Apple has a history of commissioning filmmakers to make long-form ads around Chinese New Year. Recent installments include Peter Chan's "Three Minutes" in 2018, Jia Zhahngke's "The Bucket" in 2019, and Theodore Melfi's "Daughter" in 2020.
The latest, which dropped late Thursday, is a charming tale from TBWA\Media Arts Lab Shanghai and Lulu Wang, who wrote and directed the 2019 comedy/drama The Farewell. Clocking in at 11 minutes, the film concerns the Chinese legend of Nian, a monster who, according to folklore, would hunt animals and humans around this time of year. In this telling, though, Nian earns a measure of compassion from a young girl who's more curious than fearless—much to the consternation of her parents.
Wang co-wrote the story with screenwriter Alice Bell (with whom she is also working on Amazon's forthcoming series The Expatriates). There is little Apple branding, though the short film was shot entirely on the iPhone 12 Pro Max (this is mentioned on screen around the 1-minute mark).
There are lots of interesting shots in the film, as Wang and cinematographer Anna Franquesa Solano pushed the iPhone to its limits.
"We had a lot of fun just trying to figure out where else can we stick the phone so we can get angles and perspectives that are just a little bit more unique," Wang says in the BTS video below. "We thought, 'Oh, why don't we just put the phone inside of the Nian's mouth?' I think the size of it allows us to get all kinds of cool, specialty shots that would be much harder to get with the traditional camera."
Wang, who shot the film remotely from the U.S. due to Covid travel restrictions, drew inspiration from her own life for the story. "As a child, my parents wanted me to go further than they have ever gone,' she says. "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."
It's a resonant theme, of course, in our age of renewed mistrust of outsiders, yet the message is delivered in such a playful way—narratively and visually—that it never feels preachy or heavy-handed. This message of acceptance is something Apple returns to quite regularly—it's remarkable, actually, how similar this new work is to the brand's 2016 holiday spot, "Frankie's Holiday."
With the impossibility of being on a real set last year, my team & I took on the unique challenge of shooting a film remotely... shooting natively on iPhone... using a practical monster. Very proud of the entire team & of course, our little star Yo Yo! Happy New Year! 🧨🎇 https://t.co/HHHvOUDez6— Lulu Wang (@thumbelulu) January 29, 2021
In addition to a message of acceptance, the spot is meant to be an empowering one for visual storytellers to see.
"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," says Wang. "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."
Agency: TBWA\Media Arts Lab Shanghai
Production Company: Iconoclast
Director: Lulu Wang
Music: Original score by Alex Weston