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Caucasians speak fluent Mandarin in Chinese film
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Just such a feature film, Milk and Fashion, set in Shanghai, will be released in China in March, thereafter in other Asian countries and the United States. The premiere party was held late last week at the Paramount in Shanghai.

The drama romance is about cultural differences and acceptance, friendship, ballet and fashion in China's fashion capital, Shanghai.

It stars Jeremy Miller, a former child actor of the 1980s US sitcom Growing Pains, Vanessa Branch, a British actress from Pirates of the Caribbean, and Kyle Rothstein, who played Harlequin in The White Countess.

Rothstein, 16, who lives in Shanghai, and Branch are fluent speakers of Mandarin. Shanghai-based Jay Rothstein, Kyle's father, is the producer. Taiwanese film maker Roy K. Chin is the director.

Growing Pains was enormously popular in China and was one of the few imported US films at that time. Miller, now 31, is also famous and beloved for his role. He speaks little Chinese.

"It is the first time in Chinese film history that leading actors and actresses are all played by non-native speakers," director Chin said at the film's premiere party last Thursday.

The story centers on young American Tyler Ralstin (Kyle Rothstein) who grows up with his anthropologist father in rural Yunnan Province on China's border with Myanmar. Though he speaks fluent Chinese, the youth is an outcast, rejected by Chinese kids. He travels to Shanghai to live with his uncle Jack (Jeremy Miller), president of a cultural investment company that is sponsoring an international fashion contest.

One of the competing designers is Yao Yao (Michelle Du), a former ballerina who is pursuing her dream of becoming a professional designer. The two, of course, fall in love.

At first Ralstin and Yao are at a loss about each other and their direction, but they find a friend and mentor named Anna (Vanessa Branch), an international fashion magazine editor. She helps Yao realize her dream.

The title "Milk and Fashion" has several layers of meaning, says director Roy. "Milk" is main character Ralstin's nickname because he likes to drink milk. "Fashion" is Yao's nickname, and it is the fashion contest that drives the story.

On a deeper level, "milk" stands for the essence of life, while "fashion" stands for the desires and efforts to achieve them, he says. The idea is that pursuit of goodness should be the foundation of an meaningful society.

Young Rothstein himself is trained in ballet. The film is inspired by his performance with the San Francisco Ballet in 2002 at the Shanghai Grand Theater.

As Miller was not able to show up at the premiere, Rothstein was in the spotlight and his command of Chinese startled the audience. Fluent Mandarin from a Caucasian is unusual indeed.

At the age of five, Rothstein began his studies at the Chinese American International School in San Francisco. At that time, it was the only US bilingual school where the second language was Chinese.

"I was doing business in China at that time and took my son along so that he could practice his Chinese," his producer father says. "He used to come to China about three times a year. By the age of eight he even translated for me."

As part of the international cast, Branch came to Shanghai for filming early last year. She is a graduate of Middlebury College in the US state of Vermont, where she double majored in Chinese and theater. She speaks fluent Chinese throughout the film.

"She is the first non-Asian Hollywood actress to star in a Chinese-speaking lead role," says director Roy. "In a film set in the high society of Shanghai's buzzing fashion world, Branch weaves her character seamlessly through a story of style, glamor and personal triumph."

After Milk and Fashion, China Venture Films' next feature is Distance Runners, about athletes from five countries coming to China to compete in a 166-kilometer ultra-marathon race. It is set in the mountains of Shangri-La in Yunnan Province.

"It's the next stage for China Venture Films in uniting cultures through the media of film," says the producer. The elder Rothstein plans to assemble an international team of actors and crew and says, "it will be 100-percent in the Chinese language."

(Shanghai Daily January 22, 2008)

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