Cinematic Bloom

Unmistakable bonds in the first China-Laos film co-production

By Wang Fengjuan

“I just want the movie to move people,” said Zhou Yan, writer and producer of Champa Blossoms. For him, the project has always been more about sharing stories of extraordinary people during a special time than winning at the box office.

Champa Blossoms, the first film co-production between China and Laos, was jointly made by a Beijing-based media company and the Lao Department of Cinema. By following a search for a veteran soldier who joined the Chinese Expeditionary Force in World War II, the film depicts love stories between Chinese and Lao young people both in times of war and in modern times. The movie is flush with beautiful Lao scenery and landmark buildings including the Patuxay Monument in Vientiane, the mountainous city of Luang Prabang, and a number of Buddhist temples. Shooting started in late 2016 in Vientiane. Starring both Chinese and Lao actors, Champa Blossoms was filmed in China, Laos, and Thailand.

At premieres held in Vientiane, Beijing, and Taipei, spectators were touched by the charming natural scenery in Luang Prabang, love stories set against Dok Champa trees, and the deep love Chinese soldiers held for their motherland. Many veterans who experienced the period were moved to tears by the film.

Primary photography for Champa Blossoms begins with a ceremony in Laos.

Medal Petals

Dok Champa is the national flower of Laos. In China it is called the “egg flower” because of its distinctive yolk-yellow center. The graceful flower is quite common in Southeast Asia, both in nature and as part of decorations in girls’ hair or dresses. The heroine of the movie is also called Champa. Just like the name, her serene smile emits a peaceful aura.

Shen Xiang, the male lead, meets Champa, falls in love with her, and ventures to her hometown in Luang Prabang. After learning about Champa’s family’s past, Shen embarks on a journey with Champa to look for her grandfather, a Chinese soldier who fell in love with Champa’s grandmother while he was in Laos helping resist against Japanese aggression. When Champa’s grandfather had to return to China, he promised to come back and meet her under the Champa trees near her old house. For decades, Champa’s grandmother and mother kept waiting, but he never showed up. When they became ready to give up and stop visiting the Champa trees, they finally met him. But they could hardly recognize each other, so they only gazed at each other and smiled. The story that spans decades culminates with their smile.

A poster for Champa Blossoms.
Leading characters.

“The plot is a true story,” said Zhou Yan. “When I met the real couple, I was so touched by their story, I wanted to share it with everyone through a movie.” In 2016, Zhou Yan and his team started scouting in Laos and learned that the many people in the story had passed away, which made them more determined to tell the tale.

A major component of the movie, the Dok Champa represents the romance of the tropical country. Champa’s necklace features a pendant in the shape of a Champa flower, but its petals were structured by her grandfather from bullet fragments. Zhou Yan explains that they used shrapnel from unexploded grenades and mortar shells. In the movie, Champa’s father was killed by accidentally stepping on a landmine.

“We wanted to remind people that many landmines remain on the borders of Laos,” Zhou noted. “The innocent people of Laos still bear scars from wars.” Zhou Yan explained that the movie includes two storylines, one about love, and the other about the effect of wars across generations. All the stories in the movie lead to the power of peace.

Another tear-jerking scene depicts Chinese veterans returning home. In the movie, Shen Xiang meets several veterans while looking for Champa’s grandpa, and encounters tombstones of Chinese soldiers killed in the war. Shen takes half of the remains of Champa’s grandpa and a handful of dirt from his graveyard back to China. At the airport, the grandpa’ old comrades in arms are waiting to welcome him home. The movie evokes tears when the veterans raise their hands, salute, and shout: “We are home!” Zhou Yan noted that returning home is usually the top wish for veterans, and he wanted to make that wish come true, if only on screen.

Backstory

The Chinese cast and crew traveled to Laos and filmed on location while learning more about the country. Soon, they and the Lao actors and crew were like old friends.

Vithoune Soundara, then president of the Lao Department of Cinema, called the movie historically significant. As the first movie co-produced by Chinese and Lao filmmakers, the project represents the friendship and solidarity shared by Laos and China, he said. For viewers in Laos and everywhere else, the film captured some of Laos’ most breathtaking scenery while documenting much of its history and culture.

“The Lao actors featured in the movie were all amateurs, but they all delivered touching performances,” said Zhou Yan. Chandaly, who played the female lead, was a graduate student from Laos studying clinical dermatology in China. The grandmother in the movie was portrayed by the wife of the former Lao ambassador to China, and the mother was played by an anchor from Lao National Television. Sobs sneak out when the grandmother says “wait for me” to her lover, and smiles dominate when Champa promises to bring the sunshine of Laos to meet Shen Xiang. Many viewers expressed their understanding of Champa’s mother’s worries when she learns that her daughter has fallen in love with a Chinese boy.

As the first movie co-produced by Chinese and Lao filmmakers, Champa Blossoms represents the friendship and solidarity shared by Laos and China.

Champa’s grandfather was played by Ma Jingwu, a famous Chinese actor and professor at the Beijing Film Academy. He fell ill during production but persisted in delivering his performance nonetheless, and his professionalism and dedication set the bar for actors from both countries. Ma Ziluo, who played Shen Xiang, recalled that when he also fell ill in Laos during shooting, the Lao crew helped him greatly. Li Ming, who played a tour guide, reported that local people were very nice and even invited him to participate in celebration activities for holidays.

“Love stories are universal, and the stories that happen between the two countries are more likely to resonate with both audiences,” said a Lao spectator. “The warmth generated by the movie will kindle dialogue and communication between us.”

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