Filmart: Renny Harlin on How He Became One of the Most In-Demand Directors in China

Joe Pugliese
Harlin has called Beijing home since 2014.

Now preparing to helm his fourth Chinese feature in four years, the veteran filmmaker talks life in Beijing and why making Hollywood-style movies in the Middle Kingdom is about more than just "turning hamburgers into noodles."

For veteran Hollywood filmmaker turned Beijing transplant Renny Harlin, Chinese-language movie making has become much more than just a fleeting infatuation.

Harlin was a Hollywood darling during the 1990s thanks to his action hits Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger and The Long Kiss Goodnight. But after a couple of expensive misfires — Cutthroat Island and Deep Blue Sea — the phone began to ring far less frequently. That changed after Harlin came to China in 2014 to direct the Jackie Chan action-comedy Skiptrace, co-starring Fan Bingbing and Johnny Knoxville.

After the movie opened at No. 1 and earned a strong $134 million at the Chinese box office, the director found himself in demand all over again — only this time the offers were pouring in from entertainment giants called Alibaba and Wanda. With little tying him to Los Angeles other than his California lifestyle, Harlin, originally from Finland, decided to make his Asian relocation more permanent, adopting a rescue dog and settling into a high-rise apartment in Beijing's tony Sanlitun district.

Harlin's second Chinese feature, the Alibaba-backed action fantasy Legend of the Ancient Sword, finished shooting in 2017 and is expected to be released later this year or in early 2019. As Legend of the Ancient Sword was moving through post-production — the project features a CG panda and over 2,000 visual effects shots — Harlin boarded and shot his third Chinese film: the pressure-cooker thriller Bodies at Rest, produced by Wanda and Media Asia.

Bodies at Rest, which Media Asia is repping at FIlmart this week, would seem right in Harlin's wheelhouse: a single-location action thriller about an everyman who's plunged into an extraordinary set of circumstances and must fight his way free against a gang of menacing baddies. The film stars Hong Kong's Nick Cheung as a mortuary medical worker and actress Yang Zi as his intern assistant. The pair are working a typical shift when a group of gangsters storm the morgue to retrieve an incriminating bullet from a victim's corpse. "It becomes this crazy night of cat-and-mouse games," says Harlin. "Like Die Hard, it's very contained, which I really liked — I knew I could turn the screws and make it super intense."

Later this year, Harlin will be back in the director's chair in China to helm Operation Somalia, a military action flick about a real-life rescue mission mounted by the Chinese special forces against Somali pirates.

THR spoke with Harlin about his new life in Beijing, learning to tell jokes in Chinese and what genres most excite the world's most populous nation right now. 

How are you feeling about life in Beijing after four years? Are you still enjoying it as much as you were at the start?

I'm absolutely loving it. There was a slowdown here because of the box office dip two years ago, but things have really picked up again over the past six months. There's been a huge surge. I'm busier and more inspired than I have ever been in my career. There are so many opportunities and possibilities. I love my home here and my friends — the whole environment. I thought it was great, but it's just getting better and better.

How did your involvement in Bodies at Rest come about?

Well, I had been in touch with Cary Zheng, who is the head at Wanda Pictures, and he told me he had this script — Bodies at Rest — which he had been wanting to produce for five years. He had me read it, and I was attracted to it, but I had to ask him what was up, because it seemed like something with the script was a bit off — it just wasn't working. And the reason why is a good example of how things can go in China, and why some projects run into trouble. Cary had been in L.A. visiting all of the agencies, reviewing lots of Hollywood scripts, and the only one he liked was Bodies at Rest. He loved it, so he bought the rights to it and had it translated into Chinese by a professional translator, and then he had a professional Chinese screenwriter work on the translation to make it more suitable for the local market. Then when he brought it to me, he had that version translated back into English. Naturally, by that time, it had lost some of its life and focus.

This is a common problem that people run into when trying to do remakes or use Hollywood screenwriters on Chinese productions. It's extremely challenging to turn a Hollywood script into a workable Chinese one, and it's next to impossible to find experienced screenwriters who are also fully bilingual. What you're often faced with is a script that's been translated by a translator who is not a real writer, so everything was special about the dialogue and the pacing becomes a little less alive.

So how did you end up handling that?

I said, Why don't I just write it? I went back and read the original Hollywood version and reread their translated Chinese version. Then I felt I knew both what was good about the original and what Wanda wanted. Although, I don't read Chinese, I'm in China, living and breathing the local culture, and I felt I knew how to make it into a Chinese movie. So I just worked really closely with my assistant and the Chinese actors to get it right in Chinese. It was a long, careful process, and the script changed quite a bit from the original Hollywood version, but it definitely has its roots in that original script. And everyone seemed to really like it. The mandate that Wanda gave me was to make it a like a Hollywood film that happens to be told in Chinese and set in Hong Kong. So that's what I did.

What was most difficult about the process of transposing the story into the local language and culture?

The most interesting challenge was humor. I always try to put some of that in. Even in a grave, serious thriller like Bodies at Rest, I think humor is always good. The trick is to find the balance between your own sensibility and what works for the Chinese audience. As we know, the Chinese are not accustomed to the sort of sarcastic sense of humor we often use in Hollywood. From Skiptrace I learned that often the Chinese sensibility is a bit broader, fast-paced and slapsticky. Obviously that doesn't work in a serious movie like Bodies at Rest, so it was a balancing act. Humor in China is something I try to study every day. I test my jokes and attitudes on people, whether on set or out in everyday life, and you begin to evolve a sense of what works. I watch a lot of American movies with my Chinese friends and try to work out what they get and what they don't. It's a constant study. It's all just cultural difference. I seek other people's advice and reactions constantly.

