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Simon West Directing Chinese Tomb-Raid Movie ‘Legend Hunters’ (EXCLUSIVE)

British director Simon West, who made the Angelina Jolie-starring “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,” is now co-directing a Chinese tomb-raiding film.

The Legend Hunters” is the next installment in the “Mojin” universe, based on the popular fantasy novel series “Ghost Blows Out the Light.” Backed by Wanda Pictures and Beijing-based Saints Entertainment, the film is set for release next July and stars A-list male leads Zhang Hanyu and Jiang Wu and Hong Kong actress Celina Jade, who crossed to the big time in “Wolf Warrior 2.”

It is produced by industry veteran Zhang Wang (“The Great Wall,” “Hidden Man”), who also goes by the name Eryong. Currently halfway through shooting at the Qingdao Oriental Movie Metropolis, it expects to wrap in Russia in mid-August.

Screenwriter Li Yifan co-directs alongside West, helping to ground the film in a Chinese sensibility. The film references elements from ancient Chinese shamanic funeral traditions, and “we were worried it’d be a bit hard for Simon to get [that] on his own,” Eryong said.

The eight-book online novel series by Zhang Muye has been adapted into numerous film and TV titles and sparked a whole tomb-raiding genre in China, which has seen hits and bombs. One of the earliest and most successful direct adaptations, director Wuershan’s “Mojin: The Lost Legend,” grossed $241 million (RMB1.67 billion) in 2015, but others have flopped, including last year’s “Mojin: The Worm Valley,” which earned just $21 million (RMB150 million).

“To be honest, at first we weren’t really eager to take the project on. If you’re just shooting the same books again, they’ve already been shot to death. No one wants to see that any more,” said Saints CEO Su Xiaochen. “But then we found a good point of entry: This story is outside of the books. It’s a film about what happens to the same characters once they’re older.  It’s a bit like ‘Logan.’”

Eryong said that they had to work to distinguish their version from Wuershan’s. “His took place underground, and ours does, too. But there’s a lot more aboveground – things that happen in Europe and so on.”

The story follows the team as they try to raid a tomb made by master tomb raiders. It is set partially in Russia and will involve scenes at Catherine Palace in St. Petersburg.

Though a portion of the film is set in the West, Eryong brushed off concerns that his production would be hit by trade tensions. “I don’t think things will get that extreme,” he said, adding with a wink: “Plus Simon’s British, and Celina’s from Hong Kong.”

Saints Entertainment first became involved with Wanda by helping the firm with content planning, advising the giant company on how to divide its large IP library appropriately into different film and TV products. Wanda owns the rights to the last four books in the eight-book “Ghost” series, and asked Saints to take on the “Hunters” project – previously known as “Mojin X” – as a producer after Saints’ involvement in its early planning stages. Wanda has invested 60% in the film, and Saints 40%.

“This film is definitely aimed at the Chinese audience. It isn’t necessarily one for the world, but I think it’s going to be a very sophisticated Chinese film,” West said. “It seems there are the classic, great Chinese films that are beautifully made, very thoughtful and artistic, and then there are these new Chinese blockbusters that are very much like Hollywood summer blockbuster bubblegum movies. I think this one combines the two. It’s made like a beautiful classical Chinese film, but it has this action-adventure that the modern audience wants.”

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