'Warlords' a departure for Chan

$40 mil epic starring Li, Lau will be shopped at Cannes

Atop a replica of an ancient fortress outside Beijing, Hong Konger Peter Chan directs Japanese actor Takeshi Kaneshiro in Mandarin. The scene is a South China battle in 1860 and there are 400 (contemporary) Chinese soldiers playing slain Taiping warriors lying on the frozen February ground.

The tanks on the People's Liberation Army firing range, which is doubling as a film set, are nowhere in sight, but the sergeant barking at the teenaged dead to keep still — arrows bristling their dusty leather breastplates — is a clear reminder of our hosts.

Kaneshiro and superstars Jet Li, a mainland martial arts legend, and Andy Lau, a Hong Kong heartthrob, play farmers turned mercenaries at the center of "The Warlords," Chan's $40 million epic about brotherly betrayal during civil war.

The irony is not lost on Chan that he and his producers — Hong Kong companies Media Asia and his own Morgan Chan Films, and the state-run China Film Group — are paying communist soldiers to play the Jesus-worshipping rebels who once threatened the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), China's last.

"This film is pure dramatic entertainment, but it's the anti-war message that drew me to it," Chan says smiling.

In the early 1970s, the Hong Kong film "Blood Brothers" told a similar story, and though Chan says it was among his favorites as a teen, he denies he is doing a remake.

For Chan, known for low-budget, intimate love stories he calls "feminine" — "He's a Woman, She's a Man" (1994), "Comrades: Almost a Love Story" (1996) and the musical "Perhaps Love" (2006) — "Warlords" is a radical departure.

Chan is well into work begun in December that will last into late March. The crew — including six assistant directors, two units and seven cameras — topped out at 860, not including the 1,000 PLA extras.

Calm and happy as he is to be working with such acting talent, including actress Xu Jinglei, Chan doesn't feel quite right helming this epic war film.

"This is a one-shot thing for me. When I see so many people on the set, I think it's such wastage. If we shot this in Hong Kong, we would not need more than 200 crew," Chan says.

"Warlords" is a bold experiment: It is a Chinese film made for Chinese. There are no martial arts, no flying swordsmen, none of the gilt Ming Dynasty trappings of recent big-budget mainland movies. It is not tailored to match the Western image of what a Chinese war movie should look like.

To conjure a film about peasants fighting peasants, Chan read about trench warfare in Afghanistan.

Working closely with industry experts gathered by Beijing's official Film Bureau (read: censors), Chan was able to get the script passed, a script he'd worked on with eight different writers over three years and one that portrays a China at war with itself.

"It's not set for the present, so it makes it a little bit less sensitive," Chan says with a laugh. Nowadays, he counts Film Bureau officials as "friends, not bureaucrats," who "really help you navigate the tough waters" with the notoriously thin-skinned censors.

Chan's is not the only war film coming out of China. Director John Woo is shooting "The Battle of Red Cliff" an hour away, and Feng Xiaogang is shooting "The Assembly" in Northeast China.

Chan wants to show war's grit and says he was inspired by Stanley Kubrick's WWI classic "Paths of Glory" and by the verbal violence of Ken Loach's "The Wind That Shakes the Barley," last year's Palm d'Or winner at the Festival de Cannes.

"The way Chinese write history is so out of touch with reality. Maybe because of Confucian teaching, we believe that people should be noble, so we hide anything that is real," Chan says. "It's a tradition of Chinese movies, dramas, operas and literature. We tend to sweep everything under the couch and show what we want."

Chan says that he and longtime producer-partner Andre Morgan are talking to buyers but won't sell "Warlords" until Cannes. Given the spotlight on Li, there's room for misinterpretation.

"We're not making the typical martial arts film, so we decided to hold off on presales until we can show at least 20 minutes of footage," he said. "We don't want to mislead our buyers."