be shot in part in Macau.

If Macau had a film commission, it would seem an easy job to entice filmmakers, but as it is now you need only apply for a license to shoot from the Cultural Affairs Bureau and then local independent production houses can help provide support.

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