Filmart: Renny Harlin on His Festival Opener 'Bodies at Rest,' Plans for a 'Long Kiss Goodnight' Sequel

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Renny Harlin

The Finnish director, who now lives and works in China, also discussed leaving Hollywood for Beijing, the Chinese sci-fi boom and why Hong Kong is a second home.

Renny Harlin's love affair with Asia continued on Monday as Bodies at Rest, his high-octane actioner starring Nick Cheung and Richie Jen, had its world premiere as the opening film of the Hong Kong International Film Festival. 

Best known for Hollywood action classics such as Die Hard 2Cliffhanger and The Long Kiss Goodnight, Bodies at Rest is the Finnish director's ode to Hong Kong cinema. The Hollywood Reporter's review noted that the pic has "the kind of polished, OTT energy Hong Kong was once the standard bearer for in unchallenging, purely entertaining crime thrillers." 

Bodies at Rest also represents Harlin's third Chinese film in a row, following last year's fantasy epic Legend of the Ancient Swords and 2016's Skiptrace, starring Jackie Chan. His recent output reflects his decision to swap Hollywood for Beijing, where he now lives and works.

Fresh from wrapping production on The Misfits in the Middle East, Harlin spoke to THR before the Bodies at Rest premiere about his affinity for Hong Kong cinema, moving into the sci-fi genre and his continued efforts to make a sequel to Long Kiss Goodnight. 

Your latest film Bodies at Rest is opening the Hong Kong International Film Festival. What does that mean to you? 

The Hong Kong International Film Festival is considered one of the biggest film events in Asia, so to me, it's an incredible honor to have my movie premiere here, and I was actually very pleasantly surprised when I got the news a little while ago that it had been chosen and very excited about it. Hong Kong is sort of my second home. My first home is Beijing, but I come to Hong Kong often to meet; I have a lot of friends here and do all the business here, and of course, Hong Kong cinema has been very close to my heart since I was a kid. The whole idea that I now live in China and I'm part of the Chinese cinema culture is incredibly exciting and inspiring to me.

Not many people know that you now live and work in China. How did that happen, and how has it been? 

That's true, it's now almost exactly five years since I came to Hong Kong to meet Jackie Chan to talk about making Skiptrace together. I initially thought that I was coming to China just to spend five, six months, make the movie and go back home, but I fell in love with the culture. I had visited China once before, but didn't really know much about it. When I got to know people and saw various different locations all around China, I really fell in love with it. I fell in love with the food, fell in love with the customs and history and culture. And the professional experience was so good, the Chinese producers were really happy with what I did, and I really enjoyed working with the Chinese crew, and then started getting more offers and opportunities and thought to myself, "Uh, okay. Do I want to go back to America and maybe do something for Netflix or Amazon, or something like that?" Big studio films made for the movie theater are so rare nowadays, it's all superhero movies. So I asked myself, "Do I work in China where I can make movies that will be shown in the theaters and shown on the big screen?" This felt like a new opportunity for me, a new chance in my career, and I haven't regretted it for one minute. I've now been living in Beijing for five years and made three movies and had a fantastic time.

What's been your experience of working with Chinese crews? 

Ha! Well, actually, just three days ago I finished [The Misfits] that I shot in Abu Dhabi with a Western crew. Over the last few years in interviews when people have asked me if I'd ever go back to work in Hollywood, I've jokingly said that I'm totally open to the idea as long as I can bring a Chinese crew. On Misfits, I was working with a very competent Western crew and everything went great, but there were many days when I thought that with Chinese crews, they don't walk, they run. They are so efficient. They are so hard-working. I think the competition is so hard that you can't ever relax, because there will be somebody else taking your job. The Chinese crews are really, really fast and efficient, I must say. I kind of missed that. 

Before your move to China, did you feel a bit jaded by Hollywood? Did you still feel appreciated? 

