French butterfly, Chinese nightingale

In 2002, French film-maker Philippe Muyl released The Butterfly, a work he wrote and directed.

The bittersweet comedy-drama about a septuagenarian and a small child on a butterfly hunt achieved a measure of success across the world.

In China, it found a devoted following through pirated DVDs because it was never officially released there.

Muyl, 70, should be upset at the theft of his work but if he is, he does not show it. It might be because one of those illegal discs got into the hands of respected China actor Li Baotian, best known for his parts in Zhang Yimou films such as Ju Dou (1990) and Shanghai Triad (1995).

"He loved it. For a long time, I wondered why this film was so successful in China but now I think it's because they enjoy watching two people who are opposites in age - an old person and a child," says Muyl on the telephone from Paris.

Speaking through a translator, he said the actor, working with producers, contacted him four years ago to discuss a remake but with China as the setting, featuring local actors.

The result is the Sino-French co-production The Nightingale, which will premiere tomorrow at the ScreenSingapore trade show. On Friday and Saturday, the public can watch the film at ScreenSingapore's partnering event, the 3rd Rendezvous With French Cinema festival.

Muyl started making trips to China in 2010 for research and to develop the script. Walking around Beijing, he noticed that in many families, grandparents look after young children while the parents are at work.

He noted how families in cities were smaller and the kids more pampered, compared with rural families.

That formed the base of the story in his script. Zhi Gen (Li Baotian), is an ageing widower and former factory worker, estranged from his high- flying architect son, Chong Yi (Hao Qin).

Over a particularly hectic period in their work lives, Chong Yi's wife Quan Ying (Li Xiaoran) is forced to leave their precocious and very spoilt daughter Ren Xing (Xin Yi Yang) with Zhi Gen.

The old man decides to leave Beijing for a quick trip to his rural hometown of Yangshuo and takes the girl along. The journey by train and bus proves longer and more difficult than expected, and both have to learn how to get along.

"Once the script was written, we auditioned many, many Chinese actors," he says.

The part of Ren Xing, the bratty child used to having adults do her bidding was clinched by Xin Yi Yang who, unlike many of the other children he auditioned, was untrained and a relative newcomer to acting.

Photography began last year after extensive location scouting, for which they travelled across the breadth of Guangxi and Yunnan provinces, both located in the south of the country. In a few scenes, villagers were recruited to play small roles.

He says this was the first time a French director had worked in China on a Chinese-language film.

Considering the problems the cast and crew encountered - working through translators, the crew getting lost because of vague maps, financing glitches and culture clashes - he is astounded that he managed to get the film made.

The road to release had its bumps but it is a journey he would take all over again if he had the chance, he says.

"Now that it is all over, I cannot get over how crazy I was to think that a French director could make a Chinese film," he says.

johnlui@sph.com.sg


Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.