Luc Besson, Keanu Reeves: Humanity Key to Chinese Co-Productions

Luc Besson
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"I don't know how to make TV shows -- I let the people who know how to do it take it on and hope they're doing their job." -- Luc Besson

Filmmakers on a Beijing Film Market panel say projects should be authentic and based on premises to which audiences can relate.

BEIJING – As financiers and producers clamor for a piece of co-production action in China, filmmakers with varied experiences working in the country have called on incoming suitors to bank on meaningful stories rather than cash-flushed spectacles.

Speaking at the Beijing Film Market’s Sino-Foreign Co-production Forum on Sunday – in a panel discussion titled “In Pursuit of Win-Win Outcome Through Co-operation” – French filmmaker Luc Besson said his first consideration would be to have a “human” story to tell if he were to work on a co-production in China.

Directors should find “stories which mean something” rather than just a vague notion on paper, he said, citing Jean-Jacques Annaud’s adaptation of the Chinese novel Wolf Totem, which will be his company Europa Corp’s joint project with China Film Group and Beijing Forbidden City Pictures. With its co-production agreement signed as a kick-off of the forum, the film will be made in Chinese and in China, and is based on Jiang Rong’s semi-autobiographical book about a student’s life in the Inner Mongolian grasslands when he was sent during the Cultural Revolution.

Asked what he will look for when searching for a Chinese project to direct, Besson said: “To have the chance of success, you have to have something true.” It’s a notion echoed by Hong Kong’s Peter Chan Ho-sun, whose first entirely mainland Chinese-set film, American Dreams in China, will be released in the country on May 18.

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While mainland Chinese audiences once preferred to watch only massive blockbusters in cinemas – a habit nurtured by a long period of home viewing of movies, he explained – small and mid-budget productions have been greeted warmly at the box office in the past two or three years, he said.

“They have stories which are closer to everyday life which people can resonate with,” said Chan, who cited that observation as the reason behind the making of his new film, which revolves around the lives of three mainland men who began the 1980s as struggling graduates and ended the 1990s as cram-school impresarios.

While big-budget productions have proved not to be the only way toward box-office gold, Chan said brand-name auteurs have also been “spoiled” and should actually try to connect with their audiences. “Look at the high-earning films and what define them are how they serve viewers,” he said.

Keanu Reeves, meanwhile, said his China-set directorial debut, the martial arts movie Man of Tai Chi, is also rooted in the real life of his main actor, Tiger Hu Cheng, a former stuntman he met on the set of The Matrix.

“He has traditional roots but he’s also a very modern guy,” said Reeves, whose film was backed by Village Roadshow Pictures Asia. “Man of Tai Chi has hopes and ambitions to entertain, but also to have something you can take away which has a positive message,” he added.

Their views echoed those of Zhang Hongsen, the director-general of the General Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television’s Film Bureau. Sharing his perspective about the main challenges of Chinese filmmaking, Zhang – whose role is effectively the enforcer of the Chinese government’s film regulations – said films should be filled with "more spirituality" and "fully-formed emotions."

"Directors should pay more efforts in [enhancing] the aspects of humanity in their films,” he said. Zhang said the authorities will boast of “more open-heartedness” in exploring co-productions, which he said are important to the Chinese market as they make up one-fourth of films which are released in the country’s cinemas today. Such joint projects could “put Eastern culture onto the world’s stage” and “enhance the modernity of Chinese cinema," he said.

The discussion did not touch on some of the debates raised last year about co-productions. Last August, Zhang Pimin, deputy director of the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television publicly criticized some of these projects, saying they are “fake” co-productions which do not adhere to the demands set by the Chinese government about local involvement and components within these films.