Chen profiles Peking opera legend


RELATED: Co-prods breathe life into HK film
PIPELINE: HK-China co-productions

The massive Chinese market certainly baits Hong Kong studios looking for film financing. But as the scale of big-budget tentpole releases rises, Chinese productions also seek out companies in Hong Kong and Taiwan to split the bill. Likewise, the reach of Hong Kong studio distribution networks often proves appealing to Chinese producers. In 2007, 78 Chinese productions were sold to 47 countries, raking in 2 billion yuan worldwide. With eyes on markets both inside and outside China, projects with international appeal often become co-productions.

A typical example is director Chen Kaige's "Mei LanFang," the biographical portrait of the Peking opera legend who became a Chinese national hero by refusing to perform for Japanese military officials when they invaded China during World War II. One of the most respected Chinese stage artists and cultural icons in the first half of the 20th century, Mei's stage presence was the inspiration behind the main character in Chen's 1993 "Farewell My Concubine."

Mei was a master in the tradition of portraying female characters. His most renowned role was Yu Ji, the female lead in the Peking opera play of the same name.

After directing the 2005 martial arts fantasy "The Promise," which grossed 180 million yuan in China, Chen spent two years developing a script for China Film Group Corp., the country's largest state-run film producer and distributor. With a budget upward of 106 million yuan, CFGC called for prospective partners to share the cost. That was when Hong Kong's Emperor Motion Pictures and Taiwan's CMC Entertainment came in, according to EMP CEO Albert Lee.

"We read the script and the proposed cast, and it was an attractive project," Lee says. "The commercial outlook was good and we decided to participate as an equity partner."

Chen notified the equity players on his casting choices: The title role was to be played by Hong Kong singer-actor Leon Lai ("Seven Swords," "Infernal Affairs III") and Chinese actress Ziyi Zhang ("Memoirs of a Geisha") starred as his love interest. Considering Chen's previous success with his portrayal of the Peking opera world in "Concubine," Zhang's overseas draw and the prestige of the subject, international interest was deemed to be high. EMP's concern was whether the budget was sufficient to accommodate Zhang, but money was found to afford her.

Production commenced in July and finished at the end of February. The seven-month shoot -- the longest ever in China -- covered locations in Beijing, Tianjin and Shanghai, with more than a hundred sets built. The film is now in postproduction, scheduled for a Christmas/Chinese New Year release at year's end in China. As part of the co-production package, EMP will handle "Mei LanFang" distribution in Asia, excluding China, Taiwan, Japan and Korea. Although unlikely to be completed in time for Cannes, producers are expected to make an appearance there to generate buzz.