When director Lei Junlin, 41, came up with the idea of producing an animated film about Mao Zedong's childhood, she had plenty of doubts. To portray Communist Party leaders in China through cartoon had long been taboo.
But to her surprise, Lei received approval from the party central committee's General Office and her project attracted the involvement of the propaganda flagship Qiushi Journal in 2011. A film production wing under Qiushi is now co-producing the cartoon with two other official filmmaking companies.
The movie, When Mao Zedong Was Young, covers the leader's teenage years. It was selected as one of three films to celebrate the 120th anniversary of Mao's birth, in December.
Lei said the film departed from the practice of treating Mao as infallible and tried to show him as more human.
"Desanctifying Mao is a significant goal of the film. Just like every other child, he was naughty and liked to play tricks. There hasn't been enough coverage of Mao's childhood," Lei said.
To ensure the portrayal was realistic, the production team sent 600 volunteers to Mao's hometown in Shaoshan in Hunan province and other places to gather anecdotes about him. One of the biggest challenges they faced was how to balance the exaggerated expressions that cartoons use with the solemnity required when dealing with the founder of modern China, according to Lei's husband, Zeng Xiangbao, who is the film's general producer.
While they hoped to offer a new view of Mao, his mother Wen Qimei was treated with such reverence they considered using the term "Virgin Mary" in the English subtitles to describe her. "Mao's mother had great influence on him and she was a Buddhist," Lei said.
The script took more than a year to vet, requiring approval from various departments within the party and the government.
Lei, who is also director of China's longest-running cartoon series on popular science - 3,000 Questions from Bluecat - said she was heartened that the only changes to the script were minor wordings. But authorities told her not to use the name Shaoshan in the movie title in order to avoid giving too much emphasis to a local place.
President Xi Jinping's "Chinese dream", although not mentioned explicitly, was one of the film's themes, she said. The campaign, which has been a personal project of Xi, seeks to promote the revitalisation of the nation. It would sit alongside the expression in the film of Mao's childhood dream for the nation, and his ambition to leave Shaoshan in pursuit of it.
The movie is in the final stages of production, and the team hope a 3-D version can be made for next year, Lei said.
"We definitely want to screen the film in Hong Kong. We want to show that this kind of movie can break the rules and be different," she said.