Getting Shanghaied

Hollywood movie sees script rewritten to feature Chinese setting

Getting Shanghaied

“I’m from the future. You should go to China”: Bruce Willis stars with Xu Qing in futuristic movie

Before Looper was screened at the Toronto Film Festival, the gathering’s artistic director Cameron Bailey told a glitzy Roy Thomson Hall audience: “It’s the first time we’ve opened the festival not only with a science fiction film but with a US-China co-production.”

“It’s not that common yet,” Bailey added. “But this is the future of filmmaking.”

Looper is about the future. For a start it’s a time-travel tale about a hit man called Joe (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who arrives in Shanghai circa 2074 to kill a future version of himself, played by Bruce Willis.

But the movie could also provide a peek into the future of filmmaking with Looper receiving funding from Chinese studio DMG (see WiC147), as well as several Hollywood entities. And this was no passive investment. The script had to be rewritten when DMG came on board, with the original setting switched from Paris to Shanghai.

“Nothing against France, but that’s been done. We said we’d help get the film shot in China, and that’s more exciting. That’s the future,” says Dan Mintz, co-founder of DMG.

The switch even gets a sly nod in the plot as an older character Abe, played by Jeff Daniels, tries to persuade Gordon-Levitt’s Joe not to move to France.

“I’m from the future,” he advises. “You should go to China.”

But despite the signs of Sino-US cooperation – as well as the apparent willingness to bow to DMG’s demands – the version seen by Toronto audiences will be different from the film shown in China.

That’s because the Shanghai-based scenes were over much more quickly in the Toronto version. In fact, according to the LA Times, most of them ended up on the cutting room floor for the English-language version, having not tested well with US audiences, who felt they slowed the plot.

“But the Chinese didn’t care about pacing and they wanted the [China-set] scenes in, so we said OK,” an executive involved with the film acknowledged. So the footage, which showcases Shanghai’s streets and city landmarks, is being added back into the Chinese version at DMG’s request.

That seems to point to another possible future for Sino-US film collaboration: hybrid productions which are reverse-engineered to become more appealing to their respective Chinese and American audiences.

For Looper, Mintz denies he is trying to cater to the Chinese audience. “We did not do it to curry favour with the China market but because it really is an important part of the story. The Chinese elements make the film more interesting,” he explained at a press conference in Shanghai.

In addition to the Shanghai backdrop, the producers have also cast a familiar face for Chinese audiences, with actress Xu Qing, 43, playing the wife of Bruce Willis’ character.

The film’s producers will now wait to see if the Chinese elements help to boost box office takings. But at least having DMG on board seems to have helped in an important aspect of the film’s launch in China: receiving a decent release date. Looper is getting the velvet rope treatment, opening at the start of the Golden Week holiday, and as one of only two foreign films to show during that prime period for box office takings.

Other Hollywood blockbusters have sometimes been forced to share release dates, damaging profits (see WiC161).

So what does Shanghai in 65 years look like?

The Bund is still around and so is the Oriental Pearl Tower (the garish rocket-shaped monolith in Pudong). The rest of the city looks gloomy (pollution is still an issue, obviously) although the urban skyline is dominated by even taller high-rise designs.

But some things look distinctly familiar. Apparently DMG’s design department was tasked with coming up with a futuristic Chinese banknote for use in the film. Asked whose image would feature on the new notes, one of the design team told the LA Times: “Mao, of course. There are some things you just don’t change.”

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