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Wong Kim Hoh
Tuesday, Sep 16, 2014

Showbiz

The accidental producer

The Straits Times | Wong Kim Hoh | Tuesday, Sep 16, 2014

A good producer, says Shi Nansun who's seen here offering prayers for a smooth shoot on a film set, always listens to the needs of cast and crew.

Three years ago, a couple of hundred people - including the who's who of the Chinese film industry - got together to celebrate Hong Kong film producer Shi Nansun's 60th birthday at the Jockey Club.

An occasion like this is usually a magnet for the former British colony's notoriously aggressive paparazzi. But on that night, they were absent.

The press did not know. None of the guests breathed a word. Shi did not send a memo requesting privacy, but everybody got the message.

The incident shows the level of respect she commands in the Hong Kong film fraternity.

Probably the most accomplished producer in Chinese films, Shi's name is attached to a canon of screen gems: The Once Upon A Time in China martial arts series starring Jet Li, A Chinese Ghost Story with Leslie Cheung and Joey Wong, detective thriller Infernal Affairs with a star-studded cast that included Andy Lau and Tony Leung Chiu Wai and, more recently, Detective Dee And The Mystery Of The Phantom Flame headlined by Andy Lau, Carina Lau and Li Bingbing, and Flying Swords Of Dragon Gate with Jet Li and Zhou Xun.

She is now producing her first erotic film In The Room, directed by Singapore's Eric Khoo.

On the world stage, the 63-year-old more than holds her own too. Film trade magazine Variety named her as one of the 50 most influential independent film-makers in the world.

She has served on the jury of the world's top film festivals, including Berlin (2007) and Cannes (2011).

Last year, the French government made her an Officier de L'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Order of Arts and Letters).

Last month, the Locarno Film Festival honoured her with its Best Independent Producer award.

These are amazing accomplishments for someone who never set out to be in the movie industry.

"I got into the trade by accident," she says, dropping cubes of ice into her glass of Pinot Grigio because she likes it "really cold".

After successful stints as a communications executive and TV programmer, she was pondering her next career move in the early 1980s when she started hanging out with a bunch of Hong Kong film-makers including Dean Shek, Raymond Wong and Eric Tsang.

They liked her smarts, but she resisted their attempts to get her on board their film company Cinema City. So, they put money into her bank account.

"I called Raymond up and asked, 'What is this for?'

"And he said, 'Oh, we are paying you. When you are ready, come to work.' So the next day, I turned up for work."

That decision changed her life.

The career, she says, has kept her on her toes for the last three decades.

Smart, sassy and occasionally droll, the multilingual Shi (she is fluent in English, Mandarin, French, Cantonese and Shanghainese) is the third of four children.

Both her parents came from Chongming Island, at the mouth of the Yangtze River. They settled in Shanghai, but moved to Hong Kong when the communists took over China in 1949.

Her father rose above poverty and a lack of education to become a manufacturer of enamel ware.

Her mother was a book-loving housewife.

"She was educated and spoke English, which was really rare for a girl living in a village on an island. She taught my father Arabic numerals - he used to do everything on the abacus," she says.

Books - from Enid Blyton classics to Jin Yong martial arts novels - and films were very much a part of Shi's growing years.

"My mother took me to the movies often, and I would sit on her lap. She loved MGM musicals and films starring Rock Hudson, Doris Day, Troy Donahue and Natalie Wood," she says.

"In the evenings, my amah would take me to watch Chinese melodramas and operas starring Yam Kim Fai and Pak Suet Sin," she adds, referring to the Cantonese opera legends.

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