Doug Liman to Direct Story of Sun Yat-sen's Bodyguard

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Rob Reiner and Alan Greisman to produce the story of Two-Gun Cohen.

BEIJING – Bourne Identity director Doug Liman and producers Rob Reiner and Alan Greisman are joining forces with Beijing Galloping Horse Film & TV Production for a 1920s drama about Two-Gun Cohen, the British bodyguard to Sun Yat-sen, leader of the overthrow of China’s last imperial dynasty.

Liman, who’ll work from a script by newcomer Matt Brown, told The Hollywood Reporter his recent trips to East Asia had opened his eyes to making movies in the region.

“I’m jumping in in a big way,” said Liman, a New Yorker who, before last year, had never been to the world’s fastest-growing movie market.

Drawn to anti-heroes, Liman said he wants to embrace that aspect of the story of Morris Abraham "Two Gun" Cohen (1887–1970), a London-born WWI veteran who moved to China in 1922 and took a job training Sun Yat-sen’s army in boxing and shooting, despite his inability to speak Chinese. 

“He’s a thief and a con man who goes to China with visions of self-aggrandizement, but while he’s there he falls for the country and for a woman. The story falls off the shelf without having to twist the facts.” Liman said. “It’s almost hard to believe it happened.”

Eventually, Cohen became one of Sun’s main bodyguards and, after Sun’s death in 1925, went on in the 1930s to fight for China against the invading Japanese and to work for British Intelligence.

Greisman grew up with the Two-Gun Cohen story -- was obsessed with it even, Liman said -- not unlike the way Liman tracked novelist Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne stories from the time he was in high school.

“Then, one day, Alan noticed that China was in the film business in a serious way. Since my movies also tend to come from my passion about a subject, I’m not all that different from Greisman. We realized the time was right for this project.”

The Creative Artists Agency, which represents both Liman and Greisman, asked Peter Loehr, its chief China representative in Beijing, to approach would-be Chinese partners.

The project’s lead financial backer was found in Beijing Galloping Horse -- the company behind director John Woo’s upcoming English-language Flying Tigers project. From China, Galloping Horse CEO Ivy Zhong will produce the Cohen project with Tina Shi, Loehr’s wife, who also works at the company.

Liman said his interest in Two-Gun Cohen predated his signing up to present Inner Mongolian Chinese director Wu Ershan’s Fox International Productions release of The Butcher, The Chef and the Swordsman at the Busan International Film Festival in October. That film opened in China this week.

Liman said Two-Gun Cohen screenwriter Brown was chosen based on a sample script he’d written about James Bond series novelist Ian Fleming. “Matt’s got a way with telling the story of a man with a complex international identity,” Liman said.

Once Brown has the Cohen story right, it’ll be shot in China as “a very international movie,” Liman said. “I’ve been making extremely American movies and this is a chance to make a movie that plays out on an international scale: we’ve got the Westerners, the Brits, the warlords and then all the Chinese culture.”

Asked what he felt about shifting his focus from the Bourne franchise, Mr. & Mrs. Smith and Fair Game to working halfway around the world, Liman said: “Our future is going to include China. I was blown away by the creativity and flexibility of the filmmakers in China, which makes Hollywood seem rigid.” 

But it remains to be seen what level of flexibility the Two-Gun Cohen script will have, given how sensitive China’s film censors have proven when it comes to co-productions set in the period that when the Chinese Communist Party was building its revolution.  

The Weinstein Company’s 2010 film Shanghai, also set in 1920s China, was denied permission to shoot in China and instead was shot in Thailand and England.

Zhong said Galloping Horse, the Two-Gun Cohen project’s lead financial backer, would give final script revisions “before Greisman submits a detailed production plan to us.”

As history books would have it, Cohen’s decades of carefully and flexibly formed allegiances made him one of the few people who was able to move back and forth between China and Taiwan after the 1949 Communist revolution divided the two territories.

Galloping Horse also is behind director John Woo’s upcoming English-language film Flying Tigers about U.S. Army Air Corps Lt. General Claire Lee Chennault, another story of a Western military man fighting to aid China in its fight against Japan. Chennault also was courted both by the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China on Taiwan, which Beijing considers a renegade province to this day.