The obnoxious air pollution in Beijing, China upsets its dwellers, including Malaysian independent film director Michael Wong, but the grey layer of haze lent a natural dreamy filter to the lens when he was shooting a short film last year.
“It gave the film a nice atmospheric feel and texture. I love it! I guess that was the only moment I welcomed the pollution,” Wong, 44, joked.
The said film, The Story Of 90 Coins, opens with a night scene that shows the two protagonists in a concrete jungle. The man, Wang Yuyang (played by Chinese actor Han Dongjun), is confessing his love to Chen Wen (first-time actress Zhuang Zhiqi).
Chen is a little unsure on how to reciprocate, so Wang asks for a “probation period” of 90 days. Every day for the next threemonths, he would present Chen with a one cent coin wrapped in a piece of brown paper.
If Chen is determined not to accept him by then, they will then spend the nine yuan on soft drinks and toast each other farewell.
But if Chen sees a future together, they would then use the money for their marriage certificate, as marriage registration at the Civil Affairs Ministry costs nine yuan in China.
And from there, a story of sweet promise unfolds.
The short film was a project Wong did for Hiersun, a jewellery company in China. There was a mass shifting of advertisers’ marketing budget in China from traditional media to the Internet to leverage on the online video craze. As such, the company wanted to jump on the digital bandwagon.
“They wanted a short film along the concept of ‘real romance does not happen in Paris, but within the interlocked fingers of two people.’ The company’s chairman specifically asked for a story that would touch the audience’s hearts,” Wong explained.
A writer in Wong’s team proposed three ideas, which were inspired by true stories that happened to her friends. The client liked The Story Of 90 Coins.
Although it was commissioned by a jewellery company, the nine-minute long film does not feature any diamonds or rings in the storyline. “Instead of a hard-sell advertisement, the company wanted a less intrusive yet effective approach,” Wong said.
In the film, the 90 coins are stored neatly in a metal box and becomes the cornerstone of the protagonists’ relationship. Chen works hard to pursue her dream as a fashion designer, but an invitation from her co-worker (played by José Acosta) to take her career to the next level in Paris leads to quarrels between the couple, and eventually a break-up.
When the short film was shared by a Malaysian Chinese daily’s Facebook page, it was viewed more than 485,000 times and shared 15,000 times. A lot of the comments bemoaned the fragile love, but Wong noticed that many also tagged their better halves and expressed their hopes that they want to stay together forever.
“It proved that somehow the story really resonated with people. The sad ending of this film has made many viewers think about love,” he said.
The main takeaway that Wong hoped for his audience is: “Don’t let a promise become just a beautiful memory.”
The short film was shot over four days in more than 20 spots in Beijing, but it did not feature specific landmarks that would give away the geographical locale.
Besides the reference to the nine yuan marriage certificate, the storyline isn’t too Chinese, either. After all, it is essentially a story of love – of promise, misunderstanding and regret.
The short film has been shortlisted in several international film fests, and was recently recognised with the Best Director Award at Whatashort India International Film Festival 2016.
This was Wong’s first short film, after directing many television commercials and viral videos. Prior to that, the Kuala Lumpur-born director spent 16 years in various multinational advertising agencies as art director and creative director in Shanghai and Beijing.
The father of two, who first came to China in 1999, noted that the Chinese creative and advertising industry is much more competitive and tougher than in Malaysia because of its vast market and fast economic progress.
“This translates into opportunity for creativity and exploration. What we can learn from the Chinese is their daring attitude in turning dreams into a reality.
“I hope one day I will be able to work on feature film projects back home in Malaysia and share what I’ve learned here with the film industry back home,” he said.