Directed by female filmmaker Hu Mei and written by Zou Jingzhi (Zhang Yimou’s “Coming Home,” Wong Kar Wai’s “The Grandmaster”), the historical epic won the Chinese American Film Festival’s top prizes for best director and best feature film Tuesday night at an awards ceremony in Los Angeles. Hu is one of China’s so-called Fifth Generation directors.
It will have its U.S. premiere at the festival later this month, with screenings on Nov. 17, 20 and 21. Set in the Qing dynasty 230 years ago, the film brings to life the historical origins of Peking opera through the tale of two young opera singers who risk their lives to perform for the emperor at a special celebration for his 80th birthday.
Made with a budget of about $14.3 million (RMB100 million), it was distributed in China by state-owned Huaxia but made just $2 million at mainland theaters in April. “Young people don’t necessarily understand the topic of Chinese opera,” Hu told Variety on the sidelines of the American Film Market in L.A.
The film stars Ma Yili (“My People, My Country,” Lok Man Leung’s “Cold War”) and TV actors Fu Dalong and Ma Jinghan. It was shot on location in Anhui province over the course of six years. Production was stalled when the studio they were shooting in was totally destroyed in a fire in late 2015. It took them a year to rebuild and begin shooting again.
“By the time we finished shooting, we had no money for promotion or distribution. The producer sold his house and land to finish this project,” Hu said.
Her film was jointly backed by newcomer Beijing Lianmeng Pictures and the government-run broadcast and TV media industry groups of Anhui province and Yangzhou city in Jiangsu province, among other players. While the team is in talks with iQiyi and Tencent, Chinese streaming rights have yet to be determined.
“We wanted to tell this story for years, but the history is very complicated, so it seemed no one could do it until luckily we found our screenwriter, who managed it,” Hu said.
Hu was a Beijing Film Academy classmate of filmmakers such as Chen Kaige and Tian Zhuangzhuang. Her 2010 film “Confucius” starred Chow Yun-fat as the titular character and was backed by Dadi Entertainment. It grossed $14.2 million (RMB99.4 million) in the mainland, according to the Maoyan ticketing app, but was made with a budget of $22 million, according to IMDb.
Hu’s next work will be a new movie adaptation of the classic Chinese novel “Dream of the Red Chamber,” a project she admits will be a challenge, considering the dozens of well-known TV adaptations and nearly 40 film versions of the work, including a TV take Hu was once attached to more than a decade ago that eventually went to fellow Fifth Generation female helmer Li Shaohong. This project will have a budget of around $29 million to $43 million (RMB200-300 million), and is backed by companies Shanghai Jinde and Fujian Longtai.
“While there have been TV versions, the last film adaptation was 40 years ago,” Hu said. Her team cast the leads after a global search and spent a year training their young actors in traditional arts like calligraphy, embroidery and tea ceremonies. Artemple Hollywood is doing Visual Effects.
Founded in 2003, the Burbank, California-based Cinema Libre Studio has released more than 200 titles and, despite the acquisition of this Chinese government-backed title, typically focuses on indies. It acquired Stephane Brize’s “At War” at Cannes in 2018. It offers production, post-production and domestic distribution services (theatrical, DVD, VOD, and educational), and is involved in broadcast and international sales. “Enter the Forbidden City” is the second Chinese title the company has worked with.