EXCLUSIVE: Confetti, a U.S.-Chinese co-production is getting underway from producer Josh Green and writer/director Ann Hu, a director whose first film Shadow Magic actually beat out Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon for the Chinese Academy Award back in 2001 and became one of the highest box office performers in China. Hu was born in China and is now an American citizen. Her experience about connecting to both U.S. and Chinese audiences should be heeded by any filmmaker or studio wishing to do the same.
She moved to this country when she was 24 in 1979 and was in business and then went to film school so became an American citizen born in China. Caught in between worlds, she said she wondered, “Was I American or was I Chinese? Then I realized that I was a new culture. We are all becoming a new culture. If you are a mix, then your work is a mix.”
She enjoyed success in China but the films did not translate to U.S. audiences. Her first film Shadow Magic was picked up by Sony Classics and subtitled and not readily accessible to American audiences because it was full on Mandarin. “It was perceived in China as a Chinese film but with the Western flavor that audiences there like. The story was told through a friendship between an English guy and a Chinese guy,” said Hu.
Her second film Beauty Remains, which she produced and directed, also became a top box office performer in China but was picked up by Emerging Pictures and also subtitled. All these years — through success in one market and failure in the other, says Hu: “It was all preparation. I understand it now.” As a school project in NY, she wrote and directed China Dream and Memory, trying to marry the two stories from New York and China. It didn’t work. “The critics and the press told me what I needed to learn,” she said.
“I learned my first lesson sitting on a street corner reading the article about the review of my film and the article started off saying ‘Parents send their children to film school just so they won’t make the same mistakes Ann Hu did in this film.’ I cut off the American part and I realized that just because I spoke English, I wasn’t ready for the cultural nuance.”
After the critical and commercial success of Shadow Magic in China, the U.S. audiences, of course, considered it a foreign film. “It gave me a wake-up call about what kind of film I wanted to do.” That’s when she began trying to figure out her identity only to realize that she would embrace both.
First off, she said, there are notable differences between cultures. For instance, “Chinese audiences may be quiet after seeing a film but that is because they are thinking,” said Hu. “If they begin conversation about the film, that is when you know it has impacted them.”
Also, one word can mean completely different things in the U.S. and China. This heralded director in China but not in the U.S. (yet) began learning to bridge the gaps — painstakingly so and working in a very specific way. “Confetti is an evolution of Ann’s experiences,” said indie producer Josh Green. “It will be 20% Mandarin and 80% English and partnering with the same co-producer on her previous films in China. Ann is one of very few directors who has the cultural skill set that understands the nuances in both markets.”
Confetti, written with U.S. screenwriter Josh Fagin, tells is about a mother in a small Chinese town whose seven year-old daughter has dyslexia. She moves to NYC to learn a new system that can help “normalize” her. They meet up with wheelchair-bound writer who reluctantly agrees to take them in and a deep friendship forms. They discover that in a world where people are judged before they are seen for who they are, they need to embrace the unique gifts given to them.
“I understand what the job really requires now,” said Hu. “The word ‘normal’ in English is a much heavier word than in Chinese. The theme for this film is what the word ‘normal’ really means to this mother and her daughter. She is ‘normal’ in her own way and has other talents that can be celebrated. She doesn’t have to be ‘normalized.’ So things like that, I understand it now. I listen carefully to everyone working around me. I trust the true language of the speaker.”
“We sent script to China with local writers because half of the audience is in China, too. This is really about her education. For China, I am sending the script to people to read and getting their feedback and working with a Chinese writer to make it accessible in ways that need to be clear to the audience there. We are doing this many times back and forth.
“In China, translators translate but do not write. It is literal but with no feeling in dialogue. As a scriptwriter, you must translate it with meaning and with the personality of the character. It’s very complicated, but I understand what is in involved, and we are doing this now. You have to be true to what you know and believe, and I am truly not tempted by fame. I just want to do my films that are meaningful to me and give the world a bigger message.” She is getting constant feedback on the dialogue and word meanings from both friends in the U.S. and in China.
Hu has also developed scripts in a similar way for A Chinese Model and Mary Queen of Scots as her next film projects which are also intended for international co-productions. Both are, like Confetti, authentic and true to the sensitivities of the respective cultures.
The screenplay for Confetti will be ready when it goes before the cameras in September, first in China and then back to New York. It is a Chinese co-production with the same partner that very successfully produced and distributed her other films in China — Zhuo Shun Guo (who also helped director Xiao Gang Fung, known as the Steven Spielberg of China, launch his career).
In terms of casting, it will be international and diverse and they are talking to European, American and Chinese talent.
“The story is about people who help discover and unleash our individual and unique human potential. It’s about looking past the judgment and seeing people for who they are. This is about a mother who is trying to “normalize” her daughter, but the truth is, there is no ‘normal.’ “