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Director Zhang Yimou’s Heroes of Nanking is unlike anything seen before from China. The $100 million period epic, the most expensive production in Chinese history, recounts how Japanese invaders massacred hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians in 1937. It’s the type of feature that normally would have very little audience beyond the Asian market. But there is nothing normal about Heroes of Nanking.
The shoot for Nanking began in January and wrapped this month, with recent Oscar winner Christian Bale in the lead — the first major Hollywood star to come aboard a big Chinese release. In the film, Bale plays an American tasked with saving a mix of Chinese schoolgirls and local courtesans. About 40 percent of the dialogue will be in English.
The movie, produced by Zhang Weiping under his New Picture Film Co. banner with backing from a loan by Minsheng Bank, is clearly hoping Hollywood firepower will lure Western moviegoers to the multiplex in ways usually reserved for martial arts pictures such as Zhang’s House of Flying Daggers and Hero.
“Christian Bale is completely recognizable, and it will help excite people about the movie,” says Glen Basner, CEO of FilmNation Entertainment, which is repping the film internationally. “But I think it goes far beyond just him. While he’s a great star, and while you have a world-renowned director, Nanking is much more relatable than movies that have come out of China in the past.”
Beyond the box office, the filmmakers have their sights on awards-season glory. In another first for a Chinese production, international PR will be handled by Los Angeles and London-based firm DDA, which has a long history working on Asian titles like the John Woo-produced Reign of Assassins. Add New York-based sales company FilmNation’s involvement, and Nanking begins to look like the type of East-West hybrid that could be a game-changer in the tenuous courtship between Hollywood and China.
“The growth in the Chinese market is undeniable,” says Dana Archer, senior vp at DDA. “The next step is for the Chinese to increase collaborations with Hollywood, and in turn for Hollywood to embrace the Chinese culture. I do see this as a model for future collaborations as we hope the industry will see the importance of having an international PR campaign and strategy in place early on.”
Indeed, as China continues to ignore the March 19 World Trade Organization deadline to open its movie distribution to outside countries (currently, China allows only 20 imports a year), executives and talent are finding more creative ways to work together through co-productions.
Among other such projects, DreamWorks recently sent animators to China to tailor Kung Fu Panda 2 to the Chinese market, and last year’s successful remake of The Karate Kid, which placed Jaden Smith at Chinese locations alongside Jackie Chan, was co-produced by Sony and the China Film Group.
Still, while MPA chair/CEO Chris Dodd chooses his words carefully when discussing China — in a June 13 keynote address at the Shanghai International Film Festival, he soft-pedaled complaints about the country’s refusal to adhere to the WTO ruling — it appears China is opening up to the West, albeit on its own terms.
For Bale and other A-list Hollywood talent, a movie like Nanking not only creates exposure in the soon-to-be second-biggest market in the world — China is poised to surpass Japan and is adding three to four screens a day to its stock of 6,200 — but also adds a deep-pocketed employer. If Bale’s movie, set to open in China on Dec. 16, succeeds, then China might be able to lure more stars overseas, offering money as well as a heightened international profile.
“I want everybody to see this film,” says Zhang, who communicated with Bale through a translator during filming. Zhang praises his leading man (now filming The Dark Knight Rises), speaking to what he hopes is the universality of a strong performance: “He’s such a professional, so good an actor, I often knew his meaning before the interpreter stopped.”
ZHANG YIMOU — A SELECTED FILMOGRAPHY:
He brought China its first foreign-language Oscar nomination, eventually garnering three to date, and has four films among the top 30 all-time earners at the Chinese box office. A look at five essential Zhang films.
Ju Dou (1990)
Zhang’s first collaboration with former flame Gong Li brought China its first foreign-language Oscar nomination.
Raise the Red Lantern (1991)
A year after Ju Dou, Zhang landed another foreign-language Oscar nom plus best director and best film awards at the Venice Film Festival.
Also nominated for a foreign-language Oscar, this Quentin Tarantino “presentation” is the 11th-highest grosser in Chinese history.
House of Flying Daggers (2004)
Picking up where Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon left off, this martial arts epic took in $24 million at the Chinese box office.
Curse of the Golden Flower (2006)
This visually stunning look inside the palace intrigue of China’s 10th century Tang Dynasty earned an Oscar nom for costume design.
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