The connection between Chinese and Australian cinema is set to become a whole lot deeper.  
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15 May 2012 - 5:26 PM  UPDATED 15 May 2012 - 5:26 PM

Western Australia's film agency ScreenWest is considering setting up several sister film city relationships with China, perhaps starting with Zhuozhou in the Hebei Province, which surrounds Beijing.

“The government already has strong economic ties with Asia, and in particular China, especially through the mining industry, and we plan to build on that,” said the director of production investment at ScreenWest, Defrim Isai. “It already has a sister state relationship with the Zhejiang Province and the Department of State Development already has an office there.”

Isai was part of a group of Australians who visited the Hebei Province last month before meeting up with a larger delegation of filmmakers and bureaucrats for the second Australia-China Film Industry Forum, held as part of the Beijing Film Festival.

Adelaide-based producer Mario Andreacchio, who directed and produced The Dragon Pearl, the first official Australia-Chinese co-production made under the recently signed treaty, organised the side trip. The Dragon Pearl was released on 900 screens at a time as it moved from region to region.

“We are working very closely with Mario,” said Isai. “He has a lot of experience in China and has very good personal relationships and we are relying on his generosity of spirit.”

Both men see the sister city arrangements as a way of efficiently developing co-productions between the two countries by fast tracking relationships and streamlining the ability of filmmakers to solve problems and find out about the rules and protocols they should be following. There are strict rules about how many foreign films are released in China but official co-productions are regarded as local.

Isai said it was far too early to talk about what Western Australian films might come out of such arrangements: “It's not like pulling shoes out of the cupboard; films have to be developed from the ground up and the stories told have to make cultural sense and also make sense internationally.”

Carmelo Musca is a Western Australian who has already made one film with China, titled Deep Sleep No More (pictured), and is now embarking on a second project, One Night of Madness.

Musca met the producer and writer of Deep Sleep No More, the author Jin Tzu Cheng, about four years ago when a delegation of filmmakers visited from China. Musca showed him around Perth and took him home for dinner.

“I tried very hard not to make Deep Sleep No More but it turned out to be one of the most amazing experiences of my life,” says Musca. “Three or four months after I met Mr Jin he sent a script that had been translated into English. I told him it had lost a lot in translation and sent some notes. After that I kept getting a new version every three or four months, which I would respond to.

Much of the film is set in the 1940s when the 30,000 Jewish refugees accepted by Shanghai had to contend, just as the local people did, with their brutal Japanese occupiers. Based on a true story, it tells of Wu Ning, who established a secret printing press to help support the anti-Japanese resistance, and his girlfriend Li Hua, who was hiding Jewish children and helping him.

“Then in March 2010, Mr Jin said he would like me to direct the film,” said Musca. “I wrote back and said, very respectfully, that I could not speak Mandarin, it was not a story from my culture and it was out of the question.”

“They said they would arrange for me to have access to four translators, two of whom would be with me at all times, and bought an airline ticket to China for me in September. I was making a documentary in Kenya at that time so they moved the shoot to November/December 2010.”

When the persistence of the Chinese eventually paid off, Musca found himself in Beijing working 18 hours a day for 19 days in below-zero temperatures with a hugely skilled and obliging crew and access to anything he wanted in terms of equipment and resources.

It is expected that the version post-produced in Beijing will be released in Chinese cinemas in June and that the international version, post-produced in Perth with financial assistance from Screen West, will be shown in Perth in the near future.

“The Chinese have told the story in a more linear fashion than we have and there is more violence and nudity in ours,” said Musca, who shot some scenes in different ways in order to meet the needs of both versions.

Musca is also working with Jin on the new film, One Night of Madness. Unlike the first film, it will be made under Australia's co-production treaty with China, making it eligible to apply for government funding from the main federal agency Screen Australia and obliged to put people from both countries behind and in front of the camera.

The contemporary love story is set on an oilrig off the coast of Western Australia and has been written by UK-born Australian Heather Nimmo. She is best known as a playwright – although she wrote two telemovies that Musca directed – and has won several significant awards including the WA Premier's Book Award.

Andreacchio is executive producer on One Night of Madness and says that many Western filmmakers don't understand how utterly different their way of doing things is to China's. He began building relationships with China four years ago through his production company AMPCO Films and sees these relationships as being for the long-term.

Andreacchio has $60 million worth of production in development with China. He is also producing a comedy adventure superhero film titled The Pulse, which last year won a major Asia Pacific pitching competition held in Beijing, and the drama Gold Road about a Chinese acrobat circus troupe and their journey on foot through the Australian bush to Ballarat during the gold rush of the 1850s, capturing the hearts of many racist Australians with the grace and spectacle of their non-verbal performance.

He is also linked to China co-productions involving Denmark and New Zealand and intends to follow up The Dragon Pearl with a film about all nine dragons of China, representing north, south, east and west, and earth, air, wind, fire and water.

The growth of cinemas is astounding and China is a huge market with huge opportunities but with as many as 650 feature films made each year, the competition is cutthroat.

“Western Australia is the most receptive state in terms of helping to set up Chinese co-productions and developing a co-production highway but it is still early days,” Andreacchio said.