Studio complex puts China in the picture

Huairou Film Base hopes to lure Westerners

HUAIROU, CHINA — About an hour’s drive from Beijing, inside a giant studio complex, you’ll encounter armies of kung fu specialists being put through their paces by China’s top helmers. Or you might see Nationalist Kuomintang soldiers marching through 1920s Shanghai.

Drive through a gate proclaiming “China Film” and there’s an arrangement of artillery weapons, all at the disposal of a prospective filmmaker

Welcome to Huairou Film Base, which in a few short years has emerged as the center of Chinese film production, and home to some of the biggest movie projects in this rapidly expanding market.

Following the Chinese government’s announcement that it’s prepared to open up a bit more to Hollywood by allowing more movies to be imported into China and by giving overseas producers more of the take from films distributed here, the base could well become a major destination for U.S. bizzers.

“This year, we had around 120 feature films, and the rest were TV shows,” says Zhang Hongtao, a Huairou spokesman.

The complex, the largest of its kind in Asia, covers 131 acres and cost $294 million to build. It’s cleanly landscaped and provides facilities for all aspects of production and post-production with 16 studios, a digital production shop and a prop/costume warehouse.

The facility has provided the famous Ningrong Street for the epic based on the classic novel “A Dream of the Red Chamber,” as well as the cave where Mao Zedong lived during China’s Civil War.

A visit to the costume warehouse includes some of the light suits from the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in 2008, as well as Gong Li’s costume for “Curse of the Golden Flower,” day beds with shell inlays, and a real throne used by the Qing Dynasty’s Pu Yi, known to Western auds from Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Last Emperor.”

The throne is a gift from the culture ministry.

Since it opened, the fortunes of the facility have reflected the boom in the Chinese film biz. Revenues last year were around one billion yuan ($160 million).

“This is the first stop. All the projects made here come here first,” Zhang says. “We organize not only shooting, but also development, catering, hotels and services for producers.”

Many of China’s most popular recent domestic films, including “Let the Bullets Fly” and “Forever Enthralled,” were made here.

Now the studio is looking further afield for future growth.

In a recent coup for Huairou, Keanu Reeves signed on to shoot “Man of Tai Chi,” a $32 million contemporary chopsocky and tai chi actioner that will film here. The cast includes Tiger Chen and Karen Mok, with Reeves as a bad guy — and martial arts choreography by Yuen Woo-ping (“The Matrix”).

One of the film’s backers is China Film Group, the Chinese state film colossus that is also behind the Huairou Film Base. Other coin comes from Village Roadshow Entertainment Group Asia, Wanda Media and Universal.

The Huairou boom also has benefited the nearby town of Xiantai, whose denizens appear as extras and works as staff for the complex. Lu Hongxu, a 25-year-old law graduate who makes her living guiding people around the site, says Chow Yun-fat is the most famous thesp she’s spotted on the base.

The regular employment of 2,000 townspeople is some consolation for the expropriation of their farmland, on which the government built the facility. Just outside the complex, serious high-end homes are going up, including a Netherlands-themed development, replete with a windmill.

And in June, Huairou will open a five-star hotel; in fact, June is the base’s official opening, although it’s already in use.

Traditionally, post-production on films shot in China has gone to Hong Kong, Australia or to the U.S., but the operators of the base are determined to keep that aspect of the business at Huairou, and are investing heavily to do so. This includes spending $240 million on a “producer headquarters base.”

“In the future, we want to get more projects, and we will further train the locals,” Zhang says. “This is a studio for producers, with services (ranging all the way) from development to post-production.”

And on sound stage 7, there’s a replica of a jungle that’s not used for films, but rather serves as an indication of how conscious those at Huairou are of tapping into every possible revenue stream for the studio.

The jungle is meant to attract tourists to Huairou’s theme park.

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