China-Taiwan coproduction counts on animation to draw auds

TAIPEI — When helmer Tom Shu-yu Lin set out to create a film version of one of his favorite books — Taiwanese author and illustrator Jimmy Liao’s “The Starry, Starry Night” — he had in mind a small arthouse movie made in collaboration with Liao.

Instead, China’s leading private shingle, Huayi Bros., came onboard and the teenage coming-of-age movie became a new type of pic for China — a small indie suddenly transformed into a $7 million China-Taiwan co-production. Properties sometimes undergo this kind of change in Hollywood, but it’s rare in China.

“At the beginning, I was working with a limited budget, but when it became a co-production, the budget grew,” says Lin. “Why not do better CG, make it more fantastical and really capture the imagination of Jimmy Liao? It’s quite bold that Huayi Bros. are spending this money for such a small (film). They are trying to push their boundaries and try new stuff.”

Huayi Bros. has scored numerous successes in China, especially with helmer Feng Xiaogang’s films, including “Aftershock,” war epic “Assembly” and numerous comedies of manners, including “If You Are the One 2.”

Last year, Huayi’s films grossed 1.7 billion yuan ($258 million), accounting for 17% of the overall Chinese B.O., and this year the company announced a slate including big-budget pics by Feng, Tsui Hark and Jackie Chan.

The animation element could boost “Night’s” appeal in Asia, especially in South Korea, Japan and Taiwan.

The film is an example of a successful co-production between Taiwan and mainland China, which can sometimes be fraught affairs because of the tense politics between the two — China still considers the smaller, independent nation a renegade province. Even though relations have improved in recent years, co-productions are still keenly examined by censors for political correctness.

“Co-production is so complicated, but ‘Night’ is a very healthy example,” says Lin. “There was nothing we needed to change. With a story like this, because it’s such a fairy tale, it’s OK to get a mainland Chinese actress and put her with a Taiwanese actor. Just as long as they are speaking with the same accent, it doesn’t matter where they are from.”

Even though Mandarin Chinese is spoken on both sides of the Strait of Taiwan, auds can tell where an actor comes from if accents don’t match, and problems can arise.

The co-production came about because Lin had seen mainland child thesp Xu Jiao in Stephen Chow’s “CJ7″ and thought she would be perfect for the girl in “Night.” Pic’s exec producer Chen Kuo-fu (“Detective Dee”) said if they already had a mainland actress, a key criterion for a co-production, why not just go that way, giving the filmmakers access to the bigger funds available on the mainland.

Says Lin, “I thought, well if you’re going to up my budget, and I don’t have to change anything, why not?”

Lin was born in Taipei, moved to Minnesota when he was in grade school, and in college, his project, “The Olfactory System,” won a nomination in the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival and Awards. He got his masters at CalArts then came back to Taiwan. “It was really during those two years in CalArts that I realized I was Chinese,” he says.

His last project was the 2008 coming-of-age drama “Winds of September.” He’s also logged time as first A.D. on Tsai Ming-liang and Doze Niu productions.

“Night” bowed at the Busan Film Festival and drew serious attention in the New Currents section, which showcases up-and-coming Asian directors. It’s due for release in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia in early November.

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