It's interesting that Bodies at Rest was originally a Hollywood script, since the U.S. studios used to be so enthusiastic about remakes as a strategy for cracking the China market. The thinking seemed to be: We have all this proven IP, we can just translate all of this stuff and leverage our libraries for decades. But the reality has been that very few Hollywood remakes have worked well in the Chinese market so far.

You're absolutely right. People seem to have this attitude that you can take any Hollywood hit and just change the names and language and transform the cheeseburger into noodles. It's really just not that simple at all. There are such huge cultural differences. Sense of humor is just one. So much about emotional and physical interaction is different in Chinese culture.

I also pushed those boundaries a little in Bodies at Rest. There were scenes where I wanted the male and female leads to embrace or hug each other, which is something I would automatically do for a dramatic moment after a big action sequence in a Die Hard movie, for example. But here it's normally very different. The characters are colleagues, and although they've been through a lot together, in Chinese culture it wouldn't be so natural for them to embrace, no matter what the situation. But I really urged my actors to go for it. I'd say, these people have been through hell and they've finally met one another again, rush into each other's arms and hold on for dear life. The actors were reluctant, but after a few takes I got that Hollywood moment. What I'm trying to do is give the younger Chinese audience the same kind of emotional impact they enjoy in Hollywood movies, but now it's in China. I'm not trying to change China into America, but I think we can explore and blend certain things in interesting ways.

I imagine you need to already know Chinese customs pretty well before you attempt to do that, so you're not just imposing an outside sensibility without awareness of the rules and norms that you're bending or breaking.

Definitely. I might have done that three and half years ago when I first got to China, but now I do these things very carefully and very gently, and then I test them with everyone — my Chinese colleagues, my friends, my girlfriend, the studio executives and so on. We discuss everything. You need to navigate the local landscape very carefully and smoothly.

Last time we spoke you mentioned that casting was a huge difficulty in getting Chinese films made. Has the landscape evolved since then? What's most difficult about putting projects together in China right now?

A little over a year ago the box office temporarily stopped growing the way it had been growing, and many of the people who had been really excited about the market endlessly expanding, they suddenly took a step back, and the financing got harder. As people got more selective, they felt really dependent on star power and didn't want to finance anything without the biggest names attached to their film. That made it really hard to put movies together, because there's just a handful of major stars and they are all so busy.

But after last year's box-office growth turned out better than expected, and the recent Chinese New Year period was so spectacular, the situation has evolved again. The tide in terms of relying on the big-star names has started to turn. People feel that if they have a cool story that's visual and well told, with fresh faces, it can really work. That's an interesting development, and a welcome one. The star vehicles are still going to happen, of course, but there are many other interesting things getting made right now.

Specific genres tend to go on a hot streak in China. What's trendy right now?

People have seen that everything doesn't have to be a big-budget spectacle or a comedy to do well. Movies that tug the heartstrings and have a nostalgic dimension have also been doing really well — like Feng Xiaogang's Youth and Forever Young. So I see people emphasizing emotional impact when they look for projects. At the same time, people have realized that old-fashioned period fantasy movies aren't working as much lately. The young audience just feels it has seen these costumes, themes and choreography so many times over the years. Of course, the modern-day military action movie is what's really on the rise. After Operation Mekong ($171 million), Wolf Warrior 2 ($871 million) and now Operation Red Sea ($536 million), everyone wants to jump on this bandwagon.

Your next project — Operation Somalia — fits right into that category. When you first announced that project, the Wolf Warrior 2 phenomenon hadn't even happened yet. But now, since the Chinese market tends to be so driven when it comes to genre, there will probably be lots of military action movie copycats on the way. Will that make Operation Somalia more difficult for you?

It's kind of similar in Hollywood — it's always risky when you're trying to anticipate or follow trends. Operation Red Sea was a very specific kind of movie — it concentrated on the realities and brutality of modern warfare. The characters are clearly drawn, but it's not so much about their relationships and story. My feeling is that there are probably going to be a couple more movies like that, and then there might be some fatigue with this realistic approach and people will want more story and characters to be emotionally invested in.

My schedule has been so full, had I been able to start Somalia when we first announced, that would have been ideal. But we're being very careful with the script, making sure that we're not overlapping with anything and bringing something fresh. Yi Liu, who co-wrote the Wolf Warrior movies, is writing our script, and we've been meeting regularly over the last six months. All we're trying to do is a modern-day action movie that stands on its own. If you consider Hollywood franchises like Bourne, Mission Impossible and The Fast and the Furious, they're very different types of action movies, but they also essentially belong in the same basket. I think it can be the same in China — we still have plenty of room to work and create something fresh and exciting.

You've carved out such a unique position there in Beijing. Have you noticed anyone else trying to replicate your reverse cross-over from Hollywood to China?

I still don't know anybody else who has done it. I was just in L.A. two weeks ago for about ten days and it was wild — I ended up having six meetings per day. First of all, everyone wanted to know what it's like here, and second, whether it might be possible to collaborate. Part of the reason is that they are not planning to be here — they will come and visit, but they don't intend to uproot and move here. To this day, I don't know anyone else who has really done it. I'm sure it has to do with the fact that you have to give up your whole previous life, and a lot of people with the L.A. comforts either can't or don't want to do that. And I certainly understand it. I was in a unique position and stage in my career. It's not so simple to break into, but it would be pretty surprising if someone else doesn't at least try.