The choice between independent and commercial productions:Emily Chan Nga Lei's experience in Beijing

01 2015 | Issue 1
Text/Allison Chan, Johnson Chao, Wendy Wong, Bob Leong

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Joint venture filmmaking is fast becoming the trend for the global film industry, and is also a key direction in Asia as filmmakers in Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan join up with mainland Chinese counterparts to produce films.


A Macao-based director of the post-1980s generation, Emily Chan studied at the University of Macau and went on for further studies in TV broadcast at Renmin University of China in Beijing for two years, where she acquired experience in the operation of film markets in China.


She wrote the script for Timing when she first arrived to Beijing, and the shooting for the film was completed in April 2014. In September, the film was featured as a showcase from Macao at China’s Golden Rooster Film Festival, and is due to be released within 2015.


A joint venture production between China and Macao, Timing is partially sponsored by the government, while the rest of the budget footed by private loans. In order to fund the film costs, the film must cater to the market. Chan has chosen to rely on the mainland Chinese market as a way of meeting the costs. To tell the story of Macao as well as to cater to the Chinese market, it is essential, to a certain extent, for the film to feature settings and actors from mainland China.


Riding on the initial success of Timing, Chan went on to produce a short film Yesterday Once More in October. She insisted that she has not given up on Macao’s own film market. “In China, productions are commercially-driven, and commercial filmmaking is a good way to be recognised by the audience, in order to secure future funding. I have come to Beijing to learn more about commercial film production. Although the local market in Macao is smaller, it has its own appeal. I also enjoy the more aesthetics-driven approach in filmmaking in Macao. Nowadays, I divide my time between China and Macao, and it is from developing commercial films that I realise the value of independent films.”


The very competitive filmmaking industry in Beijing meant that challenges are inevitable, especially for directors coming from Macao. “After all, we do have some cultural differences, and it is not always easy to integrate cultures or to come up with a script that appeals to the mainland audience. Given the dominance of commercial films in China, opportunities can be hard to come by if the director is not liked by the audience.”


At the same time, the training in Beijing has shed important insights for Chan, and has offered her an experience that is missing in Macao. “The division of labour is very meticulous in Beijing. There are many deputy directors to assist the main director, taking care of the artistic direction, the props, the acting crew and so on, making it a very industrialised process. Further, with a market dominated by commercial films, the remuneration for filmmakers is far more reasonable. In Macao, the director also takes on the role of the scriptwriter, and can only solicit a very low remuneration, making it virtually impossible to survive as a full-time film director.”


At present, Chan has officially signed a contract with a mainland Chinese film company, and will be producing three more commercial films in the next five years. Nonetheless, she will continue to make independent films in Macao. She hopes to produce two films in a year, and to build her team that includes local as well as mainland professionals, so as to encourage more resource sharing between the two regions.