Chinese film and television producers flock to France for the classical settings – and the tax breaks

  • Vicky Zhao Wei shooting a gastronomic reality-TV show in Colmar, Chen Bolin making a romantic comedy in Bordeaux - Chinese stars are everywhere
  • In Burgundy, scenes for a series about the history of communism are being shot in a town where Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, among others, studied
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 December, 2018, 7:01pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 December, 2018, 9:09pm

Wherever you go in France these days there is a good chance you will come across a Chinese film or television crew. At least, that is what French media reports would have you believe.

“Filming of a romantic Chinese [TV] series in the Pyrénées”, “Bordeaux: A Chinese TV series targeting 80 million viewers in filming”, and “Filming of a Chinese reality show in Colmar” are just a few recent headlines.

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Chinese viewers can’t see enough of the country, it seems. And when it comes to “location, location, location”, France delivers.

News agency Agence France-Presse summed up the trend, reporting that France is a “mine of romantic landscapes and cultural references of which Chinese cinema is very fond”.

Beyond the country’s stately museums, vineyards and historic sites, another attraction is the tax incentives introduced in 2009 to lure Chinese television and film companies.

Reformed in 2016, the tax rebate for foreign cinema and television productions was boosted from 20 per cent to 30 per cent of total expenses incurred in the country. As a result, four Chinese films were shot in France in 2017 alone, up from an average of one a year in the previous eight years.

Meanwhile, director Yiran Liu shot scenes in Burgundy for a television historical drama that explores the history of communism, to be screened soon by state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV).

The series focuses on the small, north central town of Montargis, a former wellspring of communism where thousands of Chinese students, including friends of Mao Zedong, studied in the years following the first world war.

The French were almost hysterical about “spotting Chinese stars”, notably Jing Hu in the lead role, “wandering down the streets of Auxerre”, France 3 Television reported. “They are unknown to the battalion in Burgundy, and yet, in their country, they are real stars,” it added.

“Everything happens in the 1920s, when a group of Chinese students settled in France paved the way for the emergence of communism in China,” Liu told reporters. Among them were future premier Zhou Enlai and Xiang Jingyu, one of the first woman members of the Chinese Communist Party and the heroine of the TV series.

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Liu admitted he had been seduced by the city’s heritage, particularly its grand cathedral.

Chinese audiences are about to see a lot more of France in TV reality shows, soaps and romances, and in films, after a filming frenzy in the summer and autumn.

The latest action has put the city of Bordeaux in the limelight, particularly its university, which hosts about 4,000 Chinese students. For three months from late August, the historic city centre and its campuses were transformed into a set for Crocodile and the Plover Bird, a TV series starring Chen Bolin and Zhang Tianai, and directed by Yan Lin, which is due to air in autumn 2019 on Hunan TV.

“The plot revolves around the loves, hopes and arguments among a handful of Chinese students studying architecture and biology in Bordeaux for several months,” the regional Sud Ouest newspaper reported. “Born in the ’90s, they embody the third generation of Chinese students abroad.”

A promotional poster describes the romantic comedy, with 40 episodes, as a tale about a small-town girl (Li Nanen, played by Zhang) with a passion for traditional Chinese culture and design, on an exchange trip to France, and her relationship with a stone-faced genius architect (Zhou Erwen, played by Chen) who is an advocate for hi-tech sustainability. Their values clearly clash and they become “frenemies” before falling in love.

A crew comprising 100 Chinese and 50 French members has been highly visible in and around Bordeaux shooting half of the episodes. The rest are being filmed in Shanghai. After being given a red carpet reception at the city hall by mayor Alain Juppé, public spaces welcomed the crew at the former French prime minister’s request, according to French co-producer Franck Priot.

“The city of Bordeaux faced competition from other major European cities for the filming, but Bordeaux charmed the Chinese with its classical backdrops and bourgeois character,” Priot said. “This is not the first Chinese series shot in France, but it is by far the biggest shoot.”

Lavish scenes were shot at the Jardin Public, a historic monument that opened in 1935; the iconic 18th century Place de la Bourse (also known as the Place Royale); the nearby coast around Arcachon; and the wine-growing area of Saint-Émilion.

It’s not the first time the Gironde department, of which Bordeaux is the capital, has been chosen by Chinese film crews, according to the Sud Ouest. In 2010, Jiang Ai (Eternal Moment), a sequel to the successful television drama Cherish Our Love Forever, was shot in the region.

There appears to be a close link between tourism and cinema. In 2015, Franceinfo radio reported that the Chateau de Chantilly had been a huge hit with Chinese tourists, and the number has increased greatly in the three years since then. The growth came after Hong Kong star Jackie Chan shot a scene for his film Chinese Zodiac in the castle’s library in 2011.

The region’s vineyards are also naturally a big draw for tourists and the stars. (Bordeaux wines account for two-thirds of French wine exports to China, and a third of China’s wine imports.) “I’ve been here in France three or four times, but it’s the first time I’ve been in Bordeaux and I’ve already drunk a lot of wine from the region,” the actor Chen joked to the press on his arrival, He then bought a bicycle to pedal through the old city streets.

In late September, the Crocodile and the Plover Bird crew headed elsewhere in the Aquitaine region to shoot in the Pyrenees mountains. The high mountain passes and the ski resort of La Pierre Saint-Martin provided “spectacular cinematic decor”, France 3 Television reported, for the “big upcoming television event in China”.

Priot, who was responsible for all location spotting, explained that for one scene the lead female character scaled a sheer rocky mountain face with the help of ropes.

“I chose all the right cliffs for the scene, then the Pierre Saint-Martin – not just because it offers this dramatic cliff, but because of its orientation, access, lots of technical reasons – which tied in with our needs and the logistics of bringing the cast in here,” he said.

“We came here to shoot this spectacular sequence,” a Chinese crew member added. “It’s a series that will be shown on the largest Chinese channel, Mango TV, and it will have a billion spectators in China.”

French media have chased some Chinese film crews with paparazzi-like zeal. One journalist scoured the streets of Colmar in Alsace in June, asking anyone in his path if they had seen the Chinese crew filming a celebrity gastronomic reality show, and eager to know which restaurant were they shooting in. Locals pointed him in the direction of the Bistro des Lavandières, which had morphed into the Chinese Restaurant in the Hunan TV celebrity reality show.

The picture-perfect city, with its cobblestone streets and medieval houses, was the backdrop for the series. “Seduced by the Town of Colmar” was how one local newspaper reported on the activity.

“We chose Colmar because it is a historic city with a lot of character, and is ideally located close to both Germany and Switzerland,” said director Wang Tian. “Colmar is very tourist-oriented and we were really warmly welcomed by its inhabitants.”

The episodes shot in France for Chinese Restaurant – which has 200 million fans on social media – are due to air in July 2019. During the week-long shoot five Chinese celebrities, including Zhao Wei and Wang Junkai, were filmed around the clock, managing the restaurant, cooking meals and serving real customers.

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It was exposure worth its weight in gold, says Olivier Kritter, director of Colmar’s tourism office.

“To have been chosen, and the image of the city the crew will project, is worth millions of dollars of promotional investment in China, which is why we didn’t spare anything in ensuring everything went as smoothly as possible.”