Jia to make first big-budget film

Indie director gets Media Asia, To backing

HONG KONG -- As he prepares to make his first big-budget film, Chinese director Jia Zhangke vows to stay true to the signature documentary style he used to capture the struggles of the country's working class.

The 2006 Venice Film Festival winner said in an interview Saturday he's a nimble director who can easily shift between art-house and blockbuster.

The formerly underground filmmaker is best known for his stark portrayals of the country's rapid economic growth. "The World" uses a Beijing park featuring miniatures of the world's major tourist attractions as a metaphor for the illusion of prosperity, and "Still Life" is about demolition workers dismantling a Chinese village to make way for the Three Gorges Dam.

Now Jia wants to make a kung fu movie.

He is currently filming a documentary about the history of Shanghai, but his next project will be a kung fu epic set in early 20th century China called "In the Qing Dynasty." Hong Kong's Media Asia Films -- which made the hit 2002 crime thriller "Infernal Affairs," the basis for Martin Scorsese's "The Departed" -- is the main investor. Hong Kong director Johnnie To, known for his stylish action thrillers, is the producer.

"I don't think I'm entering a phase of commercial cinema," Jia said. "I hope I can be free -- making 'In the Qing Dynasty' today and shooting an independent production the next. I've always wanted to maintain that kind of versatility and freedom."

But he acknowledged concerns that he was abandoning his roots in realist cinema, an allegation also directed at a previous generation of Chinese directors like Zhang Yimou -- who directed the opening and closing ceremonies for the Beijing Olympics -- and Chen Kaige.

"I know there are doubts. But I believe I will use my work to answer these doubts," Jia said. "I decided to make a commercial film because I want to change the status quo -- to infuse a more humanistic message besides commercial elements."

Jia said the script for "In the Qing Dynasty" was recently completed, but he declined to reveal the plot. He said the budget is still being drafted, but he expects it to be an expensive production because it will involve a replica of a Qing dynasty city. Shooting will start next year.

The 39-year-old director was in Hong Kong to shoot scenes for his documentary about Shanghai -- which also follows the migration of the Shanghainese to Hong Kong and Taiwan -- and to promote a compilation of worker interviews he did for his most recent release, "24 City," which describes the changes at a state-owned aircraft factory.

Jia's films are critically acclaimed and widely distributed outside China. The 2006 film "Still Life" won the top Golden Lion prize at the Venice Film Festival. "24 City" was sold to distributors in more than 30 countries.

But Jia has never had a box office hit in his home country, which is dominated by Hollywood and Chinese blockbusters.

"Still Life" made about 2 million Chinese yuan ($300,000) and "24 City" nearly 4 million yuan ($590,000). By contrast, each of the two installments of John Woo's recent two-part historical epic "Red Cliff" made 300 million yuan ($44 million).