With a war chest of $94 million, Zhang Yimou's latest project "Heroes of Nanjing" is the most expensive movie ever made in China and marks a bold attempt by the leading Chinese helmer to transform the biz here, bringing in Hollywood star Christian Bale and aiming to appeal to both overseas and domestic auds.
Zhang Yimou made his name internationally in the West's arthouses as the banned helmer of "Raise the Red Lantern" and "Red Sorghum," but was rehabilitated after making "Hero" and "The House of Flying Daggers," and stage-managing the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
His attention in recent projects has been focused on the domestic market but "Heroes" is a sign of new international focus.
His long-term producer and partner Zhang Weiping is confident that "Heroes" could do better B.O. abroad than the helmer's last big overseas hit at the box office, "Hero," which took over $100 million internationally.
"Western audiences loved "Hero" but while they liked the look of the picture, they had a difficult time getting into the historical Chinese epic theme. So we decided to look for a story with an international core," the New Picture Film Co. prexy said in an interview with Variety.
The subject they settled on is the "Rape of Nanking," the massacre that followed the invasion of China's wartime capital, now called Nanjing, on Dec. 13, 1937.
The Chinese say that over a six-week period, more than 300,000 Chinese were killed, one third of the city's buildings were burned and more than 20,000 women were raped, although some Japanese historians insist the number was much lower.
There have been several projects looking at this event in recent years, including Chinese helmer Lu Chuan's "City of Life and Death" and Florian Gallenberger's Sino-German co-production "John Rabe."
Pic is an adaptation of the book "Jinling" by Yan Geling.
"We thought we had found the story. This was in 2006. But the novel itself is not a film script, it needed major surgery to introduce more film elements. We started to work on the script and it took us three years to accomplish," said Zhang.
"Heroes of Nanjing" is Zhang's biggest-budget film in 16 years in the business, he said, with a budget of 600 million yuan ($93 million), but it's also his first time to work with a major Hollywood star.
"Inviting Bale to be in the film is mainly targeted at the foreign audience, although he is getting more and more famous in China. He's the first Hollywood superstar to act in a Chinese movie," said Zhang.
The negotiation process was a steep learning curve for the Chinese filmmakers, who are used to doing things quickly and on terms that suit them rather than the stars.
"It took two years as we had to follow Hollywood rules, such as not negotiating with other stars at the same time. If each one needs 3-4 months to consider the script, it's already a long time. They are all professional actors, they have very high standards with the script," he said.
Bale took five months to read and evaluate the script.
"He is so busy, his schedule is fully booked, and he can make money everywhere he wants. He really has no need to come to China, to do a Chinese film with us. But he loved the story, and he also gave us a lot of suggestions on the script, which inspired us a lot," said Zhang.
The level of cooperation between Bale and Zhang Yimou was amazing, he said, and the helmer has paid strong tributes to Bale's professionalism.
"Our actors really need to learn from those Hollywood actors. There are a lot of things to learn," said Zhang.
New Picture Film is the sole producer, which Zhang said would keep the production efficient.
He turned away investors looking for a piece of the pic - the booming Chinese economy means the market is awash with capital seeking likely projects to invest in - and opted to borrow money from the Bank of China and Minsheng Bank, and use some internal funding too.
"We wanted to make our film in a pure way, standing back to back and confident. If there are other partners, it is less efficient and harder to make decisions," said Zhang.
"I didn't consider using foreign investment. I did several co-productions before like "Hero" and "Curse of the Golden Flower" and I knew a bit about the foreign market, but I didn't think using
foreign funds would help guarantee the movie's distribution abroad," said Zhang.
"The power is in the hands of the audience, not the distributors. They decide whether they want to pay to see your film in the cinema, they are the decision makers," he said.
International sales excluding North America, Japan, Korea and Hong Kong, will be handled by FilmNation.
"I will make a decision at the Toronto Film Festival about the North American distribution, there's been a lot of interest, including from Universal and Fox, and I hope the film can get released in the US at Christmas and in China on Dec. 16," said Zhang.