China's bold new Oscar strategy: try a dash of French flavor

China's submission for next year's Academy Awards may be set in China, but its director, producers, screenwriter, and editors are all French. China wants to end a 35-year dry run at the Oscars.

The Chinese government is seeking to end a 35-year run of failed Chinese movies at the Oscars with a bold new strategy: Next year, it will present a film made by a Frenchman.

China’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, “The Nightingale,” is set in China, and stars Chinese actors who speak Chinese.

But the director, producers, screenwriter, and editors are all French. Last year, the film was shown as part of a festival of French cinema in Singapore. And the storyline bears striking similarities to one of director Philippe Muyl’s earlier, very French, movies.

“This is really intriguing,” says Rob Cain, founder of the “chinafilmbiz” website. “It seems that the Chinese have woken up to the fact that local films have all failed [to win an Oscar] so they are trying different tactics.”

Mr. Muyl insists that his film is “bi-national,” a Franco-Chinese co-production. Producer Steve René says that “the envelope is French, but the content is Chinese.”

The film tells the story of a grandfather returning from Beijing to his ancestral village to fulfill a promise he had made to his deceased wife to free his caged songbird. He is accompanied by his granddaughter, a spoiled little city girl, who slowly learns to appreciate values beyond her iPad.

That might ring bells if you have seen “The Butterfly,” Muyl’s 2002 film about an old man setting off from Paris into the French countryside to catch a rare butterfly that he had once promised to bring to his now-dead son. He finds himself lumbered with his neighbor’s little girl, who slowly learns to appreciate lasting values.

Both are charming, feel-good films set in exquisite landscapes, and Muyl makes no apologies for his picture-postcard portrayal of Chinese life.

“I represented a part of Chinese reality … with a poetic vision,” he explains. “It may be out of fashion, but I like beautiful things. I don’t show a suffering, painful, dark China. I show a luminous, harmonious, positive, modern China.”

That undoubtedly appealed to the Chinese State Administration for Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television, which chose “The Nightingale” as China’s entry for the 2015 Oscars. It probably did not hurt that this year marks the 50th anniversary of Franco-Chinese diplomatic relations, the sort of landmark Beijing loves to play up.

But a spokesman for the government agency refused to explain when he was asked why the film had gotten the nod, and Muyl says they have not told him, either.

Other Chinese films tipped for presentation in Los Angeles next February included “Black Coal, Thin Ice,” directed by Diao Yinan, which won a Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. But that is about a serial killer. Star director Zhang Yimou’s latest film, “Coming Home,” is set during the Cultural Revolution. These are not subjects to which the Chinese authorities like to draw international attention.

Not that Zhang Yimou would seem to stand much of an Oscar chance anyway. China has presented his films seven times in the Best Foreign Language Film category; two of them were nominated, but neither of them won.

No mainland Chinese film has ever won an Oscar. Ang Lee, whose “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” won Best Foreign Language Film honors at the 2000 Oscars, is from Taiwan.

“My film is different from earlier Chinese efforts to win an Oscar,” says Muyl. “I think they asked themselves which film had the best chance of pleasing American voters and chose mine. They are trying something different.”

The director acknowledges that the choice has puzzled the film world. “I don’t think people understand how a Chinese film can be signed Philippe Muyl,” he says. So he is off to Los Angeles next week to try to explain things.

“I am surprised” that "The Nightingale" has been presented to the Oscar judges, Muyl adds. “But I think everybody else is even more surprised.” 

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