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'Factory Girls' to Get Feature Treatment

Chinese migrant worker story optioned by Hong Kong-Dutch director.

A dramatic feature film version of Factory Girls, a non-fiction book about the plight and resilience of China’s female migrant laborers by former Wall Street Journal reporter Leslie T. Chang, is in the works by Yuen Yanting, a Sundance Film Festival nominee.

Yuen, a Hong Kong-born Dutch writer and director, told The Hollywood Reporter she has optioned the film rights to Chang’s book from literary agency Sterling Lord in New York and soon will begin writing a script.

Yuen’s 2005 musical documentary about communist model operas during the Cultural Revolution was nominated for the 2005 Sundance Grand Jury Prize and won the Prix du Meilleur Essai at the Montreal International Festival of Films on Art in 2007.

Chang’s book, published in multiple languages to critical acclaim, interweaves her family story with that of Chinese women less fortunate than herself.

“To make this movie,” Yuen said, “We will have to make strong choices,” aware that the subject matter might prove tough to get past China’s censors who are sensitive to realistic portrayals of the sometime dim conditions in which the nation’s laborers must work.

“But I’m not thinking too much about censors at this point, I just want to be able to tell a good story,” Yuen said by telephone from The Netherlands.

Yuen never tried to edit for a China release her model opera film, called Yang Ban Xi: The 8 Model Works, dealing as it does with a touchy period in the modern history of China, when propaganda and fear ruled the growing nation. That film saw limited theatrical release in the United States and Europe, where it also made it onto television.

With Factory Girls, Yuen says her goal is to tell with honesty the story of Min, the protagonist in Chang’s book, as she bounces from one grinding job to the next and weathers the transient friendships of modern China, whose manufacturing sector often is dubbed the workshop to the world.

“Topics like these may not yet be that interesting for people who still want to escape and see musicals,” said Yuen, noting off the top of her head, that only the films of director Jia Zhangke touch on contemporary reality in China the way she hopes she will.

Yuen, whose parents moved the family from Hong Kong to Maastricht in the Netherlands when she was six, wanted her to be a doctor or lawyer and barred her from going to film school.

Determined, her first self-taught short documentary, the 2001 title Chin.Ind.: Life Behind the Serving Hatch, tells of growing up in a family restaurant. It was nominated for the National Dutch Film Award.

“So many people have so many judgments about what life for the poor of China must be like, but Leslie and I have the same background and we have seen it both as Chinese as insiders and outsiders,” said Yuen, whose parents now live an hour from Dongguan, one of the biggest manufacturing hubs in the world in southern China.

“At the end of the day, life in the factories is a mess, but at least it’s their own mess,” said Yuen. “The book conveys a message of individualism being found in the middle of tough Asian Confucian heritage.”

Yuen also directed Dinner with Murakami, a mid-length documentary about the surrealistic world evoked by the books of Japanese best-selling author Haruki Murakami, which won the audience award at the Berlin Asian Hot Shots festival 2008.

She’s also now working on My Sister Came By Today, a $1.5 million family drama set in Hong Kong with backing from the Kassander Film Co. (Peter Greenaway’s The Cook The Thief His Wife & Her Lover), Hong Kong producer Sunny Cheng and the Hong Kong Film Development Fund.