Sun Entertainment Makes English-Language Debut, Backs Philip Lee’s $120 Million ‘Inversion’

Producer Philip Lee.
Naman Ramachandran

The $120 million multinational disaster movie “Inversion” leads a slate of two feature films and a TV series from Hong Kong-Chinese producer and financier Sun Entertainment Culture (SUNEC). The two movies mark Sun’s English-language film debut.

Founded in 2011, SUNEC has been involved in Hong Kong-Chinese co-productions such as 2017’s “Paradox” and 2015’s “SPL II: A Time for Consequences,” starring Wu Jing. But with the Chinese entertainment industry currently in turmoil after new tax rules have created hurdles for local financing and production, the company is looking to move in a more international direction, expanding into producing content in different languages as it becomes more difficult to produce in the mainland.

Disaster thriller “Inversion” tells the story of a Chinese scientist and an American pilot who must work together to save the world when gravity suddenly disappears. The project originally was set to be written by a team comprised of screenwriter, producer and director Paul Haggis, Bragi Schut, David Arata and Michael Finch. It is now based on a screenplay by Golden Horse nominee Li Wei, who wrote Zhang Yimou’s “Shadow.”

“Inversion” will now be directed by Mark Waters (“Mean Girls,” “Mr. Popper’s Penguins”). He has replaced German director Katja Von Garnier — known for 1997’s “Bandits” and the “Windstorm” franchise, a series of three films about a girl and her horse named Ostwind — who has parted ways with the project over “creative differences.” Von Garnier herself replaced American director Peter Segal, known for numerous films starring Adam Sandler including “50 First Dates” and “The Longest Yard.”  

The production had previously cast Liu Yifei, the lead in Disney’s live-action “Mulan,” as the Chinese star. But it has now replaced her with Yang Caiyu, known for her breakout role in Feng Xiaogang’s “Youth.” The leading male role has not yet been cast, though the team remains in talks with Samuel L. Jackson. Production is set to begin in the third quarter of this year, with locations including the U.S., U.K., India, Hong Kong and mainland China.

Philip Lee and Markus Barmettler from production company Facing East are producing. They hope for the project to be a co-production between Hong Kong, China, the U.K. and the U.S., but suitable Western partners have yet to be pinned down. “Inversion” will be a theatrical film, but it is not yet clear whether it will be distributed independently or via a studio. Quin Lau, manager of film production at Sun, said that SUNEC will provide a “significant portion” of the film’s total budget.

Lee is known for producing “Cloud Atlas,” which ended up a co-production between seven different countries, as well as “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” from back in 2000. He was a line producer for “Hero,” “Emperor and the Assassin” and the “The Dark Knight,” as well as executive producer on “The Revenant” and “Assassin’s Creed.” 

Facing East, which has outposts in Hong Kong, Zurich and Los Angeles, was founded in 2016. It is the company’s first film to be made from an original concept, rather than as a remake or an adaptation. 

“This is a movie we’ve been working on for seven years,” Lee told Variety. “It has always been my vision to produce first-grade movies that can have a theatrical release.” 

Much of the shooting will take place in the U.K. because of available rebates and highly skilled crews familiar with large-scale productions, he explained. The team is exploring whether it will be able to make use of a co-production treaty between the U.K. and China, ratified in 2014. The first film made using this treaty, “Special Couple,” was completed last year. 

“We explored many places for shooting — including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and Berlin … but we decided the U.K. is best. I want to do more things in the U.K., with British production companies and British directors, because if you do things over there it’s much cheaper,” he said. 

Visual effects will be done mostly outside of China, Lee said, laughing that “our film will have first-rate visuals.” Barmettler said that London-based Double Negative (“First Man”) would be the lead effects provider.

Lee was circumspect when asked whether the film would be yet another mainland-targeted blockbuster in which China saves the world. “I always wanted to see a Chinese main character work with an American or British main character and have them balance the story. If China saves the world in every movie it’s not very convincing but I think a collaboration like this would do well dramatically,” he said. 

“It has to be real and convincing to both cultures. I’m not from the mainland, but I want to do something that’s fair and exciting for both cultures.” 

On Monday, SUNEC will also announce English-language suspense thriller “A Perfect Family,” which sees FBI agents in a small town in the American South assigned to investigate a missing priest who then get entangled in a case about missing children. A U.S.-China co-production, the film is set to go into production in Georgia this May with a tentative release date of 2020. It is produced by Belle Avery and Randy Greenberg, who worked together on the “The Meg,” as well as Shaun Redick (“Get Out,” “BlacKkKlansman”). 

The firm is also backing the series “Shiseishi: The Tattoo Master,” an original episodic neo-noir about a mysterious Japanese tattoo master and his customers. It will be directed by Wing Shya and made by the team behind the hit Japanese series “Midnight Diner.”