The Chinese film Finding Mr. Right is a classic romantic comedy: a materialistic woman pregnant with her married sugar daddy's child moves from Beijing to Seattle only to find true love in America. Shot primarily in Canada, the film – in Mandarin with some English – has an urban sensibility that touches on delicate social issues. And somehow, in a country where Hollywood CGI-fuelled blockbusters and epic Chinese period films rule the box office, this modestly budgeted romcom has become the ninth-highest-grossing domestic film in its history.
The film topped the box office in China for four successive weeks after its March 21 release – before being ousted from the top spot by G.I. Joe: Retaliation – taking in 513 million RMB ($83-million U.S.) as of late last week, according to Chinese entertainment-industry research company Entgroup's China Box Office Tracker. It was shot mostly in Vancouver, fuelling hopes that more Chinese producers will want to make their films here.
"Somehow it really took off and it took everybody by surprise," says co-producer Shan Tam. "We've got lots of bragging rights, that's for sure."
Tam, who was born in Hong Kong but has been based in Vancouver since 1989, runs the independent production company Holiday Pictures and Maple Ridge Films, which specializes in service productions (foreign productions that shoot in B.C.), with her husband Michael Parker.
Parker says Finding Mr. Right appeals to China's booming middle class with its urban feel and its between-the-lines social commentary.
"It's a bit of a breath of fresh air. It subtly touches on some pretty interesting topics," says Parker, who took a break from his graduate film studies at the University of British Columbia last year to work as the film's line producer.
Directed by Beijing Film Academy professor Xue Xiaolu, the Hong Kong/China co-production stars Tang Wei as the pregnant woman. In Seattle, she is assigned a driver (Wu Xiubo), also originally from Beijing, who becomes much more to her.
Birth tourism – a practice that sees pregnant women travel to North America to have their babies in order to get them a coveted passport – has been a hot topic in China. And the character of the wealthy, crooked Beijing businessman touches on concerns about materialism and corruption in the country.
"The fact that it has done so well as a simple romantic comedy I think is very exciting," says Parker, who will graduate from UBC next week. "It's not an action film, it's not a Hollywood export trying to make something that will fit to the domestic market. It's a completely indigenous film that has totally taken off."
Tam says she also believes the film has benefited from the phenomenal growth in cinemas in China – there were 13,118 screens in China at the end of 2012, according to Entgroup, representing a 41-per-cent increase from 2011. "I think the market is coming to a point where people just go and watch movies and if they're any good, there's word of mouth," says Tam. "So a good film can absolutely explode into this huge mega-hit that surprises everybody."
There has been a push in B.C. to encourage more co-productions with the lucrative Chinese market. Last year the Whistler Film Festival held its inaugural China Canada Gateway for Film Script Competition, an effort to kickstart more co-productions with China. The objective is to give Canadian screenwriters and filmmakers access to China's growing market and the financing available there; and Chinese production companies access to Canadian talent that could help satisfy the strong appetite for homegrown box-office successes in China, which is anxious to beat Hollywood at its own game.
Tam has a longstanding relationship with Finding Mr. Right's Hong Kong-based production company EDKO Films (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), as well as its Hong Kong-based producer Mathew Tang. When Tang called Tam in late 2011 saying he had a film project set in Seattle, she urged him to shoot it in Vancouver instead. "I said, 'Same coast, same ocean,'" says Tam. Provincial tax incentives offered by B.C. helped as well. With a local crew of about 60 people, along with key members of the creative team from Hong Kong and Mainland China, it became a trilingual set – English, Cantonese and Mandarin – with some crew members acting as translators in addition to their own jobs.
Tam says there are cultural differences beyond language when working on service productions for China as opposed to Hollywood – or even many Canadian productions – including amenities the filmmakers and even the stars view as frivolous. "When we did Rumble in the Bronx with Jackie Chan, he came over and we had this motor home on set for him. He said, 'Just return it; I'll never use it,'" recalls Tam, who was line producer on Rumble in Vancouver in 1994. Instead, he asked for a seven-passenger van, which he used to drive his team around Vancouver himself.
On Finding Mr. Right, the stars hung out primarily in the basement of the main shooting location, a home in Vancouver's Southlands neighbourhood, where hair and make-up stations were also set up. That savings allowed for more shooting days, Tam says.
The film has also made stars of Richmond twins Monica and Jessica Song, who were 12 when the film was shot. When producers were having trouble finding a young actress to play the Seattle driver's daughter, Tam reached out to local Chinese broadcaster Fairchild Television, and learned of the twins, who had participated in talent contests for Fairchild. They won the part, and Tam and Parker say they became media darlings when they travelled to China for the premiere.
While Finding Mr. Right is not a Canadian co-production, Tam and Parker believes the film's success could open the door for more partnerships – official co-productions or otherwise. The couple says they have experienced a spike in interest from Chinese companies wanting to shoot in Vancouver – a result, they say, of Finding Mr. Right's success – and B.C.'s tax incentives.
"Already," says Parker, "they are definitely seeing the potential of what we can do here."
China's Top 10 domestic films:
1. Lost in Thailand, $201-million (U.S.)
2. Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, $200-million*
3. CZ12, $140-million*
4. Painted Skin: The Resurrection, $114-million*
5. Let the Bullets Fly, $101-million*
6. Aftershock, $98-million*
7. The Flowers of War, $94-million
8. Flying Swords of Dragon Gate 3D, $86-million*
9. Finding Mr. Right, $83-million*
10. So Young, $76-million
* China/Hong Kong co-production
Source: Chinese entertainment-industry research company Entgroup's China Box Office Tracker