Chinese-U.S. production straddles cultures

HONG KONG — Chinese/U.S. co-production “The Forbidden Kingdom” could be the pic that provides the blueprint for a new wave of east-west cooperation. Based on a classic Chinese story, “The Monkey King,” the pic revolves around a kung fu-loving American teen (Michael Angarano) who time-travels to ancient China, where he meets up with Jackie Chan and Jet Li.

Helmed by “The Lion King” director Rob Minkoff and shot in lavish locations around China, it’s the sort of clean-cut hybrid the Chinese government would like to encourage.

The recent Hong Kong press junket brought Chan, Li, Minkoff and cinematographer Peter Pau together at the Grand Hyatt hotel for a lavish Hollywood-style media event prior to the pic’s April 16 release in Beijing. Pic also reps the first co-billing for the two Chinese superstars.

Lionsgate unspools the pic April 18 in the U.S. in a wide release, testing the waters for the action adventure pic in which the actors speak partially in English and partially in Chinese.

Minkoff says that while “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” was a thoroughly Chinese film that appealed to a worldwide aud, and Universal’s “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” was an American film that took advantage of Chinese locations, “Forbidden Kingdom” is more of “a meeting of peers.”

Minkoff likens this recipe to a Western chef working in a Chinese kitchen. “Certainly we cooked the chef’s way, but the ingredients were authentic,” he says.

The notion of finding a middle way between Western and Chinese filmmaking is important during these turbulent times. China has encouraged Hollywood to co-produce as a means around its import quotas. But in recent months, strict enforcement of its rules on genre, content and political correctness has caused dozens of previously approved movies to be suspended, pending re-examination by the authorities.

As a potential four-quadrant entertainment film without any gore or horror, “Forbidden Kingdom” fills the bill of delivering unthreatening entertainment for the widest possible demographic, which is what China seems to want these days from its filmmakers.

“Kingdom” does this by westernizing a traditional Sino story, while keeping the look and feel mainstream Chinese. Pic was made with Western hedge fund coin, but it was filmed entirely in China, mostly in the colossal Hengdian World Studios and employed a largely Chinese cast and crew.

The $55 million pic was largely financed by Ryan Kavanagh’s Relativity Media with Casey Silver producing, and exec producers including Raffaella De Laurentiis, martial-arts guru Yuen Wo-ping and Wang Zhongjun, co-chief of Huayi Bros., consistently China’s most successful private sector movie group. The Weinstein Co.’s Asian fund is also an investor.

Minkoff, a longtime Sinophile, learned the subtleties of working the Chinese way even before he began shooting the film.

“I learned to take time. I got the notion of ‘guangxi’ (quid pro quo) I recognized the importance of meeting with people even if they weren’t directly part of the film,” says Minkoff. “Above all, I learned that in many ways China works the same as Hollywood. There’s a lot of blood allegiances. Really, it’s all about who you know.”

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