Asian titles hot at Berlin

'Blades,' 'Assassins' deals top busy day

BERLIN -- Berlin buyers are celebrating the year of the tiger with a run on Asian titles.

Easternlight Films has been fighting off offers for Daniel Lee's Chinese boxoffice smash "Blades" and has signed deals in Berlin with Sony in Japan, Icon for the U.K. and Australia, Metropolitan in France and Koch Media in Germany. The martial arts period piece features Asian star Donnie Yen as part of an elite force of assassins who are masters of the 14 blades: eight used for torture, five for killing and the last for suicide if a mission fails.

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Easternlight also closed deals for "Blades" with Turkey (Aqua Pinema) and Middle East (Ballistic Films). In the rest of Asia, Korea's Noori Pictures, Golden Harvest of Hong Kong, Long Shong in Taiwan, Media Films in Thailand, Soundspace in India and the Philippines and PT. Amero in Indonesia will be releasing the picture.

Another Asian killer film, Teddy Chen's "Bodyguards and Assassins" has been ruthlessly hunting down deals. We Distribution closed sales for the actioner with Metropolitan in France and TMC in Turkey. We said it is also close to closing on Japan. The $23 million feature is a battle royal in which, in order to save the nation, a group of bodyguards has to protect their charge from an onslaught of assassins. "Bodyguards and Assassins"just picked up 18 nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards, announced earlier this week.

The title has already been released across much of Asia where it has grossed more then $50 million. Releases in the U.K., Canada, Eastern Europe and Latin America are set for the second quarter of the year. We is hoping to close other major European territories in Berlin, including Germany, Scandinavia, Russia and Portugal.

Gilbert Lim of Sahamongkolfilm International, which is selling "Ong Bak 3" here, confirmed that, despite the EFM's European label, Berlin's market for Asian cinema is booming.

"Each year has just been getting better for us," he said, without divulging sales figures.

A look at the Berlinale's official lineup -- from Chinese director and former Golden Bear winner Wang Quan's opener "Apart Together" to closing film "About Her Brother," from Japanese Berlinale regular Yoji Yamada -- is evidence of how deeply Asian filmmakers are in the fabric of the festival.

But prizes are one thing, sales another. Even as Asian ticket sales have held up in financial down times, there are few big export success stories to point to from recent years. Not even 2009 Oscar winner "Departures" from Japan blew up once it sailed West. John Woo's "Red Cliff" has just opened in the U.S, while this year in Berlin, a few big Asian offerings are starting out abroad with long odds.

Berlinale veteran Zhang Yimou from China brings "A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop" to its international competition premiere. Visible in the West since the glow of "Raise the Red Lantern" in 1991, Zhang made his latest film drawing inspiration from the Coen brothers' 1984 directorial debut, "Blood Simple." It fizzled in China despite casting comedic hero Xiao Shenyang.

Facing a similar challenge in the Forum is maverick Japanese director Sabu, presenting his modern adaptation of "Kanikosen," a 1920's Marxist novel about exploited workers now enjoying a revival among Japanese youth. Despite the book's hype and stars Ryuhei Matsuda and Hidetoshi Nishijima, the film failed to take off due partly to Japan's dire indie distribution sector.

Indie woes aside, many Berlingoers hold out hope that creativity coming from the East will translate into commercially viable films in Western markets, the likes of which we've not seen in earnest since Stephen Chow's "Kung Fu Hustle"in 2005.

Meanwhile, Japan's Asmik Ace brings Omori Tatsushi's "A Crowd of Three" to the Forum -- with director and actor Shota Matsuda in tow -- and also Miwa Nishikawa's tale of a mysterious rural physician, "Dear Doctor," winner of a string of domestic awards and a respectable $5 million at Japan's boxoffice.

European openness both to Asian and art house cinema boosts the chance to close deals in Berlin. "It definitely helps, especially if a film is selected for official screening," Asmik rep Kayo Yoshida said.

Michael Werner, Fortissimo Films' co-chairman, arrives in Berlin with footage from "Reign" hoping to conclude sales for big European territories.

"The economic climate in Europe is difficult, but one always hopes to arrive at market with the perfect combination of cast and crew, with the right people behind the camera," Werner said. "John Woo is very active on set in China and is not sitting back and just producing."

Fortissimo also will show footage of French-Vietnamese director Ang Hung Tran's adaptation of Haruki Murakami's bestseller "Norwegian Wood," and footage of Hong Kong director Pang Ho-cheung's "Dream Home."

Borys Kit and Gavin Blair in Tokyo contributed to this report.