This report represents the only one of its kind freely available in the UK, initiated by a non-profit organisation. However, it represents only an initial step in the research needed to fully facilitate cross-cultural storytelling. There are many more stories to be found, collected, and represented, and we hope these can find their way to our screens in fresh, unconventional, and surprising ways.

In the UK film industry, better representation of other cultures and diasporic communities is needed now more than ever. But development and production companies often don’t have the resources to hunt through articles, books, and the archive to find the enthralling stories that would maximise and diversify this representation. This report, incubated by UK-China Film Collab, hopes to aid companies in their search for stories and fill that representative gap.

The overall aim of this report is to collect and curate a pool of exciting, electrifying real-life stories from British, American, and Chinese society – all with a cross-cultural element at the heart of them – for industry professionals seeking to better represent Chinese narratives in their work. Bringing together forgotten historical events, biographies of iconic Chinese figures, and compelling long-form articles from notable journalists, the report intends to offer a wide spread of voices and approaches in cross-cultural storytelling – and galvanize those who are interested in taking these slices of history to feature, short, or documentary projects.

But why is unearthing these stories important in the first place? Chinese representation in UK film, TV, and media is in a dubious position right now. On the one hand, instances of yellowface are petering out; Chinese visibility is increasing on the big and small screens; and huge American hits, from Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022) to Crazy Rich Asians (2018), prove that stellar Asian casts are very much in demand. However, stereotypes still persist, associating Chinese characters with crime, submissiveness, or the idea of the perpetual foreigner; leading roles for British-Chinese actors are comparatively limited when compared with their white peers; and the rise in visibility for Asian stars can often be traced to American, rather than British, productions.[1] By unlocking cross-cultural stories with screen potential, this report not only aims to facilitate actors and filmmakers who wish to tell complex, diverse, and three-dimensional stories from the British-Chinese archive, but also to give the British film industry the opportunity to select, fund, and represent these stories – putting to bed the notion that there aren’t enough stories in this area worth telling. As articulated by Asian advocacy organisation BEATS, the industry needs ‘a new generation of role models and storytellers’ to craft narratives that are ‘not one-dimensional or “other-ring”’: this report hopes to contribute to this generational shift.

On top of suggesting more ideas for onscreen representation in the UK, the report also aims to encourage the development of more co-productions. The benefits of co-productions are compelling, not least since the 2014 UK/China Film Co-Production Agreement enshrined access to the BFI Film Fund for these projects. However, few co-productions are going into development – a caution that reflects the risk involved in attempting to produce and market a narrative that can appeal to two distinct audiences. Chinese producer Li Ning notes the danger of ‘just blindly adding certain elements into the story without truly understanding each other’s markets’, while Screen Daily observes the problem of ‘trying to artificially combine two cultures’.[2] This report hopes to help remedy this issue in the earliest phase of development: in the stories listed here, the cross-cultural aspect isn’t tacked on as an afterthought, but forms the basis of the events, the core of the people’s backgrounds, and often the foundation of their experiences. Through this culture-first approach, the problem of artificiality may recede; companies could instead use the opportunity of co-production to mediate between cultural perspectives.

The report begins with a summary of the relevant projects in development, before moving onto 25 stories – split into the two sections of People and History & Society – with creative loglines and recommendation notes attached. Each story in this part of the report includes a potential logline summarising the dramatic core of the narrative, as well as a recommendation note for possible methods of adaptation. The final section of the report lists a further 25 stories from the British-Chinese archive, representing individuals and events that require further research before developing a logline or recommendation note. This section also includes books, documentaries, and oral history projects that have the potential to be optioned, and the rising directors and organisations behind them.

Notes

This project was incubated by UK-China Film Collab. The researcher and author of the report is Annabel Bai Jackson, the International Research and Development Specialist for UK-China Film Collab’s Future Talent Programme 2021-2022. She is a recent Master’s graduate from the University of Oxford, has contributed to the research of TV projects in development for a production consultant, and served as the Assistant Curator and English Content Editor for Odyssey: A Chinese Cinema Season 2022. She is an upcoming writer on the BFI’s Critics Mentorship Programme for the London Film Festival 2022, and has participated in Cinema Rediscovered Film Critics Workshop 2022 and BFI Network/Independent Cinema Office’s Young Film Programmers’ Creative Development Programme 2022.

If companies or studios are interested in picking up any of these ideas for development, feel free to contact the author at annabelbai@gmail.com.

This report covers the geographical and cultural sense of Greater China – encompassing Mainland China, Hong Kong SAR, Macau SAR, Taiwan, and elsewhere.

Special thanks to Dr Hiu Man Chan for her ideas, knowledge, and support throughout this project.

NB. Any existing IP included in this report has been listed only for inspiration purposes, or as possible media to option; neither the author nor UK-China Film Collab own any copyright for these sources.

Reference

[1] For an academic analysis of Chinese and British-Chinese characters in UK media in particular, see Jennifer Mak, ‘East Asian Representation in British Television and Cinema’, MSc thesis, University of Glasgow, 2019.

[2] Li Ning, quoted in Cineuropa, ‘Li Ning: CEO, New Classics Media, producer and distributor’, 25 October 2019. Liz Shackleton, ‘“The Foreigner”: anatomy of a successful UK-China co-production’ in Screen Daily, 22 March 2018.

Download the full report (81 pages) here.