De Bont to direct Zhang in "Mulan"

Indie English-language co-pro starts in China this fall

BEIJING – Hollywood hitmaker Jan de Bont has signed up to direct Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi in an independently-produced, English-language co-production of the classic tale of Hua Mulan, the legendary young heroine soldier who joins an all-male army.

Mulan is set to start shooting this fall outside Shanghai, where de Bont, the director of Speed, Twister and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider will attempt to bring romance, action and drama to screenwriter John Blickstead’s re-creation of the Chinese Joan of Arc story that was first described in a 6th century poem.

The character was popularized around the world in the 1998 Walt Disney animated film of the same name. The heroine got her last cinematic run-out last year in Hua Mulan, which starred Chinese actress Zhao Wei and received mixed reviews.

Zhang is one of China’s biggest actresses, and the new Mulan film comes at a time when the country’s movie business is growing by leaps and bounds at home but has scored relatively few hits overseas.

Zhang is a recognizable star in the West for her roles in more than a few of the Chinese films that have crossed over, such as the Academy Award-winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the Palme d’Or-nominated 2046, and the Oscar-nominated film Hero, the largest-grossing Chinese film export of all time.

Mulan will be co-produced by Movie Plus Productions of Canada, Global Film Finance of the U.K., Beijing-based Bona International Film Group and SIMF Pictures, with Zhang, Ling Lucas and Beaver Kwei, the producers who brought China Zhang’s 2009 romantic comedy boxoffice hit Sophie’s Revenge, directed by Eva Jin.

William Morris Endeavor, which represents Zhang, will handle North American rights to Mulan, while Arclight Films International’s affiliate Easternlight Films will handle sales outside of the North America and Greater China.

“This is the first independent film directed by Jan de Bont, whose worldwide boxoffice track record is huge,” Easternlight managing director and Mulan," producer Ying Ye told The Hollywood Reporter, saying that pairing de Bont, Zhang and the story of Hua Mulan was “a winning combination.”

Executive producers are Paul Edwards, Jeffrey Chan of Bona International, Fred Wang of Salon Films, one of China’s largest film production equipment rental companies, and Jeff Kranzdorf.

Individual “Mulan” producers include Mark Phillips, Ron Lynch, Steve Waterman (“Stuart Little”) and Movie Plus President Christopher Brough – who last worked in China in 2009 on Walt Disney Pictures’ “Trail of the Panda.”

A Disney spokeswoman discounted as false Chinese press reports that said in July that the Hollywood studio would be backing the new Mulan to the tune of $100 million.

Bona International’s Beijing-based parent company Polybona, which is run by Yu Dong, the company’s chairman, will distribute the film in China, where boxoffice receipts rose 86% from Jan.-June. Polybona also holds the exclusive rights for Mulan for Taiwan and Hong Kong.

“We’re absolutely thrilled to be able to work with Jan and Ziyi to turn the Chinese legend of Mulan into a top-notch live-action movie for a worldwide audience,” Chan of Bona International said.

As global interest in China rises now that the country’s economy is the world’s second-largest, domestic Chinese interest in old tales -- and the actors who play in them – isn’t what it used to be. While John Woo’s 3rd century war epic “Red Cliff” films both were hits here, “Confucius,” about the 6th century B.C. Chinese sage, was a disappointment in theaters earlier this year and Zhang, who also starred in the 2005 Oscar-winning Hollywood period piece ”Memoirs of a Geisha,” was widely criticized in China for taking the role of a Japanese courtesan.

Zhang’s rise to fame, while drawing great admiration from some, has also subjected her in recent months to sometimes vitriolic public criticism over charitable contributions she allegedly failed to deliver to a fund she set up to aid the victims of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

She is also now set to play a victim of China’s AIDS crisis in an upcoming film by director Gu Changwei, a role more cynical bloggers say is a part of an effort to rehabilitate her image with the Chinese public.

Producers on de Bont’s “Mulan” would not disclose financial details, but Brough said in a statement sent to The Hollywood Reporter that the film was “the perfect opportunity to bring to the screen the ideal synthesis of western and Chinese movie making skills with both a top actress and director, each of whom is globally recognized for their commercial and artistic success in equal measure.”

De Bont will shoot the live-action theatrical feature at the gargantuan lots of the Hengdian World Studios, three hours drive from Shanghai in Zhejiang province. “Mulan” is expected to wrap in January.

Casting director PoPing AuYeung (“The Karate Kid,” “Forbidden Kingdom”) is currently looking for fluent English-speaking Asian actors for the film.

The production, now in preparation in Beijing, is set to move to Shanghai Sept. 15, according to a copy of the film’s casting call obtained by THR.

Supporting roles in the film include Hua Yong, Mulan's 15-year old brother, described in the casting call “playful” and “plucky,” and as someone for whom “sword fighting and gymnastic skills” are a “definite bonus.”

Other roles advertised are Mulan’s mother and father, a female mystic who plays alongside the story’s villain, and a handmaiden with one speaking line.

According to sources close to the project, the film’s line producer is Shan Tam (“Rumble in the Bronx”) and the first assistant director is Sylvia Liu (“The Karate Kid”).