ABOUT 2,000 students are gathered in the playground of No 108 School in Changchun, Jilin province, solemnly listening to the national anthem blaring from a speaker. It looks like any flag-raising ceremony conducted in mainland schools every week, but a camera rolling down one side of the square means this one is different. A movie is being shot, and despite the subzero temperatures and biting wind, most students seem happy to forgo the day's classes to serve as extras. Once a scene is wrapped up, they break into small groups to chat about the film and its director. But the discussion is very different among those extras who are students at Changchun Public Relations School. 'It's so hard to shoot a film. We've been acting a whole morning. [If it was like the other day], we'd have finished the whole script by now,' says one. 'You're right ... It's much more complicated than our impromptu project,' says another. Such comparisons are inevitable when the students were actors in the real-life drama on which the film is based. They had enacted the same scene at their school seven months earlier to fulfil a dying seven-year-old's wish. Zhu Xinyue, who used to raise the flag at her primary school, was already blinded by her brain tumour, but hoped to attend the ceremony at Tiananmen Square. When her family appealed for help to fulfil this dream, 2,000 people stepped forward - by having Xinyue believe she'd made it to the capital since she was unfit to travel. While they didn't have a detailed script, the volunteers worked out a 'route', on which they would play bus conductors, commuters and tourists from the provinces. Xinyue was completely taken in. The heart-warming gesture inspired Hong Kong director Allun Lam Wai-lun (Another Meltdown, 1999) to turn it into a movie, A Chinese Fairy Tale. But with the patriotic symbolism of Xinyue's wish, the project is invariably labelled as Hong Kong's first foray into making so-called mainstream ideology movies - a euphemism for propaganda films. Lam found the shoot in Changchun a challenge. Because daylight hours are short, the crew had to start at 6am to make the most of the sunshine, and the bitter cold slowed filming even further. 'The whole story unfolds over just seven days, from the first day when the girl's father calls a local newspaper for help, to the last day when the ceremony is enacted,' says Lam. 'I asked the publisher, 'how did you do it in seven days when I have to prepare for two months for a film? What preparations did you make? How did you persuade so many students to pretend that they were going to Beijing?' But there were no plans; many things were just serendipity.' Tony Leung Ka-fai, who plays an editor at City Evening News, the paper that helped make Xinyue's dream come true, was touched by how readers responded. 'A line on the script cover really moved me: 'A simple wish kindles many people with love to help make a fairy tale come true'. I hope more people can know about this story through the film, and more fairy tales will come true,' Leung says. 'My brother died from cancer when he was nine, which partly influenced [my decision to take on the role]. I was 16 at that time and it was my first encounter with death. It's part of our lives, and we should help those facing [death] get through the inevitable phase.' Once shooting's finished he plans to visit Xinyue, whose life has been extended by a few months thanks to a brain operation that a Beijing hospital performed for free after learning about her plight. Playing a reporter in Fairy Tale, pop singer Emme Wong Yi-man was also moved by the story's message of compassion although she found it hard to understand Xinyue's wish at first. 'I thought the story was made up when I learned about it from [the film's investors], but later found it was true,' she says. 'The sense of patriotism is different in Hong Kong; we seldom see flag-raising ceremonies.' But even mainlanders were sceptical. Tao Bin, the journalist Wong portrays, was astonished by what Xinyue yearned for too. 'I thought it was a conventional story when the father called,' Tao says. 'What last wishes could a dying child have? Nothing more than a toy or a nice meal. If so, our newspaper could easily fulfil her dream. But I was astonished when she said she wanted to attend the flag-raising ceremony in Tiananmen Square. It's so sublime, even my own father asked if I'd made it up after reading the story.' To render Xinyue's wish more credible, Lam depicts the movie character as a girl from the countryside who wins flag-raising duties through hard work. 'It represents her sense of self-worth; she feels respected and finds meaning from it,' he says. In addition, Lam focuses on how other people respond instead of the girl herself. His original script had taken the traditional line of emphasising Xinyue's tragic fate. But he was dissatisfied with the result, as was the film's backer, Carl Chang. They were worried that a plot approved by mainland censors might not go down well with wider audiences and vice versa. 'I felt very frustrated,' Lam recalls. 'In the end, we decided honesty was most important. I won't cater to either side. Luckily, [the script] passed the censors.' Even so, the director found it difficult handling the patriotic sentiment. 'If it's not well done, Hong Kong people may just dismiss it as being 'left'. In fact, I took a contrarian approach. I want laughter among tears,' Lam says. 'Her plight is tragic, but why is the story funny? I want the audience to think about it.' Leung, too, finds films that toe the party line testing. He joined the shoot in Changchun soon after wrapping up a mainland production in which he plays a hard-working rural teacher. Along with movies such as On the Mountain of Taihang, Leung has appeared in more mainland propaganda films than any A-list Hong Kong actor. But he insists he accepted these roles to gain experience and is not concerned about how it affects his image. 'The exciting thing about this industry is that you're trying to come up with something new every day, so I hope audiences won't be too critical about our foray into new fields,' Leung says. 'My fans like to see me in movies such as The Lover and Dragon Inn. But if I only perform for certain fans, I won't progress. I always try to raise the level of my acting. No matter if it's a small role, a part in a propaganda film or something else, I'm learning something and honing my skills.' As the most recognisable face on the set, Leung has proved adept at organising the hordes of onlookers. He's often standing in front directing the crowds, sometimes in exchange for a few autographs and group photos. 'As a leading actor, you have to help maintain order on the set and help the crew with their work as well as acting your part well,' he says. Leung first collaborated with mainland production teams in 1982 when he played a Qing emperor in Burning of the Imperial Palace in Beijing, and has seen the crews change over time. 'It was very slow before; we shot one scene a day. There was a saying, 'If you do more, you make more mistakes; do less, fewer mistakes'. Now they're adapting to the outside production teams and becoming more efficient.' After a solid day's shooting, Leung invites the crew to play table tennis at his hotel. 'We're holding a Greater China tournament; there are crew members from Hong Kong, Beijing and Changchun,' he says. 'I hope one day there will be no distinction between Hong Kong, Beijing or Changchun productions. All are Chinese films.'