Making a film in China proved a culture shock for French director Philippe Muyl. But he believes his Sino-French co-production about the bond between a spoilt child and her grandfather will help tell the story of the changing country in Europe.
"When I began making this film my hair was dark," the grey-haired Muyl says of the trials involved in making The Nightingale, which is showing at Broadway Cinematheque in Yau Ma Tei tonight as the final film of the Le French May cultural festival.
Muyl told the South China Morning Post he spent three years putting together the €2.5 million (HK$26.3 million) family drama on the mainland, coping with the cultural challenges and even its infamous censors.
The Putonghua-language film is a Chinese take on Muyl's 2002 French film The Butterfly, which told the story of a spoilt city girl spending time with her grandfather on a road trip to his countryside home.
The plot has considerable resonance in today's China, where the one-child policy has resulted in a generation of city children indulged by their newly prosperous parents. The new film transposes images of the countryside and cityscape, and muses on the theme of loosening family connections at a time when an economic boom is leading to growing material wealth.
Muyl says his Chinese co-writers helped him adapt the French story to a Chinese context. For example, they urged him to drop a scene in which the grandfather fought with his son as such a thing would not happen in a society where sons did not confront fathers. "For us, that's very difficult to understand; not talking about problems."
Another problem arose when it came to working out a schedule, a concept alien to the Chinese filmmakers he worked with.
"I just had to adapt," he says.
And even though his film is a family drama unlikely to upset the sensibilities of Beijing's all-seeing censors, the censorship process still presented challenges. He had to submit a script four months before the start of filming and then, after wrapping the shoot, he waited two months for the censorship board to approve the final cut.
"It just took more time," he says.
And while making the film opened up a different side of China for Muyl, it also gave him cause for pessimism about the country's future.
"People are too materialistic," he says. "They are too obsessed with money and don't care about their environment."
The film is scheduled for release on the mainland in July, but Muyl does not believe French cinema, with its reliance on storytelling over the flashy effects and action of Hollywood hits, will find a big audience in China.
Equally, he sees little chance of mainland Chinese films making it big overseas. The reason? Quality. He cites The Monkey King, which raked in more than 1 billion yuan (HK$1.25 billion) domestically in 19 days in February, as an example.
"It was a big hit in China but it's impossible to show in France because it's not good," Muyl says. That leaves co-productions like The Nightingale to tell China's story in the West.
He has a distributor lined up in France, and the film had its US premiere at the Palm Springs Film Festival last year.
"I'm showing certain sides of China that interest the Western audience," Muyl says. "I'm like an ambassador for China in France."