For years, mainland China has thrown the big-budget movies of its most-heralded directors into the Oscars' foreign-language film race. Zhang Yimou, known for "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers," has had seven shots at the Academy Award as China's representative; movies by Feng Xiaogang and Chen Kaige have each been put forth three times.
But never has mainland China come away a winner. Since 1979, when it first joined the foreign-language contest, mainland China has only twice had a film advance to the final circle of five nominees. Thirteen Oscars ago "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" won at the 73rd Academy Awards — but that was directed by the American Ang Lee and submitted by Taiwan.
This season, China is trying something different — very different. It has selected a film directed by a Frenchman as its foreign-language candidate. Philippe Muyl's "The Nightingale," a French-Chinese co-production, is a gentle story, told in Mandarin Chinese, of a petulant schoolgirl and her semi-estranged grandfather who are thrown together on a rough journey to the old man's hometown in rural China.
The out-of-the-blue selection, which came just ahead of the Oct. 1 deadline, has provoked a fair bit of head-scratching in Beijing and beyond. Some observers say the choice reflects a new, more confident and modern attitude on the part of Chinese officials, illustrating they are not afraid to pick an international collaboration to represent China at the world's most prestigious film awards.
"It shows officials are very open-minded.… A lot of 'American,' 'French' and 'British' films are directed by foreigners, so why not in China?" said Zou Jianwen, a longtime Chinese film journalist.
Others say the opposite — that the pick was a convenient way for skittish, hyper-image-conscious authorities to avoid selecting a film by a homegrown director that touched on dark or unappealing aspects of Chinese history and society.
"Because [the choice] has to go to the top [for approval], artistic films that show too many warts will not be approved," said Stanley Rosen, a USC professor and expert on Chinese film. "Of course, these decisions are always opaque, but political considerations certainly trump artistic ones."
Perhaps no one was as shocked by the pick as Muyl himself. "It's a big and beautiful surprise," he said in Beijing last week as he kicked off a whirlwind multi-city press tour ahead of the movie's Oct. 31 opening on the mainland. Beijing-based producer Ning Ning likewise called the selection "unexpected."
Representatives of China's State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television did not respond to a request for comment on how, when or why "Nightingale" was selected.
But several people with knowledge of the selection process said Muyl's film was considered alongside just two others: Zhang's post-Cultural Revolution family breakdown melodrama "Coming Home" and Diao Yinan's bleak, noirish detective tale, "Black Coal, Thin Ice." Others noted that La Peikang, the current head of China Film Group and former SAPPRFT deputy chair, who presumably has some input into the choice, lived in France for about nine years and speaks fluent French.
"I think one reason our film stood out is that the plot is easy to understand by international audiences; a lot of Chinese films are difficult for foreigners to comprehend," said "Nightingale" producer Ning. "Also, China wants to do more foreign co-productions." Highlighting a collaboration with France as China's Oscar contender is a clear way to emphasize that interest.
Still, the selection of Muyl's film came just ahead of a major speech by Chinese President Xi Jinping during which he urged Chinese artists of all stripes to create artistically outstanding, politically inspiring works of art that can serve as "a foundation for China to compete in the world."
Xi called on them to expand China's arts and culture industry abroad, on a level on par with Hollywood, while promoting "core socialist values" to serve the Communist Party's agenda at home. "Good cultural works," he advised, "should warm and enlighten the soul, like the sun in the blue sky and the spring breeze — clearing decadence away from life."
Judged by those standards, both "Coming Home" and "Black Coal, Thin Ice" may have been too grim to showcase. "Coming Home," which played out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival in May, centers on a politically persecuted man sent to a labor camp during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution. That period of Chinese history remains so painful that many ordinary people today rarely even discuss it.
"Black Coal, Thin Ice" took home top honors at the Berlin Film Festival. Reviewing the film for Variety, critic Scott Foundas described it as a "dark and blood-soaked portrait of China in which human lives are as expendable as natural resources and everyone is standing on dangerous ground."
"Diao's film had the win at Berlin going for it, but I can see how the higher authorities might blanch at the view of China it offers — too bleak," Rosen said. That impetus to hide China's blemishes, Rosen added, is actually "counterproductive to [China's drive for] soft power."
That Chinese censors have been approving films such as "Black Coal, Thin Ice" for release in China has been taken by some as a sign of progress.
But another recent ripped-from-the-headlines tale of violence and despair, Jia Zhangke's "A Touch of Sin," was denied a 2013 release in China — and thus could not even be submitted for the foreign-language film category. That was a disappointment to many foreign critics, including the New York Times' A.O. Scott, who said the movie deserved to be nominated not just for foreign-language film but also for director and best picture.
Li Xun, a researcher with the China Film Archive, agreed that "Coming Home" and "Black Coal" were not "promoting the mainstream ideology." But "Nightingale," he said, might have a better shot at securing a nomination than the other films.
"We always send 'big films' for such an event," said Li, but Oscar voters often prefer "small films, more artistic films, films that portray characters in a richer, realistic way. … So I am, in a way, happy that they sent a 'small film' this year."
"The Nightingale" touches lightly on some contemporary Chinese social issues, including materialism, marriage problems and intergenerational tensions. The cinematography contrasts the lush landscapes of southern Guangxi province with Beijing's sterile high-rises.
In look and pacing, "Nightingale" feels European and shares some commonalities with Muyl's 2002 French film "The Butterfly," which proved unexpectedly popular in China. That movie also told a story of a young girl spending time on the road with an elderly man, with a winged creature taking a title role.
After showing several of his family-oriented films at festivals in China, Muyl met Ning and her French husband, Steve Rene; the couple were fans of "The Butterfly" and encouraged Muyl to consider doing a movie in China.
"I knew almost nothing about China, but I was looking at the calendar of my life, I saw my age, and I said, 'It's time to be crazy,'" recalled Muyl, 62. The director spent about half of 2010 and most of 2011 in China, taking language lessons and traveling. He even shot a short pollution-themed film, "Red Apple," as a sort of experiment to see if he could actually make a movie in Chinese.
The language barrier proved easier to overcome than the financial hurdles, said Muyl. "It's hard to find money in China if your movie is not an action film and not in 3-D," he said. "And in France you can find money — if you're making a film in French or a European language."
In the end, 80% of the $3.1-million production budget came from China and the rest from France, which qualified it as official Sino-French co-production, one of the first ever.
Muyl said the 50-day shoot was invigorating. "The lifestyle in China is so fast — when I go to France, I feel like I'm going to a museum, or a retirement home. It's not dynamic enough."
"Nightingale" debuted at the 2013 Busan Film Festival in South Korea, opened in France this spring and has played a number of U.S. festivals, including Palm Springs and Seattle.
As for being selected to represent China at the Oscars, Muyl said he had to stay modest. "I have to stay very humble — I know Zhang Yimou, and I know 'Black Coal, Thin Ice.' There are a lot of film masters in China, they are like powerful orchestra conductors. I am like a simple player of the erhu" a two-stringed Chinese instrument, he said. "We can make beautiful music with two strings."