About to bomb?

One of China’s most troubled movie projects is finally set to hit the big screen


The film-making fugitive: Shi Jianxiang with actress Ma Su and friends

To commemorate the 70th anniversary of China’s victory in the Second World War, two films were planned to re-enact the horrors of the Japanese bombing of Chongqing.

The first was Finding Kukan, a documentary about the making of the film Kukan, which was first screened in New York in 1941 and offered rare footage of the incineration of China’s wartime capital. Filmed from atop the American embassy, it was said to have had a private showing at the White House, (see WiC286).

Finding Kukan struggled to find financing via crowdfunding sites but the second movie in production, Unbreakable Spirit (previously titled The Bombing), was set to be a big budget offering from the outset. Initial talk had it backed by both the Chinese government and deep-pocketed investors, and Hollywood was soon expressing an interest too. There was mention of major stars attached to the project such as Bruce Willis and Adrien Brody (with Mel Gibson signed up as ‘art director and creative advisor’).

But while Finding Kukan eventually found the cash to get made (as an independent film in 2015), Unbreakable Spirit ran into financial trouble and lengthy delays.

At one point its director Xiao Feng even described himself as “the poorest director [in monetary terms] in China”. It also faced the challenge of securing clearance from the country’s media censors (no sure thing for any politically-sensitive and historically-themed project). The movie will finally debut next month during the summer’s peak viewing season.

But what has gone on behind the scenes in the making of Unbreakable Spirit might well merit a movie of its own: themed around the challenges and opportunities of contemporary moviemaking in China.

Historians believe at least 30,000 people were killed by air raids on Chongqing between 1938 and 1943. Unbreakable Spirit looks at the struggle to survive from the perspective of the city’s ordinary inhabitants and portrays how the unbendable will of Chongqing’s civilians carried the country through the war.

That sounds like the perfect script for Beijing’s propaganda machine, and Unbreakable Spirit’s original investors included state-owned powerhouses such as China Film Group and Shanghai Film Group.

However, what really stoked industry excitement around the film was the arrival of movie mogul Shi Jianxiang and his private-sector firm Shanghai Kuailu in early 2015 as the main financier behind the project.

Often dressing resplendently in a white suit, Shi’s involvement got Hollywood’s attention as well. The Los Angeles Times notes that his business card is “stuffed with so many titles and honorary designations it folds open like a book” (including an honorary degree from Cambridge University) and the Kuailu boss is often spotted walking the red carpet, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Sylvester Stallone and Mark Wahlberg.

Shi’s star was a glimmering one thanks to the box office success of kung-fu flick Ip Man 3 and from the outset he spoke of a Rmb350 million ($55 million) minimum spend on the production of Unbreakable Spirit.

However, his business affairs began to unravel in 2016 with Kuailu caught up in scandals over cooking the books on ticket sales for Ip Man 3 (see WiC317) and then for dodgy internet fundraising (see WiC321). The allegations were so serious that Shi fled the country and last month the Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection put him on its list of wanted fugitives.

The consequence of all this: Unbreakable Spirit went into deep-freeze with the production crew almost bereft of funding. Xiao Feng, the director, told Sina Entertainment last month that he was forced to use his own money to keep things going. The direst moment came on the day that Bruce Willis, who plays an American pilot, arrived on set in his private jet.

“The production crew of more than 1,000 had only Rmb15,000 left,” Xiao recalls “But the hotel Willis was staying at was asking for a Rmb100,000 deposit.”

Xiao also needed to work to a tight schedule because the film’s investors had wanted to work so many cameos into the script to add star power. “The movie’s first edited version was five hours long. It was cut to three… and Mel Gibson suggested to cut it down further,” Xiao recalled.

Fan Bingbing was initially picked as the movie’s female lead but the starlet eventually only had time for a limited appearance. The crew then settled on actress Ma Su instead.

According to Xiao, the project was saved from disaster when Beijing-based studio Yuanhua Pictures agreed to take on the funding initially shouldered by Shi’s firm.

The moral of the story is that Xiao thinks that Unbreakable Spirit is a classic case of “capital hijacking a creative production” and that the film should go down as a stark warning to the country’s movie industry as a whole.

Nor is the film’s lengthy delay likely to be the end of the story. We reported last month that a former TV host-turned-zimeiti-blogger Cui Yongyuan was stoking a storm in the entertainment world by exposing financial malpractices such as ‘ying-yang’ contracts (where a star signs two agreements – one with the real payment amount, the other with a smaller remuneration level to be given to the tax authorities, see WiC412).

Cui has claimed to be a good friend of Shi and he’d even worked as a producer on Unbreakable Spirit before being ousted after just a week. His online attacks initially targeted Fan Bingbing but he has since turned his firepower on the investors behind Unbreakable Spirit with allegations ranging from corruption to fraud. He is also vowing to come up with more damaging revelations about malpractices.

The film’s executive director Wang Ding hit back last month, insisting that the movie’s budget hadn’t breached the original estimate and the stars weren’t being overpaid “The fact is we have been facing a great deal of [financial] difficulties to keep the movie’s production going,” he said, in comments reported by Variety. “All the fees paid to the main cast appearing in the final cut of the film were agreed to below the market price… all the cast members were enthusiastic about their participation in this war drama, and no one asked for an exorbitant fee.”

Nobody is quite sure who is feeding Cui his information but as Unbreakable Spirit prepares for its long-awaited debut next month, expect more off-screen drama.

Indeed, greater scrutiny from above is already starting to make life more difficult for makers of films and costly TV drama. That’s because the authorities have already responded to Cui’s revelations with new rules designed to cap stars’ pay packages and prevent tax evasion in the entertainment industry.

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