Apple’s first TV spot in China, titled The Old Record, arrived in 2015 right before the Chinese New Year, the busiest gift-giving holiday. The commercial was an adaptation of a Christmas-themed advertisement a few weeks before. In it, a young woman digitises a vinyl recording of an old Chinese pop song (Forever Smiling by Pan Dihua, a popular performer in the 1960s) as a gift for her grandmother. The surroundings (an old apartment in what looks like a Shanghai alleyway) are deliberately juxtaposed with the sleek modernity of the iPhone.
Five years on Apple has released another short film to promote the iPhone 11. Daughter is eight minutes long and it is filmed entirely on an iPhone 11 Pro. It stars A-list actress Zhou Xun and is directed by Oscar-nominated American filmmaker Theodore Melfi. Lawrence Sher, an award-winning cinematographer, gives the production its polished finish (the closing credits take 36 seconds, indicative of the industry talent involved).
“The iPhone’s outstanding photography function plays only a small part in why the Daughter is such an excellent feature,” Tencent Entertainment, a news portal, claims. “The amount of talent and investment that goes into the film are what make it so great. To be honest, with that crew even the crappiest camera can make a good film.”
In the short feature, Zhou plays a single mother who also works as a taxi driver. Her daughter, just a baby, comes with her to work, sitting in the backseat. While this setup doesn’t seem to bother Zhou’s character, who is nameless in the film, her mother finds it unacceptable. In flashback scenes, the two argue furiously. The woman wants to be financially independent. But her mother is convinced that she is putting her daughter in danger by driving her around in a taxi.
One particularly bad row leads to a falling out and years go by without the two speaking. But on the night before Chinese New Year, the single-mother stops for a customer hailing her taxi and finds out that it is her mother. The older lady is then revealed to the child as her grandmother, who explains that she has been making dumplings (a staple of the festive season) every year in the hope of giving them to her lost family.
Apple says the meaning of the film is that “no matter how much we all grow apart, humanity has the power to bring us together”.
The big-budget commercial, which was released a fortnight ago (it is also available on YouTube) has become one of the most talked-about topics across social media. “At the end of the short film, when the mother says, ‘I’m here to look for my family,’ my tears just started falling. In the heart of the Chinese people, there is no love that is stronger than the love of family,” one netizen commented.
“There is cruelty, tenderness, sorrow and emotions. Through Zhou Xun, I saw thousands of mothers who stand up courageously as they face adversity, who work so hard for a better future,” another wept.
Others weren’t quite so impressed. The film is based on the real story of a single mother called Li Shaoyun from Wuhan, who was forced to put her daughter in her taxi because there was no one in her family to take care of the child after a bitter divorce from her husband. But in the film, Zhou’s character chooses to keep her baby with her at work in part to make a point about her lifestyle choices and sense of personal independence. That is what leads to the rows with her mother.
Many netizens said that a decision like this was “unthinkable” in the Chinese cultural context, however. “In Li Shaoyun’s case, putting her daughter in her taxi was because she had no other option. Who wants a three year-old to be forced to live in a taxi day and night? Who wants to strap a vulnerable child into an unprotected car all day? But for Zhou Xun’s character in the film, it is because she wants to prove that ‘there is more than one way to live life,’ as she tells her mother. That motive just seems too weak and too self-centred,” one of the online critics wrote.
Others said the screenplay was too formulaic: “The characters express their emotions as if they are merely following a pattern. It is so mechanical that it makes my hair stand on end,” another complained. “Maybe it’s because the director is a foreigner and cannot understand the subtle dynamics between parent and child in a Chinese family. Some of the lines are so cringeworthy that it is worse than watching the [CCTV] Spring Festival Gala [see page 11].”
In the last few years Apple has produced a number of similarly family-themed stories around Chinese New Year, filming them with its own phones to demonstrate how professional the content can look. This year it also put out a ‘behind the scenes’ film, showing people how to make similar quality films themselves. There was a Q&A session at its Shanghai store with Melfi and Sher as well.
The rationale for advertisements like these is that the more forward-thinking brands are looking for ways to deepen their emotional connection with consumers. Chinese millennials are also paying as much attention to the quality of the campaigns as the product that they are promoting. Many are tiring of more straightforward promotional strategies, such as celebrity endorsement, too.
Apple wasn’t the only international brand to release a short film ahead of the Chinese New Year. Nike also came out with a short video – albeit only 90 seconds long – which it posted to social media. The story, which has been very well received, shows an aunt chasing her niece, trying to give her a red envelope — or hongbao — while the little girl keeps running away in Nike shoes. As a plotline is not as ambitious as Apple’s campaign. But perhaps the cute messaging is on safer territory than Apple’s more contentious tale…
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