China uses star power for anniversary film

Biggest names appear, even if it's only a few lines

HONG KONG -- China's staid cultural commissars are turning to the likes of Jackie Chan and Jet Li, hoping that an injection of star power into a state-funded movie about the communist revolution will attract young Chinese normally turned off by government propaganda.

"Jian Guo Da Ye," or "The Founding of a Republic," which opens in two weeks, was commissioned to mark the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic on Oct. 1. In retelling the tale of communist triumph known to all Chinese, the movie's cast reads like a "Who's Who" of the Chinese film industry. Besides Chan and Li, there's Zhang Ziyi of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Tiger," Stephen Chow of "Kung Fu Hustle" and action picture director John Woo, among many others.

The inclusion of the stars - many of whom make nothing more than brief cameos - highlights the Communist Party propaganda czars' increasing recognition that to get the attention of the iPod-toting, Nike-wearing set, they'll have to put out a slicker product.

Not long ago, China's state-supported film and TV studios turned out exclusively predictable fare on tight budgets, often focusing on dowdy revolutionary heroes who were decidedly out of sync with the well-dressed singing idols and action stars coming out of trendsetting South Korea or Westernized Hong Kong. Chinese stars who made it in Hong Kong or Hollywood mostly kept the China industry at arm's length.

But as entertainment options have multiplied in China's booming economy - from big Hollywood releases to pirated DVDs to YouTube-style video-sharing Web sites - the Communist Party's Propaganda Department has been forced to adapt to get its message across to reach savvy youngsters normally disdainful of official media.

Meanwhile, ethnic Chinese filmmakers who made good abroad are sensing the huge potential of the China market - and know it's politically smart to get on board with the anniversary film to ensure future success. While still small compared to the U.S., the Chinese boxoffice is growing rapidly fueled by a flurry of movie theater construction, surging more than 30 percent to 4.3 billion Chinese yuan ($630 million) in 2008. U.S. boxoffice revenues reached nearly $9.8 billion last year.

After 16 years in Hollywood, Woo returned to China two years ago to make the $80 million two-part historical epic "Red Cliff." Chan and Li's 2008 kung fu film "The Forbidden Kingdom" was a U.S.-Chinese co-production shot in eastern China. And Oscar-winning Taiwanese director Ang Lee agreed to edit a line in his 2007 spy thriller "Lust, Caution" to make it less obvious that a lead character helps a Chinese traitor in Japanese-occupied Shanghai - conforming with official sensibilities of patriotism.

"The Founding of a Republic" is unusual because it "combines the core of an 'ethically inspiring' film" - code for propaganda films - "and commercial packaging," said Gao Jun, deputy general manager of the New Film Association, one of China's top multiplex chains.

Gao said he and fellow theater owners expect a hit because its sheer celebrity power will help draw young viewers. But don't expect them to be wooed by the rhetoric, he said.

"They won't pay attention to anything else. They'll just be counting the stars," he said.

Already the film is generating buzz, but not all of it welcome. An online debate has focused on whether some of the big stars had acquired foreign passports and were therefore unfit to appear in a patriotic movie. "Farewell My Concubine" director Chen Kaige, who has a walk-on as an enemy general, was said to be a U.S. citizen and Li a Singaporean.

Chen denied he had switched citizenship while at a film awards ceremony in Beijing last weekend. Without addressing his nationality directly, Li was quoted by Hong Kong's Wen Wei Po as saying recently, "no matter where I go, my heart will always remain in the motherland."

"The Founding of a Republic" was commissioned by the main film regulator and made by the powerful state-owned China Film Group, which is involved in most major productions on the China and controls the import of foreign films. The movie will be released nationwide on Sept. 17 with 2,000 prints of the film, nearly one for every two of China's 4,100 screens.

Film Group chairman Han Sanping, who co-directed with Huang Jianxin, personally asked some of the celebrities to take part. "Everyone has to show their respect if Grandpa San asks," Woo's regular producing partner, Terence Chang, said, referring to Han by his nickname.

Hence, many of the stars in the movie worked for free, helping keep the movie's budget to a modest 60 million yuan ($8.8 million) to 70 million yuan ($10 million), said China Film Group spokesman Weng Li.

But rumor has it that audiences will have to pay close attention to catch all of the appearances. The lead roles - like revolutionary leader Mao Zedong - will be played by lesser known actors.

Chan, the world's best-known ethnic Chinese star, plays an unnamed journalist, reportedly only delivering a few lines. "Crouching Tiger" star Zhang Ziyi is an unidentified representative from the cultural sector. Woo's character shows up in one of the trailers but was left out of the final cut, producer Chang said.

Still, agents and representatives of the stars said it's enough to be seen. "Every actor and every director will feel very honored if he or she could take part in this movie," said Huang Bin, the agent for director Chen.