Mandarin sets mainland co-prods

SARS effects delays with projects

HONG KONG — Mandarin Entertainment took a hit with the news that Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) had broken out on a larger scale than previously thought in China.

The company’s youth development project, for one, was delayed from its intended March launch and will instead start this month. Set up as a joint venture with the Youth Palaces Assn. of China (government-backed educational and cultural after-school centers), it will help young people across the Mainland to appreciate movies and respect intellectual property rights.

Location scouting couldn’t start on China’s biggest film, the $10 million Tony Ching-helmed “The Sword Searchers,” originally slated to start shooting in August. It now won’t lense until next year.

Philip Chan, CEO of the Hong Kong-listed Mandarin, remains upbeat. “Everything is still going ahead,” he says. “Our education project was delayed. As for the film, SARS has given us more time on the scripts and pre-production. There is an advantage in being given more time and preparation.”

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Mandarin is one of many Hong Kong companies involved in China co-productions. This year, the company has 10 films on its slate, including comedy “The Lost Horizon,” featuring a cast of actors from Hong Kong, China and South Korea, and “In-laws, Out-laws,” based on a popular Mainland television drama of the same name.

SARS hit the company’s Mainland projects, but it also provided an opportunity. Mandarin’s founder and chairman Raymond Wong saw the potential in the pneumonia outbreak for stories about how human relationships and mindsets change during a time of crisis. Hence, “City of SARS,” a trio of stories in one movie, each focusing on a different aspect: a doctor who goes through a transition when his colleagues succumb to SARS; a girl who is quarantined because her apartment building has been affected; and a wealthy businessman who goes bankrupt because of the outbreak.

Two stories have already been shot and one is shooting this month, with hopes of a mid-August release. It all happened quickly. SARS broke out in Hong Kong in March; Wong came up with the idea in mid-April; by the end of that month, the project was in production. Steve Cheng, a director who usually works in TV dramas but also has a dozen film credits, even put aside a SARS-related television project to take on the film.

Though the stories sound grim, the key to the film was to convey a positive message. “In the first story, we look at how SARS changed people’s attitudes,” says Chan, who is executive producer on the film. “In the second, we want to show how people don’t know their neighbors until a desperate situation shows them the value of friendship. In the third, it’s a look at a businessman who rides the hardships of Hong Kong. We went into a creative frenzy and, in a matter of weeks, put together a cast and crew and we found we had support from China’s distributors.”

Chan says with the SARS film, Mandarin isn’t targeting overseas audiences; it’s meant to offer a bright side to a situation where many felt despair and depression. But with so many places around the world affected by SARS, the movie could find a bigger audience than it expects.