When Mao Zedong said that “Women hold up half the sky,” he probably didn’t have a female superhero in mind. But Hollywood studio executives and Chinese film producers have long felt that were they to cast an actor from China displaying such powers it would be box office gold.
It goes without saying that superhero blockbusters have proven very popular both in China and globally. As we pointed out in WiC199, Chinese audiences first fell in love with the genre in 1985 when selected cinemas were permitted to show Superman (seven years after the Christopher Reeve movie had shown in the US). More recently The Avengers blockbusters have done well.
However, the search for a homegrown hero – that also has international appeal – has been elusive. A recent animation about the Monkey King (see WiC291) worked well enough domestically, but not abroad. Now another candidate has stepped forward and it’s being championed by a man with a strong pedigree: Marvel supremo Stan Lee.
Lee has teamed up with Shanghai’s Fundamental Films to create the first English-language film featuring a Chinese superhero. What sets this apart from previous announcements – and the Chinese film business is haunted by the ghosts of project launches that never make it past the press conference – is that the star of The Realm of the Tiger is a leading actress, Li Bingbing no less.
As well as being well known at home, Li has tasted international success with The Forbidden Kingdom, Transformers: Age of Extinction and Resident Evil: Retribution, and looks the most likely of mainland China’s film starlets to make the Hollywood crossover.
Moreover the timing of the announcement is interesting, as it dovetails nicely with Hollywood’s need for something that looks different after a deluge of Marvel and DC Comics franchises that can be difficult to tell apart.
“The reason we asked Li Bingbing is because she has all the cultural characteristics of an oriental female superhero,” said Gao Jingdong, CEO of Fundamental Films. “And she has gained recognition from Western audiences for her roles in Transformers and Resident Evil.” It’s testament to Gao’s confidence in Li’s crowd-pulling potential that she has been cast before the script is even written.
Li also appears to have been given some creative input on her role. On her Sina Weibo account she asked fans: “Should I execute my rights as a producer? What other two Marvel superheroes do you want to see in The Realm of the Tiger?”
Asked in an interview last year with Southern Metropolis Entertainment Weekly why she had won roles in international films, Li said that her casting in Resident Evil had helped and that it was important that her English language skills were deemed good enough.
A lesser ability to speak English has hampered the efforts of some of the other big names in Chinese cinema as they seek to make the leap from the Mandarin-speaking market to a global one.
Li’s verdict? “Actors becoming international is a trend. Chinese actors must be internationalised. I believe in the future, nationality won’t stop Chinese actors. But I can say with confidence that I am an international actress.”
In September, she signed on to star in Nest, a 3D sci-fi from Australian director Kimble Rendall, in a Chinese-Australian co-production.
Her casting as a superhero would seem to make commercial sense. There are plenty of female-centric movies made in China, but they tend to be romantic comedies. By contrast the female audience hasn’t been overly fond of the men-in-tights-saving-the-world genre.
So producers are waking up to the notion of a movie that works with both demographics on date night.
Fundamental’s president Cheng Jiaqi told the Wall Street Journal: “We believe making female superhero films and other female-led action and sci-fi films will become a global trend in the future… a female superhero will help this Chinese story stand out.”
On social media, some of the reaction has been more sceptical about Li’s superhero credentials, partly because she is 42 years-old.
“She has no muscles and is not youthful,” complained the critic Zhongguo Yangrou on Sina Weibo.
But the genre itself looks promising. Luc Besson’s 2014 action flick Lucy, starring a turbocharged Scarlett Johansson in a violent combat role, was a reasonable hit with audiences in China. And at the Cannes film festival this year, the production company Easternlight said it would partner with Chinese entertainment company Huace on a female superhero movie called Lights Out, to be directed by French director Xavier Gens.
The young adult book series The Monkey King’s Daughter is also being adapted into a movie.
The production details for The Realm of the Tiger have not been finalised but bosses have chosen Russian-born Alex Litvak as scriptwriter and a Western director is almost certain to helm the movie.
Just as crucial as Li’s casting, the movie will also await approvals from China’s Film Bureau to see if it will get official co-production status. Foreign film producers have signed co-production deals in the past under the assumption that they were the best way to bypass the country’s film quotas, which caps (at 34) the number of foreign films shown annually in China.
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