Chan, Li in new territory with 'Kingdom'

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HENGDIAN, China -- Jackie Chan said that when he first met Jet Li more than 10 years ago they vowed to work together on a film someday.

Now, the two martial arts giants are well under way shooting their first picture together, the $70 million "Forbidden Kingdom" by director Rob Minkoff, who comes from a background in children's computer animated films ("Stuart Little," for instance).

This week, Chan, Minkoff and Los Angeles producer Casey Silver talked about their East-meets-West experiment from the Hengdian Studio, China's largest independent lot, in East China's Zhejiang Province outside Shanghai (there's a full scale model of Beijing's Forbidden City here).

Chan says he was anxious to work with Li but "initially reluctant to revisit the role of a character like 'Drunken Fist,' " referring to an earlier comedic character some felt was insulting to Chinese.

Begun in earnest in April, the new martial arts fantasy is based on the classic Chinese tale of the Monkey King but is clearly a modern hybrid.

After all, Chan and Li support the central figure, an American boy played by Michael Angarano ("Lords of Dogtown," "Almost Famous").

What's more, the film is a co-production between Hollywood's Casey Silver Prods. ("Ladder 49") and Beijing-based Huayi brothers ("The Banquet").

Finally, the money is coming from Los Angeles-based slate financier Relativity Media ("Ghost Rider") and the script from John Fusco ("Hidalgo").

"(This) script respects the Chinese character and culture and brings it to a foreign audience," Chan said, not without some relief.

(This week, Chow Yun Fat's screen time in "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End," released in China on Tuesday, was halved by Beijing censors who said his Chinese pirate role cast an unflattering light on the Chinese people).

Silver said that by transporting Angarano into a tale about freeing the Monkey King, producers were able to broaden the Chinese classic but maintain its cultural richness.

In addition, shooting in China allows for an authenticity lacking in most Hollywood movies made about the country, Silver said.

Executive producer Raffaella De Laurentiis brings to the film her prior cinematic successes with Asia ("Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story," "Tai Pan") and with fantasy ("Conan the Barbarian," "Dune").

But isn't it risky to make a Chinese story with American and Italian producers, an American director and a little-known American actor?

"This is not just a martial arts action film, but a tale of a hero's journey to discover himself," Silver said, adding that the predominantly Chinese cast and crew lend to the film's genuine character.

" 'Forbidden Kingdom' is a fantasy tale, but it creates an authentic vision of ancient China," Silver said.

Minkoff and veteran Hong Kong director of photography Peter Pau ("The Promise") are shaping that vision with the Asian debut of Panavision's Genesis digital video camera ("Superman Returns," "Flyboys"), courtesy of Salon Films of Hong Kong.

Pau says catching all the action and highlighting China's natural beauty made the choice to go digital important as he and the other Asian crew work closely with Minkoff to develop the story through their craft and to present a balanced vision of historical China, as opposed to a conventional Hollywood image.

"I am happy to act as a bridge to the world audience," Pau said. "We are translating the Chinese culture and allowing viewers to experience the real China."

Distribution will be handled by The Weinstein Company, Lionsgate and Blue Sky Media.
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