Chinese producer unveils 'Monkey King'

TV vet Zhang plans 3D classic tale trilogy

BEIJING -- A three-part, 3D, English-language movie version of "Monkey King" -- one of China's most beloved classic tales -- with a projected $300 million budget was announced Tuesday by veteran television producer Zhang Jizhong, who said he is talking with potential Hollywood co-production partners.

Flanked at a news conference by the head of Huayi Brothers Media, China's first publicly-listed film studio, Wang Zhongjun, and by the director of the Film Bureau, Tong Gang, Zhang said it was his intention to take Chinese culture to the world on film.

"Over the last two years I've been in touch with many Hollywood partners. We now have the first draft of a script and will finish revisions year-end," said Zhang, widely known in China for making nearly 30 years of serial TV based on Chinese classics.

The "Monkey King" announcement comes amid a strong push by Beijing to promote Chinese culture overseas and is the latest in a string of big-money claims by Chinese moviemakers planning to work in English even as their domestic boxoffice is set to continue soaring, finally making money despite rampant piracy as the middle-class moviegoing habit takes off.

Wang of Huayi, which raised $176 million in a Nov. IPO on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange, said his company was interested in the trilogy and would "help however we can."

"In China now it's not hard to raise money.  I've been in talks with banks and think that there are investors from Korea and Japan interested in this project, too" said Wang, whose company recently helped the Walt Disney Co. and Fox International Pictures on two Chinese-language productions for China.

Also advising the "Monkey King" trilogy are the well-known classically trained painter, Li Zijian, and Yang Weiguang, director of China Central Television in the late 1980s, the period when producer Zhang got his start, before gaining fame with the early 1990s series "Romance of the Three Kingdoms."

"The Chinese government is talking about pushing Chinese culture out into the world.  Of all the other means, movies are the best way," Yang said, adding his view that if Chinese movies are to succeed around the world they must emulate Hollywood studio films by treating universal themes and using advanced technology.

Tong Gang, one of the most senior regulators of the historically state-controlled Chinese film industry, compared "Monkey King" producer Zhang to the producer and director of the Hollywood blockbuster "Avatar," which grossed more money in China than it did in any other country or territory outside the United States.

"Zhang is like James Cameron. He has prepared this story for a long time and is not in a hurry," said Tong, noting that China's boxoffice, up 43% in 2009 to $909 million, was the "best backup" Zhang could possibly want.

Announced on the eve of the Festival de
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Cannes -- which this year will host a large Chinese contingent, including executives from Huayi -- Zhang's claim to be planning in "Monkey King" what would be the largest investment yet in a made in China film project appears to best other recent big-money claims by Chinese filmmakers working in English.

Recently, Chinese real estate millionaire Jiang Hongyu, who speaks little English himself, drew back the curtain on an English-language underwater adventure film called "Empires of the Deep," on which he claims to have spent $100 million of his own money. The film, which Jiang calls a co-production despite its U.S. backer being a company he owns in Los Angeles, is shooting now in Beijing with "Quantum of Solace" star Olga Kurylenko.

"Monkey King" producer Zhang, for his part, declined to reveal the name of his scriptwriter and would not disclose which Hollywood partner he was closest to working with. Zhang did say that he had met the executives of IMAX and planned to make the "Monkey King" films to fit the Canadian company's large format screens.
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