Producer aims to make Eastern blockbuster

BEIJING — China’s most famous TV producer, Zhang Jizhong, is planning a project he hopes will rival “Lord of the Rings” in budget and scope.

At some $300 million, the Monkey King trilogy, based on the epic “Journey to the West” folk tale, would be by far China’s biggest-budgeted film ever. The tale has seen many adaptations already — even Steven Spielberg was reported to be interested in the subject.

But first, Zhang who made his name creating elaborate dramatizations of historical classics, will need to assemble an international array of talent and financing.

The Monkey King is the main character in “Journey to the West,” a ribald Chinese folk tale by Wu Cheng’en, written more than 500 years ago during the Ming Dynasty and hugely popular ever since.

Zhang is one of the most popular TV helmers in the world — his skeins watched tens of billions of times — but he is keen to expand into film.

“I want to give the world Asia’s most famous novel,” says Zhang, a 57-year old with distinctive long gray hair and beard.

At a projected $100 million per film, the trilogy would dwarf previous projects in the region; Asia’s most expensive pic to date was the $80 million spent on John Woo’s “Red Cliff.” But Zhang insists the investment is justified in order to create a movie on a par with “Rings” or “Harry Potter.” Only by making a film on a Hollywood scale can it be a worldwide success, he feels.

“Journey to the West” is a fictional adaptation of monk San Zang’s pilgrimage to India to retrieve Buddhist scriptures and bring them back to China in the seventh century, but the focus of the story is on Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, whose rebellious and mischievous nature strikes a chord with Asian auds.

A Japanese version of the legend, “Monkey,” shot in northeastern China with Japanese thesps, and subsequently dubbed into English, was hit in the late 1970s when it was broadcast in Blighty and Oz. It still enjoys cult status among baby boomers.

The Monkey King also was featured as a character in “Forbidden Kingdom” played by Jet Li, and Zhang says it augurs well that “Kingdom” grossed $125 million worldwide.

Hugely popular in China, both as a book and in numerous television and screen incarnations, the story is not that well known in the West. Still, with the success across Asia of the two “Red Cliff” films, it looks like blockbusters can be made whether or not Western auds warm to the material.

But Zhang is seeking Hollywood partners and talent to make it a global movie. So far, he has spent $2 million developing the project, with a trailer and a lot of pre-production work on the characters.

Born in Beijing, Zhang joined the Shanxi drama troupe in 1978 after the Cultural Revolution and became an actor, moving into movies before becoming a full-time producer.

His first major production was “Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” while in recent years his productions of Louis Cha’s novels have sold well in Asian markets, including China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan.

The 20 series he has produced are famous for their large-scale battle scenes, with enormous sets and thousands of extras. Many of China’s top thesps have come up through the ranks of Zhang’s productions, including Liu Yifei, Huang Xiaoming, Hu Jun and Zhou Xun.

Zhang has a keen eye for the commercial spinoff. He has built 11 major movie cities, transforming the sets of his movies into theme parks around the country that have become successful tourist attractions in places like Zhejiang and Yunnan.

One of his key interests is putting more influence into the hands of the producer. Currently in China the director does everything, from the creative side to hiring staff, marketing, writing the screenplay and raising money.

“Although China’s film industry is developing at a fast pace due to the support of the government and strong economic growth, China has not yet made Hollywood-style global blockbusters, and still has the remains of the state-controlled system,” he says. “This is a fast time for China, and Westerners are showing more and more interest.”

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