In Ocean’s Thirteen, the third instalment of the popular Ocean’s franchise, Matt Damon’s character Linus Caldwell says: “I know it’s not a great idea, but it’s an idea.”
Jiang Wen, too, has an idea – not the most original but a grandiose one. The actor-director is making a new film that is said to be China’s answer to Ocean’s Eleven. And like the Hollywood version, it comes with an extravagant budget and an all-star cast.
Let the Bullets Fly is an action comedy set in a small Sichuan village during the war-torn 1920s. The movie – still shrouded in secrecy – is said to be centred on a thieving couple, played by Ge You (If You Are The One) and Hong Kong actress Carina Lau Ka-ling, who are on the run. Chow Yun-Fat plays a triad leader, while Jiang, who is best known for his portrayal of Gong Li’s lover in Red Sorghum, plays a bandit who takes over the village.
The movie, which cost $29 million to make, is one of the most expensive films yet made in China. It certainly is much bigger than Jiang’s previous directorial works like In the Heat of the Sun (1994) and Devils on the Doorstep (2000), both low-budget art-house films that won critical acclaim internationally but few fans at home.
In fact, nobody at all in China saw Devils on the Doorstep, a black-and-white film about the Japanese occupation of a Chinese village in the 1930s. What happened was that Jiang sent the movie to the Cannes Film Festival before it had been approved by China’s censors, who were keen to review how the Japanese were portrayed in the film. The censors demanded the festival organisers reject the film and hand over the reels. The organisers refused. So the film was subsequently pulled from theatres in China and the actor-director banned from the film business for two years.
Jiang is now back in the director’s chair and busier than ever. The script for Let the Bullets Fly underwent nine rewrites with ten different endings before it was finalised, says Variety. Jiang also promises that the film will be different from his previous art-house works: “I will make a film that everybody understands.”
The movie, which is slated to premiere in October, is also creating interest from international film festivals, according to Xinhuanet. Movie buyers around the world were “anxiously lining up” to acquire the distribution rights to the film too, says New Express Daily.
Jiang believes his superstar-laden blockbuster will be a hit not just in China but around the globe. But will it? The most successful Chinese language hit to date is still Taiwan-born Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Released in the United States in late 2000, the film, a martial-arts and adventure story, went on to become the highest-grossing foreign-language film in American history, making $128 million. It tacked on another $85 million in the rest of the world. Zhang Yimou’s Hero was also a hit, making $100 million at the US box office.
Can Jiang’s flick beat these films? “Let the Bullets Fly has a lineup unprecedented in the history of Chinese films… so we are very confident about the domestic box office,” says Ma Ke, the movie’s producer. “But topping the domestic box office is easy. Last year Avatar put a lot of pressure on the mainland film industry, so Chinese filmmakers need to set their sights beyond just the domestic film market. We need to come up with something better and more substantial to win the arm wrestle with Hollywood.”
One tactic to boost audience numbers was to try and sprinkle a little Obama magic on proceedings.
Unfortunately, it didn’t come off. According to the New Express Daily, Mark Okoth Obama Ndesandjo – the US president’s half-brother – was approached to make a small appearance in the movie. The China resident, businessman and aspiring novelist (see WiC40) was asked to make his celluloid debut as a priest. But he said he was too busy with his charity work.
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