How do you follow “Operation Mekong” and “Operation Red Sea,” two of China’s biggest hit films in recent years?
For Dante Lam, who directed those two movies, it’s not by further cranking up the body count or delivering yet more on-screen patriotism. Instead, he and producer Candy Leung are now working on one of the costliest films in Chinese history, “The Rescue,” a thriller with four massive action sequences that each could drive a movie like “Deepwater Horizon” or “xXx.” The film focuses on an emergency rescue operative and his pilot girlfriend, whose team find courage and camaraderie in adversity.
The $90 million budget is more than double the $38 million cost of “Operation Red Sea,” at a time when the Chinese industry is currently undergoing a painful slowdown. But with Lam’s last two films clocking up a combined $750 million at the Chinese box office, the project has been put together without recourse to a major Chinese or Hollywood studio. And it has already bagged a release date for Chinese New Year in February 2020.
The picture is not only a showcase for Lam’s particular brand of kinetic action directing. It could also launch Eddie Peng, China’s hottest male actor, to global stardom. Taiwan-born Peng spent his teenage years in Canada, speaks English comfortably and, after a decade of film and TV work, including four movies with Lam, is ready for bigger things.
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Having delivered two movies whose portrayal of Chinese military operations overseas, complete with abundant patriotic messages, may have fallen flat with international audiences, Leung and Lam have been careful to position “The Rescue” differently. National prowess replaces nationalism, and high-stakes escapades replace gunfire.
The film focuses on China’s Coast Guard rescue organization, which is the largest in the world and may be one of the best-equipped. The film has garnered financial backing and production support from China’s Ministry of Transport.
That works for Lam, who is happy working both sides of the Hong Kong-mainland Chinese border. “I need a lot of space for my movies,” he says. “Besides, both places offer different creative opportunities. ‘Operation Mekong’ and ‘Operation Red Sea” would have been very difficult to do in Hong Kong.”
Lam and Leung have enlisted some of the world’s best technical crew for their latest mission, most notably cinematographer Peter Pau (“Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon”) and Martin Laing (“Avatar,” “Terminator: Salvation”).
“Dante has a high degree of certainty,” Pau says. “He concentrates precisely on his strengths and is very bold, sometimes even shooting a big scene in a single take. Dante left decisions about color and lighting to me, while concentrating himself on the acting performances and the action.
“This film has fire, explosions, aerial shots and underwater sequences. I want him to have the best-ever action sequences. And be ready for his spontaneity.”
Laing likens Lam to Michael Bay, Steven Spielberg and James Cameron. “Dante needs to understand how stuff works, and the connections between things. Then he is ready to blow them up,” says Laing. The film takes in oil rigs, the sea, and underwater and mountain rescue scenes. “What we have in this film is four or five action sequences that could each be the finale of ‘xXx’ or ‘Sully.’”
Laing was influential in taking the film to Mexico, where he previously shot Cameron’s “Titanic.” The advantages are the scale of the water tanks at Baja and the relative proximity to Hollywood for top tech crew and special effects. The film will shoot there for two months between March and May. Digital Domain is set as a key effects partner on the film.
Leading man Peng, who is in his early 30s, Peng has a huge fan following. Shooting a drama scene in a large public hospital in Xiamen, in early January, nearly brought the hospital to a halt as medical staff and orderlies camped out in corridors to get a glimpse. “Rescue” offers him a break from the romantic lead roles he is regularly offered for film and TV.
“Dante has always seen a different side of me,” says Peng, who has now trained to become a proficient diver. “What is so interesting with Dante is that he is always learning, always transferring his skills and is never satisfied.”
Leung spent four years talking to China’s Transport Ministry before getting its financial backing and its OK to shoot so much in Mexico.
“Even with Dante Lam and Eddie Peng on board, it was not easy to pull things together for this movie. The production environment in China is very challenging right now,” she says, referring to the nervousness in the industry amid the government’s tax crackdown. “Getting a movie green-lighted in China is not like Hollywood.”
In the process, Lam’s script has gone through eight redrafts, and the movie’s scale has grown. “Originally we only had one sinking ship scene,” Leung laughs. “Now we have vastly more.”