BEIJING (Reuters) - Zhang Yimou, one of China’s best-known directors, and local movie moguls is hoping for an ascendance on the world’s silver screens to match the country’s rise on the global political and economic stage.
Winning that international audience may mean tying a Chinese story to a Hollywood face.
Zhang’s newest project, a film to depict wartime Nanjing under Japanese occupation, will mark the first time a domestically-funded Chinese movie has placed a Hollywood actor — Christian Bale — in a leading role, producers told a news conference in Beijing Wednesday.
“The strategy for China’s film industry is to go abroad. It is a goal for the future and matches China’s fast development,” Zhang said at the unveiling of Bale as the leading man in the film, currently titled in English, “Thirteen Women of Nanjing.”
The movie, set to begin filming in Nanjing, formerly known as Nanking, in early January, is based on a book by Yan Geling, depicting a religious man (Bale) who attempts to save a group of young women forced into prostitution at by the Japanese army.
“I think anyone who is doing artistic work has the responsibility for cultural exchange,” Zhang said.
“We (China) have done many Nanjing-related films, but many of them were directed inwardly, and young people in the West may not know them. So we hope we can make a good film and more young people in foreign countries will see it,” he added.
China’s movie industry is not alone in wanting to expand its audience. The government — from the State Council, or cabinet, to the Ministry of Culture — has had its hand in promoting China’s cultural footprint around the world.
The movie that plays on the volatile historical memory of Chinese who suffered under a brutal Japanese occupation during World War Two may help carry a political reminder abroad.
An indication of that push, the State Administration of Radio, Film and TV hosted 99 film festivals in 47 countries in 2009, according to the official China Daily.
Zhang Weiping, chief producer at New Pictures Film Co Ltd, said many foreign investors had been interested in the film, but the 600 million yuan ($90 million) already invested in the project was generated entirely in China.
“Investors first and foremost think about the market, unlike Yimou, who is focused on art. We invited Bale to join because I am thinking about the market and because we want the world to better understand Chinese culture,” the producer said.
“Hollywood stars are expensive, but they are worth it because they can influence the whole world,” he added.
Zhang, the producer, said the expectation at the box office is one billion yuan, a goal that “does not pose a problem.”
China’s total take at the domestic box office is expected to exceed 10 billion yuan this year, a growth of 43 percent over 2009, according to China’s official Xinhua news agency.
But much of those proceeds are owed to foreign blockbusters, likes James Cameron’s wildly popular Avatar.
Zhang, the director, contrasted China’s movie industry to the prowess of the nation’s much loved but perennially underperforming football team.
“Our goal has been to bring China’s film to the highest world standard, and although that goal has been around for a long time, I think it will take off faster than China’s football,” Zhang said.
Editing by Benjamin Kang Lim and Alex Richardson