China’s inscrutable selection process for picking its foreign-language Oscar contender became even more obscure in October when it yielded dark-horse entry “The Nightingale,” an intimate low-budget France-China co-production that came out of nowhere to eclipse such front-runners as political drama “Coming Home” from helmer Zhang Yimou, and Diao Yinan’s thriller “Black Coal, Thin Ice.”
Philippe Muyl, the French director of “Nightingale,” was as stunned as anyone. “We’re all surprised,” he says. “China’s market is about big action movies, not about small films like this one.”
Muyl was picked for “Nightingale” by its Chinese producers, Ning Ning and Steve Rene, because of the pic’s thematic similarities to his 2002 China hit “The Butterfly” — the story of a lonely young girl and an entomologist widower. “The Nightingale” centers on the relationship between a man and his granddaughter.
“It was their idea to make a Chinese movie directed by a Frenchman,” Muyl says. “They came to me because I’m well known in China.” The catalyst that made the film possible is the 2010 co-production agreement between France and China, which facilitates distribution of a number of joint projects, though “Nightingale” got no Sino funding.
Muyl spent more than two years on the picture — traveling to China, selecting cast and crew, and shooting over 50 days in the fall of 2012, in Beijing and in the Guangxi region.
Even though he learned some Mandarin, the helmer had to cross linguistic and cultural barriers. To help him manage production logistics and crew, he picked a first a.d. (Ken Siu) who spoke English, and a second a.d. (Yu Huo) who spoke French. Both were seasoned locals.
Interestingly, communication with his cinematographer, Ming Sun, was relatively easy. “You don’t have to speak a lot to the d.p.,” Muyl says. “We watched some movies and discussed general style, but once we started, he worked alone. I was involved only in the framing of certain shots.”
Muyl learned that China’s labor practices are more like those in the U.S. than in France, where unions have placed strict limits on the length of shooting days.
“In China, we sometimes left the hotel at 5 a.m. and didn’t get back until 11 p.m.,” he says.
Although China is notorious for film censorship, “Nightingale” faced no such issues. “(The censors) can do what they want, when they want,” Muyl says. “Sometimes they say no and you never know why, but this isn’t a controversial movie.”
Producers took the film to France for post-production. Under the terms of the co-production pact, the pic had to spend 20% of its budget in France, Muyl says. “Also, post is much better there than in China.”
So “Nightingale” joins the many movies in contention for the foreign-language Oscar. “We have one chance in 83 of winning,” Muyl says.
That’s a better shot than Zhang and Diao have.