You can tell from a glance that these are no ordinary horses. Tall, immaculately brushed and each costing tens of thousands of dollars, the 33 thoroughbreds and warmbloods gleam like polished coins in their newly built stables, at odds with the construction cranes and empty housing developments of semirural China around them.
Until the “Fengshen Trilogy” fantasy epic started shooting at the Qingdao Oriental Movie Metropolis in August of last year, the world’s most populous country didn’t have any film horses. But the production team wasn’t fazed. It scoured the planet for the finest beasts money could buy, recruited a top Hollywood handler, built facilities from scratch and trained the animals in record time, making the seemingly impossible possible within months.
It was par for the course for “Fengshen,” the most ambitious and expensive production in Chinese history. With a crew of more than 2,000 and a planned budget of $445 million, the project is indicative of the Chinese film industry’s growing professionalization and its determination to become a world leader. Shooting on all three “Fengshen” movies is to be completed before the first installment hits theaters in 2020.
The films spring from the mind of director Wuershan, who is no stranger to blockbuster fantasy, thanks to his last two credits, “Mojin: The Lost Legend” (2015) and “Painted Skin: The Resurrection” (2012). (The producer of “Fengshen,” Beijing Culture, is an investor in Variety China.)
The trilogy seeks to be a definitive retelling of the much-adapted classic Chinese novel “Creation of the Gods,” a blend of history, folklore and mythology set more than 3,000 years ago. It tells the story of the downfall of the last ruler of the Shang dynasty, King Zhou, who is bewitched by a fox spirit posing as his concubine and becomes an oppressive tyrant. An epic battle rages to defeat him, involving gods, demons and other supernatural beings.
Wuershan (who goes by one name) hopes he is making China’s “The Lord of the Rings” and “Iron Man” rolled into one. Indeed, “LOTR” producer Barrie Osborne has been brought in as a production consultant. Wuershan wants to build on “Fengshen” to create a major franchise, giving different deities and warriors stand-alone movies, and has already charted out his next 30 years of films.
“It’s all one mythological world,” he says in an on-set interview with Variety. “I’d like to use the Marvel universe method to delve into each character.” His team has approached major U.S. studios, including Disney, to discuss international distribution.
The project is undoubtedly a massive gamble. Last year saw the release of “Asura,” a $113 million fantasy film that was also envisioned as the first installment of a trilogy and was likewise based on Chinese mythology. It made just $7 million, becoming a notorious flop.
In “Fengshen,” all the main stars are unknowns, since A-listers wouldn’t have been able to commit to blocking out two full years. For six months, the actors trained 12 hours a day, six days a week, in horseback riding, martial arts, archery, drumming, ancient Chi-nese music and etiquette.
The film’s meticulous aesthetic draws on Song dynasty landscape paintings, 16th-century Daoist art and elements from the Bronze Age Shang and Zhou eras. Elaborately carved screens and lintels, delicate jade bowls, chariots, leather armor and weaponry fill the studio’s soundstages and storage rooms.
“I wanted every piece to be museum-quality,” Wuershan says. “We developed everything ourselves via an analysis of Shang objects, so even though it looks very antique, it’s actually all original.”
With 400 craftsmen brought on to build many of the wooden set-pieces, even Osborne has been impressed. “If you look at the level of detail on the sets, it’s just like ‘Lord of the Rings,’ but even more massive,” he says.
In his first interview with Western media, Wuershan spoke with Variety about his inspiration and whether Chinese blockbusters can travel.
Why were you drawn to this project?
China’s film market is on the cusp of becoming the largest in the world, but it still doesn’t have a work of the scale or quality befitting that status. To me, that’s really a shame, and why I’m willing to spend 10 years on this kind of project.
In China, we always say our culture runs deep and our history is long, but we can’t just let that turn to dust in museums. It’s important to make it into something modern, something that young people today can endlessly draw strength from. This is the mission of film.
I felt this a lot more strongly after I had a kid of my own … who’s already been brainwashed by American content. I can’t even buy him Chinese toys — on his birthday, he wants Transformers, and there’s nothing I can say to stop him. All I can do is make a film so that when he grows up, he can say, “Next theme party, I want ‘Fengshen.’” It’s a small goal, but it’s the cultural reality we’re facing.
How is Chinese fantasy different as a genre from fantasy in the West?
Much of Western fantasy, like “Lord of the Rings,” is deeply tied to a Christian background, with themes like the choice between good and evil, original sin. But the main religious backgrounds of the East are Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. They have a fundamentally different take on good and evil, or the idea of heaven and hell: that human nature is inherently both good and evil, and the two options manifest through people’s individual choices.
What has been the biggest challenge?
It’s a huge team, almost the size of a company. Management itself is one of the most challenging things. But the hardest thing for me personally was completing the script. It took five years to write all three.
In the U.S., creators have undergone detailed training on how to use structure to tell a story clearly, with three-act structure and character arcs. But our own story-telling traditions are more basic when it comes to effective storytelling methods. Traditional Chinese novels are very different from story structures modern people are used to: They’re super long, with hundreds of episodes, often headed by summarizing couplets.
In China, there’s no such thing as a handbook or technique that tells you how to tell a story in a more effective way, no roundup of screenwriting techniques. Our approach to writing isn’t scientific. It’s something new for Chinese screenwriters, and not something I was ever taught in film school.
Why has there yet to be a Chinese film that’s been a hit overseas?
I don’t think this is the most important thing. If I wanted to make it abroad, I’d go shoot in Hollywood — I wouldn’t need to shoot Chinese-language films in China. I think what’s more important is for our own audiences to see films made by Chinese people, works that feel close to them.
We first have to learn to tell our own stories to our own audiences in ways they accept and enjoy. There’s no sense in worrying about whether other people understand your culture before your own audiences do. If that’s your goal, it’s a waste of time.