Oscars: French Director Surprised But Delighted to Represent China

Philippe Muyl's Sino-French co-production 'The Nightingale's' is gearing up for a wide opening in China

Noone was more surprised than director Philippe Muyl when China selected his film The Nightingale (Ye Ying/Le promeneur d'oiseau) as its candidate for the best foreign-language film at the 2015 Oscars.

But the director insists that the second-ever official French-Chinese co-production is truly a Chinese film with the country's story deeply ingrained in its DNA.

"It's a Chinese movie. Eighty percent of the movie is Chinese," Muyl told The Hollywood Reporter in an interview in Beijing. "It's a co-production between China and France. I am French. The producers here are French. The post-production took place in France. But all the story, the screenplay, the actors, the technicians, were all Chinese. This is in Chinese. Everything is Chinese."

Read more Oscars: China Selects 'The Nightingale' for Foreign-Language Category (Exclusive)

The movie is about to be released on at least 4,000 screens in China, and there are expectations that its choice as an Oscar candidate could quickly boost box office beyond the 100-million-yuan ($16.33 million) threshold.

"We were surprised when we were nominated. We don't know the reason why. This movie has been in some film festivals here in China. They knew the movie. But, yes, we were surprised," the director said.

The film, which stars Li Baotian, Yang Xinyi, Li Xiaoran and Qin Hao, tells the story of an elderly Beijing man who takes his granddaughter on a nostalgic trip back to their hometown in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region. In some respects, it shares  elements with Muyl's last feature, The Butterfly (Le papillon).

Producer Steve Rene stressed that the film is not an adaptation of Butterfly, but "is a totally different piece, with only the presence of a grandfather and a young girl in common with the earlier film."

It was co-written by Muyl, Ning Ning, who also produced alongside Rene, Qin Hong and Paul Delbecq. "The movie has been quite a success in France. We'll see if the Oscar angle has given it a boost," said Delbecq.

Muyl said he knew relatively little about China back in 2009 when he started talking about making this movie. "It's such a big challenge for a Frenchman to make a movie about China. I have begun to travel and observe and we worked with the screenplay," said Muyl. He worked closely with Ning on the story.

"The most difficult thing is to find a subject for a co-production. Chinese society is very different from France. Since we have finished this, I'm looking for a new idea, and I don't find one, it's very difficult," said Muyl.

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China has never won the foreign-language category, although Taiwanese director Ang Lee has won the category for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000.

"Do I think we can win the Oscar? For this film to be selected is already a small miracle. So why not have a big miracle now?" said Muyl.

The choice of a French director certainly marks a departure by the film authorities in China, and perhaps they are banking on a boost by not choosing one of the usual candidates from China's filmmaking elite. They also passed over Diao Yinan's Berlinale winner Black Coal, Thin Ice.

Last year, Feng Xiaogang's Back to 1942 was submitted by the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, but it failed to make it on to the shortlist of nine movies from which the five Oscar nominees are chosen.

Zhang Yimou'sThe Flowers of War, which featured Christian Bale, was chosen in 2011, but it didn't win over the critics despite box-office success in China. It was the seventh time one of his films was submitted in the category.