China / Cover Story

Serendipity leads to box office

By Elaine Tan (China Daily) Updated: 2011-10-10 08:14

PENANG, Malaysia - Goh Mai Loon became aware of Sun Yat-sen's connection to Penang as a teenager, when her father told her to never forget the sacrifices of her clansman, Goh Say Eng, who gave up everything for the Chinese revolution.

It was many years later, when researching the history of the Sun Yat-sen Penang Base, that she became fully aware of the immense contributions of Goh Say Eng and other revolutionary stalwarts on the northern Malaysian island.

"I am always moved to tears when I talk about the past because we owe them so much but we have long forgotten their sacrifices. Their stories must be told," she said.

The seed of an idea that the Penang story could be made into a movie was planted in 1999 when she ran a history training camp for teachers from Chinese private schools. Goh started thinking about a plot based on Sun's time in Penang.

In 2001 serendipity called. At the time she was serving as special assistant to Kee Phaik Cheen, the then-Penang state executive councilor for tourism. In that role, she coordinated and organized filming of movies on the island and got to know Hong Kong director Derek Chiu. He invited her to a birthday party for actress Vickey Liu. There she found herself sitting next to film producer Wang Jiancheng.

"I knew about his background so I decided to pitch the idea to him," Goh said. Wang, from Guangzhou, is a member of the Sun Yat-sen society in the city but even he was unaware of the four Penang martyrs commemorated at the Memorial of the 72 Martyrs of Huanghuagang. Nor did he know about Sun's Penang connection. By the end of the party, Goh had her movie deal.

Road to Dawn depicts the Penang chapter of Sun's life and revolutionary crusade. The movie revolves around two love stories that of Sun and his second wife, Chen Cuifen, and fictional couple Luo Zhaoling and Xu Dan Rong. The latter two were loosely based on Luo Zhonghuo, a Penang-trained teacher and poet who lost his life in the Huanghuagang Uprising, and Chen Bijun, a Penang-born woman who eventually married Wang Jingwei, a close associate of Sun.

Taiwanese actor Winston Chao played the role of Sun while Malaysian-born international actress Angelica Lee Sin-je was cast as the young nyonya (Straits Chinese woman) Xu. It became the first "Important Historical Topic Movie" (as classified by the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television) to be fully filmed outside China.

Road to Dawn premiered at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on June 27, 2007.

"I was informed that it has since been screened quite a number of times for the leaders," Goh said, beaming.

It picked up a slew of awards, including Most Popular Actor for Winston Chao and Most Promising Newcomer for Wu Yue (who plays Chen Cuifen) at the 10th Shanghai International Film Festival (Media Awards); the Most Outstanding Newcomer for Scriptwriting at the 12th Huabiao Awards; and as an Excellent Quality Movie at the 2009 China Center Publicity Board Awards under the "5 in 1 Project Outstanding Civilized Movie" category.

In addition, it was nominated for the Most Outstanding Movie and Best Actress (Wu Yue) awards at the Huabiao Awards; Best Music at the China Golden Rooster Awards; and Best Image Design at the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival and Awards; and was screened at the 2007 Hawaii International Film Festival, 2008 Kuala Lumpur International Film Festival, 2008 Cannes Film Festival and 2008 Singapore International Film Festival.

"When we submitted the script for review, we were told to revise the character of Luo Zhonghuo due to the lack of historical text. But after the success of Road to Dawn, the Guangzhou Provincial Publicity Department has decided to fund a movie about the Huanghuagang Uprising with Luo as the key character in the movie," Goh said.

And thus the hitherto little known story of Penang's role in China's history has turned into a box office hit.

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