It's well-known in Hollywood you're only as successful as your last movie, so I definitely felt that I didn't have the same kind of opportunities anymore that I had when my movies were big hits, and, as a result, you sort of have to keep reinventing yourself and looking for different angles, how to stay in the game. As I said, not as many movies are being made, and those movies that are being made, they go to the young, hot flavor of the month, and they deserve it. But young directors are coming up all the time — that doesn't mean that I don't know what I'm doing anymore. I'm just as excited and inspired as I've always been.

You established your production company, Extraordinary Entertainment, last year and announced a big sci-fi project, Solara. How is that progressing? 

It's a big space adventure. We knew we had something with Solara, and our instincts have been proved exactly right. I have been saying for the last couple of years that science fiction will be the next big trend in China. Traditionally, I think the Chinese filmmakers and audiences felt like it wouldn't be believable to put a Chinese actor in a space suit. That it somehow didn't feel real. We're used to seeing Americans in space suits, but for the Chinese, it would feel forced. But Wandering Earth definitely proved that to be wrong. And I know that every studio now has science fiction projects in development. I've heard about a lot of projects.

Our script [for Solara] is almost finished, and it's a really really strong story. We are very excited. I'm actually here in Hong Kong looking at actors — I need actors already. 

So sci-fi is the next big trend. What else do you see happening in China in terms of movies? 

I feel like that fantasy genre is — unless somebody comes up with something new and impressive — it feels like it's dying and has done for the last couple of years. The typical fantasy movies, things that used to be the bread and butter of Chinese and Hong Kong cinema, I feel like those haven't worked the last two years. I feel like young audiences don't like them as much. 

What about patriotic action films like Wolf Warrior

Obviously, that's been a huge trend in the last few years, but my instinct is that it's peaked. I don't feel like it's a focus for a lot of companies anymore. And I feel that if you look at it from a government perspective, I think that the government maybe doesn't want that genre to become too dominant. This is just me speculating, but also from what I've been hearing from financiers and studio bosses, they feel like China doesn't want to come across to the world as this kind of Rambo. China wants to have a very strong international image — but a very peaceful image. And this idea that this genre is the only representative of Chinese cinema, where Chinese soldiers do heroic things all over the world, I don't think that's necessarily the image that the country wants to show to other nations.

So can I ask you about The Long Kiss Goodnight? For me, personally, it's one of the great action movies of the 1990s. I read a few years ago that you were keen on making a sequel — is that still something you want to do? 

Actually, that's a good question because The Long Kiss Goodnight was one of the first Hollywood movies that was released in the theaters in China. So it is really well known here. And people love it. Several people, producers and financiers, here in China have talked to me about doing either a Chinese remake or doing an English-language sequel and yeah, I've played with the idea.

I've created a treatment for [a sequel] where, basically in a nutshell, the story is that in the opening sequence, [Geena Davis'] character is murdered. And her daughter ... who was 5 or 6 years old in the original, she would be now in her 20s. And she's in university. After her mother dies, she receives this mysterious package. And there's something in it that she doesn't really understand  And now all the government and a couple of bad guys are after her because they have a hunch that the mother sent the item to her. So now she's on the run. She has no one to turn to, she's so over her head. The only person that she knows that could maybe help is [Samuel L. Jackson's] character. And then it becomes basically a road movie. But now it's Sam and Geena's daughter on the road. That's my treatment.

So a sequel is something that could happen? How realistic is it?

I talked a little bit about it to Toby Emmerich at Warner Bros. And it's just, you know, the studio machinery is so cumbersome. My feeling is that it's one of those situations where they can't decide whether they would just give me, or sell me the rights, and let me make the movie, or if they want to be actually actively involved. At the moment, they would want to be actively involved. Then it's marketing and distribution and international and a million other things that have to be taken into account — so it gets really slow and complicated.

Is Jackson on board for a possible sequel? 

I talked to Sam a lot about it. Sam said 100 percent he's in. He would love to do it.