Apple’s annual CNY epic from TBWA\Media Arts Lab Shanghai and Iconoclast embraces magical realism re-imagines the fearsome Nian
The Nian is a fearsome beast. It lives in the mountains and under the sea, coming out only to feed on people. But though the Nian has bulging eyes, huge horns and terrifying teeth, it’s also a mainstay of Chinese New Year imagery. After all the word Nian in Chinese also means year – and some say that the drums, firecrackers and lion dances associated with the Lunar New Year are all about shooing away the ferocious monster.
But in Apple’s 2021 Chinese New Year film, the story of the Nian gets a new twist. The 11-minute epic follows a curious little girl who isn’t willing to take the tales of the ravenous, intimidating beast at face value. And, wouldn’t you know it, the pair become friends.
This year’s outing from TBWA\Media Arts Lab Shanghai marks a continuation of an annual tradition for Apple. Their Chinese New Year films see celebrated directors telling emotional stories in a sentimental style – shot, of course, on iPhone. But while previous years have opted for grounded tales – for example a train worker mother who connects with her daughter for minutes at a time on a train platform; a son returning to the city after spending the festivities at his rural hometown; a taxi driver alienated from her mother – this year the brand has decided to fold some magic into the mix.
It’s directed by Lulu Wang, a filmmaker best known for her 2019 film The Farewell, and her trademark warmth and humour creates a movie with heart. In the film she draws upon her own experiences of growing up and following her own curiosity and passions.
“As a child, my parents wanted me to go further than they have ever gone. And yet there’s also this fear that I was going into the unknown, and so I wanted to bring that theme into this film,” she says.
From a creative perspective, the director also says that getting inventive with the iPhone was an exciting experience and allowed her to experiment with greater flexibility than she imagines - and she hopes that it will inspire others. The film relies upon costuming and in-camera effects to create the larger-than-life nian, and from a cinematographic perspective makes full use of the iPhone 12 Pro Max's features like Dolby Vision, low-light, ultra-wide lens, telephoto lens, stabilization and time-lapse features.
“It’s really exciting that we have this opportunity to retell this ancient story, to capture these incredibly cinematic images with the iPhone, this very versatile device,” she says. ““I hope when audiences realize that we shot it on iPhones, they will feel empowered. They don’t have to wait for permission to go out and make things.”