Chen raises curtain on 'Mei Lan Fang'

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BEIJING -- Chen Kaige on Thursday celebrated the start of photography on "Mei Lan Fang," his $15 million cinematic biography of China's most famous male opera star, played by Hong Kong pop music idol Leon Lai, who stars opposite mainland star Zhang Ziyi.

After an acrobatic Peking Opera intro on a replica period stage at the Beijing Film Studios, Chen, who last touched on the opera tradition in 1993's "Farewell My Concubine," offered thanks for the support of a who's-who of Chinese and overseas media company executives gathered.

Asked why the tale of Mei (1894-1961), who kept Peking Opera alive through Japan's occupation of China and the Communists' rise to power, is important today, Chen said, "Because of his character, nothing more. You will have your answer once the film is made."

Mei is well known for having stood up to the Japanese occupiers who liked his art but for whom he is said to have refused to perform. This year marks the 70th anniversary of Japan's worst atrocities in China, known as the rape of Nanjing, when as many as 300,000 Chinese civilians were killed by the Japanese army.

The film, produced by Chen's own company with the state-run China Film Group, CMC Entertainment of Taiwan, Beijing-based independent production company Huayi Bros. Pictures and Emperor Motion Pictures of Hong Kong, is expected to be completed before the 2008 Beijing Olympics start, a CFG spokeswoman said.

During the presentation, Chen welcomed Mei Baojiu, the son of the title character, who was a member of his fathers' opera school from 16 years of age.

Mei, a fit-looking 73, offered gracious thanks to Chen and the producers for attempting to bring his father's tale to life and keeping the opera tradition alive.

Seated at Chen's left hand when he gathered the cast in a semicircle around him for reporters' questions, actress Zhang Ziyi, who played a Japanese courtesan in "Memoirs of a Geisha," said that the hardest part of her new role was learning to walk in the shoes of the period.

The film also stars the director's wife, Chen Hong, as Mei's wife, and Japanese actor Masanobu Ando as an invading army officer obsessed with opera. Ando smiled when speaking to the crowd of Chinese press through an interpreter.
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