riding with dragons

mike walsh: mario andreacchio’s the dragon pearl, ozasia

The Dragon Pearl

The Dragon Pearl

OZASIA FESTIVAL TIME CAME AND WENT AGAIN IN ADELAIDE, PROVIDING ITS ANNUAL OPPORTUNITY TO BEMOAN THE MARGINALISATION OF ASIAN CINEMA IN AUSTRALIA. BUT WAIT! THIS YEAR PROVIDES SOME ADDITIONAL SPICE WITH THE APPEARANCE OF THE FIRST TWO FEATURES UNDER THE AUSTRALIA-CHINA CO-PRODUCTION TREATY AND THE FORMATION OF THE AUSTRALIA-CHINA SCREEN ALLIANCE AS A MEANS OF PROMOTING FUTURE COLLABORATIONS. THINGS SEEM TO BE SHAKING IN WAYS THAT GO BEYOND THE USUAL LIP SERVICE PAID TO AUSTRALIA’S ASIAN FUTURE WHILE WE’RE ALL AT THE ENDLESS STREAM OF EUROPEAN FILM FESTIVALS THAT FLOOD ART CINEMAS THESE DAYS.

The film program at OzAsia might have been lightly publicised but it still constituted about half of the festival’s sessions. It kicked off with Mario Andreacchio’s China co-production, The Dragon Pearl. Andreacchio is one of those marginalised figures in Australian cinema who is frankly interested in establishing commercial filmmaking. The Dragon Pearl goes straight to the question: how can Australia work with China to make commercial cinema?

Andreacchio’s answer is a children’s film with a cast drawn from internationally known Australasians (Sam Neill), well known mainlanders (Wang Ji) and a Hong Konger (Jordan Chan, who some might remember from the Young and Dangerous films). Add the production facilities of the mammoth Hengdian Studios and CGI from Australian companies such as Rising Sun and you’ve got a Spielbergian adventure that literalises Australian-Chinese co-operation through the figures of two kids who use their complementary talents to restore a lost treasure to a dragon.

On the surface, it is an enjoyable spunky-kids-with-bikes movie, but I wonder if Andreacchio has not also made the boldest piece of Australian political cinema this year. The question of how Australia can manage its relationship with China is clearly of immense importance at present. This film suggests the need for Australians to stop acting like they are still Little Britain and move beyond their lack of sympathy for Asia as a place in which cows are slaughtered inhumanely or refugees are mistreated. The Aussie kid has to get over acting like a big sook because of his parents’ divorce and pay attention to the transformative power of his new Asian context. The young Chinese heroine has undoubted powers and the boy has to find a way to respect that and tailor his talents around it. There is a global aspect to this too, as sinister Americans (or at least, an Australian affecting a Yankee accent) are hovering, intent on stealing the treasure.

All of this is in keeping with Andreacchio’s views on the need to move quickly to set up co-productions in China. With China’s massively expanding cinema (its box office went up 64% last year!) Chinese media production is taking off and Andreacchio warns that we have a small window of opportunity to establish a foothold. For Andreacchio and his Chinese partners, the question of an international cinema that does not include Hollywood is a particularly salient one. China is looking increasingly like the centre of a regional film industry, but whether that regional grouping includes Australia remains a matter of conjecture.

Some of these insights were established during an OzAsia panel discussion that paired Andreacchio with veteran Brian Trenchard-Smith, skyped in from Los Angeles. Trenchard-Smith is another pioneer from the margins of Australian cinema. He directed the 1974 Australia-Hong Kong action co-pro The Man From Hong Kong (which also screened at OzAsia). Trenchard-Smith now looks like a visionary for his early enthusiasm for Hong Kong martial arts and his attempt to build a bridge from Australia to a vibrant commercial cinema. This collaboration was similarly framed within a star system that combined local stars (Wang Yu and George Lazenby) who had enough global recognition to get the project across the line.

The Man From Hong Kong deliriously proposes that a surfeit of mindless violence might just be the currency of co-operation, and that the two film industries might complement each other with the Chinese martial arts specialisation and the Australian fixation on automobile destruction. Andreacchio also explained his film as an attempt at bridging genres in the two countries. He is a maker of family films, but that genre is unknown in China where older people don’t go to movies with their children and the cinema audience is overwhelmingly in the 18 to 25 demographic. Hence, in China The Dragon Pearl foregrounded its small martial arts component and the presence of its Cantopop star in the cast.

The Dragon Pearl represents the massive increase in scale that becomes a possibility opened up by Chinese co-production. Its $18.5 million budget dwarfs most local production, but this enabled it to open on 3,500 screens in China. Back home, the film opened only in Adelaide on a handful of prints. It appears that Australia remains the weak point in Andreacchio’s co-production scheme.

33 Postcards

33 Postcards

Pauline Chan was a line producer on The Dragon Pearl while preparing her own 33 Postcards, which screened this year at the Sydney and Melbourne film festivals. This is a smaller film that resides more comfortably within an Australian tradition of the actor-driven cinema of quality. An astonishingly innocent young Chinese orphan girl comes to Sydney to find her Australian aid sponsor, only to discover that he is a convicted criminal (Guy Pearce) addicted to method acting.

While the film attempts to debunk the paternalistic basis from which it begins, it never really succeeds. There are disquieting similarities to another co-pro, 2008’s Children of the Silk Road where the Chinese function primarily as children who have to be saved by benevolent westerners. But let’s throw another couple of recent titles into the mix: the deeply conservative Mao’s Last Dancer, which proposed that China equals repression and the west equals expression, and Tomorrow When the War Began, which took to the bank the fantasy that the cast of Home & Away are our best hope against an Asian invasion.

I can’t help feeling that Mario Andreacchio has a more realistic attitude in understanding that Australians have no natural position of superiority in our region and that China will increasingly deal with us from a position of strength. Australian filmmakers would be well advised to give this some serious aesthetic thought and work out their own strategies to profit from that strength.

OzAsia on Screen, OzAsia Festival, Piccadilly and Mercury Cinemas, Adelaide, Sept 2-17

RealTime issue #106 Dec-Jan 2011 pg. 18

© Mike Walsh; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

13 December 2011