Chinese co-prod’n takes relaxed approach

Ng, Ying star in Wang-helmed laffer

SHANGHAI — With its mix of Chinese and foreign crew and financial backing from both inside and outside the Mainland, “Karmic Mahjong” represents a new breed of Chinese film.

Production wrapped in southwest China last week on Wang Guangli’s third outing as helmer. “This is our first time working with big stars,” laughs Cory Vietor, one of the film’s producers.

“Karmic Mahjong” (original title, Xuezhan Daodi, means blood war to the end) stars well-known Hong Kong actors Francis Ng (“Infernal Affairs 2”) and Cherrie Ying (“Himalaya Singh”) as ordinary folk duped by a manipulative fortune teller. Pic is set in Sichuan Province’s capital city, Chengdu, known for its obsession with both the game of mahjong and with fortune-telling.

The film represents a comic turn for director Wang, whose previous films — “Maiden Work” and “Go for Broke” — were better known for social realism.

Also new has been the lack of state-owned studio involvement. Six years ago, when “Go for Broke” was shot, film regs still required all films shot in China (domestic and overseas) to be overseen by one of the dozen or so government-run studios. “Go for Broke,” for example, was shot with the Shanghai Film Studios.

Those rules were relaxed for domestic productions back in 2002, however, and now producers are free to hire the services of studios if and when they wish.

Censorship has also been relaxed. Up until the end of 2003, every film shot in China had to submit its script prior to production for approval from the Film Bureau in Beijing. Now, only a 1,000-word synopsis is required. Not everyone feels this is prudent, however.

“We could have just submitted an outline,” notes Vietor, “but some of the investors felt the need for more security and insisted on submitting the whole script.”

The complication lies in the fact that the Film Bureau requires a second round of approval once the film has been cut, prior to release.In the case of “Karmic Mahjong”, the investors — who hailed from Mainland China, Hong Kong, Europe and the U.S. (producer Charles Wu is a U.S. citizen) — were right to be cautious. The script was sent back twice by censors before approval was given.

Wang’s film is also a testament to the growing number of non-Chinese now working within the Chinese film industry. Alongside American producer Vietor — who runs an advertising company with Wang Guangli in Beijing — the film’s editor and Steadicam operator are both foreigners living and working in China. And other post-production work will be done by a foreign-owned studio in Beijing.

China, in the guise of the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, maintains strict control over the number of foreigners who can be employed in Chinese film and television productions. For Vietor, who has worked on all of Wang’s films, the key to working in Chinese film is trust.

“If the impression the authorities had was that everything in a film was foreign, that might be a problem,” he says, noting that his job-title on the film is officially “production supervisor.” “But if people are comfortable with you as an individual and know that you are part of a team that is basically Chinese, then they just let you get on with it.”

Vietor says the film industry in China is more and more international. “Shooting in Chengdu, we still get a few stares from the locals who are curious about the “big noses” (an old Chinese moniker for foreigners.) But in Beijing these days you are not news,” he says.

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