China may have the world’s second largest film market but its neighbour India has so far failed to make its presence felt in it. That could be about to change. In one of several planned co-productions between Bollywood and Chinese studios, cinemagoers will soon be treated to Kung Fu Yoga, a movie combining the cultural heritages of two of the world’s oldest civilisations.
The co-production deal was signed at the first Silk Road International Film Festival, which was held in Xi’an last October. As the festival’s name suggests, the Chinese government is encouraging film-makers in China and elsewhere to turn to Silk Road themes for inspiration. This chimes with President Xi Jinping’s “One Belt, One Road” blueprint which envisages a land-based Silk Road Economic Belt, as well an oceangoing Maritime Silk Road. With the goal of growing trade volumes, these initiatives are set to link about 40 economies more directly with China.
One key to the plan is the freshly inaugurated China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. But it is not only about pipelines and railway tracks. Beijing has also set aside $10 billion as startup capital for the Silk Road Infrastructure Fund. Besides investing in infrastructure, state funding will also be offered for “cultural exchange projects”, such as films.
Hence studio interest in scripts set in parts of the old Silk Road – the historic trade route that carried imperial China’s exports abroad.
The director of the teen vampire romance Twilight, Catherine Hardwicke, is planning a movie called Loulan. It is set in the ancient kingdom of Loulan, once part of the Silk Road but which disappeared without trace about 15 centuries ago. Interest in the kingdom was triggered by the discovery in Xinjiang of the “Loulan Beauty” – a Caucasian mummy with Nordic features.
The backdrop to the movie is a familiar battle between Han Chinese and warlike Huns over territorial dominance, but Hardwicke has loftier notions, saying the $50 million China-US co-production would tell an epic love story about a princess, with a Western actress playing a descendant of the Loulan Beauty.
“It’s this very cool story. We have the princess who is in a kind of neutral kingdom at the nexus of the Silk Road, Loulan, and she’s trying to keep the peace and stay neutral, to try to stay like Switzerland between the Huns to the north and the Han Dynasty to the east,” Hardwicke comments.
The opposing sides dispatch “young, charismatic hot male diplomats to try to win her heart and her loyalty,” she says, using the sort of language fans of her Twilight series will be familiar with (‘hot’ heroine meets ‘hot’ vampire, but has loyalties tested by ‘hot’ werewolf).
Unlike the Twilight series the forthcoming movie will portray real historical cultures. Specifically Hardwicke says the Silk Road interests her as a melting pot influenced by Persians, Indians, Greeks, Romans and Chinese. Filming in Xinjiang and Beijing is expected to start next August, with a target release date of late 2017 or early 2018.
Hong Kong action star Jackie Chan (who is reportedly starring in Kung Fu Yoga) and mainland starlet Lin Peng recently had box office success with Dragon Blade, another film set on the Silk Road, and which also featured John Cusack and Adrien Brody as Romans. Chan plays a regional commander trying to protect China’s borders and sovereignty, with much of the action taking place in the western deserts of Xinjiang.
Some critics thought Chan should have steered clear of the sensitive political topic of Xinjiang, where there has been unrest between Uighurs and Han Chinese. However, the star was defiant. “Is it wrong? If people are cursed for being a patriot, please curse me,” Chan told M1905, the official website of movie channel, CCTV6.
“Seven years ago, I wanted to do this film. I didn’t make the film because the government policy wants to protect the Silk Road. I am ahead of them. I hope chairman Xi [Jinping] gets to watch this film.”
Another major project set on the Silk Road was Nick Powell’s Outcast, with Nicolas Cage and Hayden Christensen. Outcast also features two lost Western warriors, in this case, two jaded Crusaders who wander eastwards, finally arriving in western China, where they become entangled in romance (as well as antagonism) with local royalty.
But Outcast struggled at the box office. It got poor reviews, but worse, its Chinese backer, Yunnan Film Group (YFG) pulled the film on the eve of its domestic release in late September. While no official reason has been given, sources said YFG was unhappy with the number of screens made available for the film.
Despite being a favoured topic for Chinese policymakers, it seems sometimes the Silk Road can be a rocky path.
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