In the late 19th century and early 20th century, relations between France and Yunnan, in Southwest China, had soured. After the Opium War in 1840, French colonial forces invaded the province and forced the Qing government to sign an unfair treaty.
Ma Xiangsheng, a Chinese director and Yunnan native who has lived in the United States for many years, uses this background as the basis of his film, Impression of Bieji, which tells its story from the perspective of a young French priest.
Ma's debut film has already received tremendous praise from overseas, winning Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Actress honors at the 5th Queens International Film Festival held recently in New York.
"Winning awards was really unexpected. The actor and the actress, both from Yunnan Province, are excellent. Though it's their first time acting, they understand their roles in the film," Ma says.
The 50-year-old is now busy distributing the film across North America.
"Movies are a means of communication. I want to send this message to my audience: Equality is the key to peace," he says.
Set in Yunnan Province, the film follows a young French man who traces his predecessor, Father Bernard's path along Yunnan-Vietnam railway lines.
Father Bernard came to Yunnan as a missionary, believing that he was a messenger of God sent to a poor, backward and deserted land. Over time he becomes overwhelmed by the warmth of the tribes, which transcends race and religion.
During his stay, Father Bernard begins to question the morality of French colonists who bring poverty and discrimination to the province. He discovers that each nationality and each nation's faith is worthy of respect.
According to the director, the film's focus on Yunnan's unique culture has touched viewers and festival juries.
"Impression of Biejie carries some unusual messages which resonate with Western viewers," he says.
Ma describes his filmmaking style as both "terribly old-fashioned and terribly fashionable".
"This is also an accurate summary of the characteristics of Yunnan culture. Yunnan has many wonders," he says.
"In a small mountainous village of Yunnan, there may be dozens of nationalities living together in peace. Respecting each other's culture is what I want to say through the film."
After years of living abroad, Ma says that he misses his hometown. "Although the environment in the United States is good, it doesn't stop me from missing the blue sky and white clouds of Yunnan. It is the place that makes me feel most secure."
Since arriving in the United States in 1999, Ma says that the collision and fusion of East and West has had a great effect on him. Homesickness and an appreciation of different national cultures became the inspirations behind his initial script for Impression of Bieji.
"I have always been engaged in painting, sculpture, design," he says.
"I had a dream to make films, so over the years the painting, music, literature, and other audio-visual arts experience and ideas, helped develop the aesthetic viewpoint and political views behind Impression of Bieji."
The regional costumes are another appealing element of the film. Instead of opting for overly decorative clothing, the director went with black, red and silver garments. Most of these clothes were borrowed from the local Yi people.
During the two-month shoot, Ma and the crew began to encounter difficulties after the money began to dry up. "Filming is equal to a small-scale long march," Ma says.
Ma Xiangsheng (second from left) with three members of his crew.
While scouting for locations and shooting, the crew traveled from southern to eastern Yunnan, covering nearly 20,000 km.
The director will bring the film back to China early next year and he says his next projects will also focus on Yunnan.
"I want to shoot things I am most familiar with," he says.
"Yunnan is my hometown, so I am familiar with the rivers and mountains and the folk customs and ways.
"I plan to make a Yunnan trilogy. Impression of Bieji gave me a good start and the next one will tell stories about the Chinese national anthem composer Nie Er, who was born at the beginning of the last century. He has a considerable influence in Asia, despite only living till 23.
"I am also writing a World War II period drama, set in Shangri-La."
The director says that despite culture differences, he believes that as long as the story is absorbing, all kinds of people will understand it.
(China Daily December 26, 2007)