Co-Producing a Film in China Helped Me Discover My Roots

Guest blog: Though I am of Chinese origin, I have spent most of my adult life in the West — my collaborators helped me anchor "33 Postcards'" fictional world withauthenticity and nuance


I didn’t imagine filmmaking could possibly be my field of work when I was a young girl growing up in a male-dominated Asian culture of Hong Kong in the early ’70s. I didn’t think it was beyond my reach; it was beyond my imagination to even think it.

But then, like the incredible journey of the young girl (Mei Mei) in my latest film “33 Postcards,” which opens in America on Friday, my journey into this wonderful imaginary business was an impossible dream becoming possible somehow, perhaps with the appropriate motivation and enough conviction, and with a lot of luck thrown in.

This journey of thousands of miles over many exotic locales, foreign cultures and two decades of time, started with a single step for me. Just like the construction of a movie, one shot leads to another, and a series of shots edited together creates meaning and tells a story.

I started writing and making up stories when I was a child and had my first essay published in a newspaper when I was 17. This was my first artistic step, which led to a scholarship at the Chiang Kung Performance Arts School, the first formal film training institute in Hong Kong. As I portrayed character journeys through my given roles, my interest in extending my experience from one character’s perspective to multiple perspectives increased.

So after my family migrated to Sydney, Australia, in the early ’80s, I started to write and work as an independent self-funded documentary maker between acting assignments. This new work won me a four-year scholarship at the Australian Film School, studying directing and editing.

I love stories that explore certain human conditions, stories that I hope will resonate with others and move them emotionally as much as they move me.

“33 Postcards” is such a story. The two key characters of the film came from two different real life experiences. The young Chinese girl (played by Zhu Lin) was inspired by the hundreds of Asian homeless children I have interviewed in three documentaries I made a few years back in the Asian region; and the Australian male character (Guy Pearce) was influenced by an article my co-writer Martin Edmond read in an Australian newspaper.

We were touched and inspired by the similarity of hopes and fears, love and dreams of these two very different characters. They are vastly apart in personality and backgrounds, yet their hearts and spirits long for the same affection and acceptance that we can all relate to despite who we are and where we came from. We decided to create a story to combine these two real life narrative worlds into one fictional drama.

When the script was a few drafts deep, we looked for financing in Australia. It soon became clear to us that we would need to mount the film as a co-production with China in order to attract Asian funding. So I put on the producer’s hat and went to China and Hong Kong multiple times on my credit cards. Luckily, within a few months, we found a China co-producer, HengDian Film Studio.

Making a China co-production resonated with me in many ways. Although I have Chinese origin, I have spent most of my adult life in the West, and my sensitivity and influence as a filmmaker can probably be described as Western rather than Asian. My Chinese collaborators helped me anchor that fictional world with truth, authenticity and nuance.

In China, I discovered a director is treated like the supreme artist in a production. There is a clear and strong hierarchy. I was expected to give order and was never questioned or challenged on any decisions I made. The producers and the investors yield total trust and unquestioned support to the director once they make the commitment.

No one would address me with my first name. I was “Director Chan” no matter how many times I requested my first name be used. This was strange – even surreal. Somewhat daunting and wonderful at the same time for an Australian filmmaker who is used to a system that tends to be equalitarian and more casual. 

Still, even with these advantages, shooting a co-production in China was not without its share of challenges. Language and cultural barriers presented themselves in selecting a cross-cultural cast and crew. Securing Guy was a dream come true for me. 

Then I realized when I started auditioning young actresses for the co-starring role, I'd have a newcomer who would need a lot of support to deliver a performance on par with Guy. His work is perfect on take one every time, while Zhu Lin often took dozens of takes to warm up due to her lack of experience.

As we started rehearsals, I developed a cinematography style and a directorial approach such that they would arrive on the same level scene by scene. I took a minimalist approach, keeping technicalities as simple as possible so that these matters would not overwhelm Zhu Lin, allowing her to focus on the emotional engagement of being "in character." Guy was incredibly supportive, encouraging and helpful – a really great mentor to young Zhu Lin. I have never worked with such an artist, so generous in spirit.

The language barrier was another challenge. A large team of on-set interpreters and document translators were hired for each department: English dialogue coach for the Chinese casts, call sheets were bilingual, daily rushes had rough subtitles in Chinese, some roles had duplicates to maximize local knowledge, particularly the Australian First Assistant as he had to work closely with the Chinese First Assistant to ensure the Australian production system would not to be alienating for the Chinese personnel.

I was tired after financing and putting together a selection of cast and crew from Australia, China and Hong Kong. That was before we even started to set up production offices in both countries for pre-production!

Being faithful to the screenplay, we selected remote locations in both China and Sydney. I personally traveled to many places in China over three different trips to find each of the Chinese locations. In Sydney, we had a location manager to scout, but splitting the script into two countries was physically and creatively challenging to me, trying to marry the two worlds into one. It was also logistically difficult for our cast and crew.

But I really wanted to treat the film as close to the screenplay as possible so that the characters are as real as possible to the audience. We did not build any sets and shot the entire film on real locations, including a prison in Sydney and a children’s shelter in China.

Once the film was done and delivered, the production team was happy to receive such positive feedback. I’m thrilled beyond words at the response we’ve had at film festivals – we’re excited to see how American audiences receive the film.