A genuine disaster movie

More delays for Empire of the Deep; will it ever be screened?

Olga Kurylenko arrives at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) Awards at the Royal Opera House in London

“My idea is to make movies on the biggest scale there is,” the property developer-turned-filmmaker Jiang Hongyu told the New York Times back in 2010. “I want to distribute movies to 160 countries. I want it to be epic,” he added, sounding like a modern-day Louis B Mayer.

Jiang’s debut effort Empires of the Deep has been breaking records but not for the reasons he hoped. The film, which has been in production since 2008, is still nowhere to be seen on screens. And it has splurged massively over budget to a whopping $140 million.

Set in ancient Greece, Empires of the Deep tells the story of a young man’s adventures in an underwater kingdom replete with murderous mermaids and warriors that come in the shape of giant crabs. At the outset, Jiang promised that his movie would challenge James Cameron’s 2009 hit Avatar as a cinematic spectacle and WiC first wrote about Empires of the Deep back in 2010, when the trailer was released. Six years on, we are still waiting to see it. And although Jiang claims that he is only awaiting approvals from China’s censors, it isn’t clear when the fantasy flick will finally see the light of day.

An article in the Atavist Magazine has chronicled how the production went badly wrong. The script, written largely by Jiang and then translated into English, reportedly went through at least 40 rewrites. The first director, Jean-Christophe Comar, wanted to start from scratch. But Jiang refused and replaced him with the American Jonathan Lawrence. Lawrence tried to clean up the script himself but eventually gave up, telling Jiang that it was the worst he had ever read (tempers frayed at the meeting, the Atavist reports, with the interpreter refusing to translate the worst of the exchanges word-for-word).

But no matter, because Lawrence didn’t last long, leaving the production after just five months because Jiang had run out of cash, and likening his stint in China to “a dark comedy”. Next up was Michael French, a Canadian director. But it didn’t take long before he walked out when Jiang was late in paying his bills (French told the New York Times that many of the cast and crew “were paid late or not at all”).

The major accomplishment of the fourth director Scott Miller – if anyone is still keeping tabs – is that he managed to complete the production’s filming.

While most famous directors have their muses – think Alfred Hitchcock and Grace Kelly – Jiang had his own preferences on casting decisions, it seems. The part of Aka, the mermaid princess, was given to an unknown actress named Shi Yanfei, who earned the role because she was Jiang’s girlfriend, the Atavist claims. Meanwhile, Sharon Stone and Monica Bellucci had been shortlisted for the role of Mermaid Queen. Both reportedly declined, although Jiang told the mainland media that he decided not to work with Stone because of her remarks about the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, says Yangcheng Evening News (Stone linked the disaster to China’s “bad karma” but later apologised).

The role eventually went to Olga Kurylenko, who starred opposite Daniel Craig in the Bond film Quantum of Solace and with Tom Cruise in Oblivion.

“Oh god, I forgot about that! That was a long time ago, what’s going on?” Kurylenko told Indiewire.com in recalling her role in the film in 2011, noting that the whole thing had been a “strange experience”.

“I acted at some point with a guy who only spoke Chinese to me and I had no idea what he was saying. It had a mix of people, Americans, Europeans and Chinese… so I don’t even know what language it’s in.”

But if you think the experience of making Empires of the Deep may have diluted Jiang’s enthusiasm for the world of film, think again. He says he hasn’t given up on his cinematic dreams. In fact, he is working on another production called Parallel Universes, based on the theories of quantum mechanics. He is also hopeful about the prospects for Empires of the Deep, promising that “the world will never have seen anything like this before”.

Perhaps the more fundamental question is when the world will finally get its chance to see Jiang’s creation.

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