While American filmmakers continue to feast on China’s capital and rapidly growing audience, the Chinese are intent on using American partnerships to enhance the size and profile of their own film industry. A consortium of Chinese filmmakers believe they have taken another step in that direction by signing Bruce Willis to a key role in a World War II epic now in production.
Willis flew Tuesday night for Shanghai after signing on just last week for eight days of shooting on “The Bombing” — a dramatic recreation of the Chinese population’s abiding endurance during the more than five years that Japan bombed the city of Chongqing, beginning in 1938.
The film, jointly funded by the state-operated China Film Group and private investors, is scheduled to be in production through August and to premiere as soon as the end of the year. The rapid schedule is designed to have the release roughly coincide with 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Sources put the budget at $90 million, making it one of the most expensive Chinese films ever.
Executive producer Yang Buting of China Film Promotion International said his team sought out Willis because of the American’s popularity with Chinese audiences. And Willis has always wanted to work in China, according to his reps. The actor understands how film fans in the Asia recognize him and also the growing importance for all films of succeeding in China, including possible future releases in the “Die Hard” and “G.I. Joe” franchises. China now has a theatrical audience second in size only to North America’s.
Yang said the film epic presented opportunities on both sides of the Pacific. “We have an ancient culture with a long history and many stories, both fiction and non-fiction, to tell,” Yang said. “America has a relatively short history but you have a much greater technology in film. So we are trying to take the history of China and meld it with the modern technology of America to make a modern film that is of the highest quality.”
Directing the epic is Xiao Feng, who previously made 2012’s “Hushed Roar,” also a war feature. The Chinese helmer recently announced on his microblog that “The Bombing” also will feature Korean actor Song Seung-heon, Hong Kong star Nicholas Tse and leading Chinese character actor Liu Ye.
The story revolves around the struggles of the people of Chongqing during continual air-raids by the Japanese, which continued from the onset of the war through 1943. More than 11,000 died, mostly civilians. While the Chinese had fighter planes, they initially lacked pilots to get them in the air and relied on American volunteers to teach them. Willis plays one of those volunteers, while Song is the Chinese trainee learning so he can protect his homeland.
“The Bombing’s” group of investors includes Shanghai Qingpu Investment, Beijing Original Pictures Television & Films Investment and businessman Shi Jian Xiang.
The air raids remain an important historic touchstone, particularly to older Chinese. “The movie is very important to us, because much of Asia was affected by the war. But there is a whole new generation that needs to remember what happened,” said exec producer Yang.
While the appearance of Chinese actors has become almost routine in large English-language productions, the flow of talent to the other side of the Pacific has been more unusual. John Cusack and Adrien Brody recently appeared in Jackie Chan-starring hit “Dragon Blade,” while Nicolas Cage headed the cast of recent flop “Outcast.” Christian Bale in 2011 starred in Zhang Yimou’s “The Flowers of War” and, this March, former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson joined a 3D Kung Fu biopic that will include a CGI Bruce Lee.
Willis’s “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” made almost $54 million in China in 2013 of its total worldwide take of $376 million. A year prior, his “The Expendables 2” raked in $53 million at Chinese theaters of its global gross of more than $305 million.
The Chinese producers hired two U.S.-based firms, Hollywood International Film Exchange (Hifex) and Bruber Enterprise, led by principals Jimmy Jiang and Beryl Huang, respectively, to make the connection with the American star. It was Bruber’s Bruno Cavelier who broached the idea of a role for Willis with CAA’s Roeg Sutherland.