In the decade since the release of Ang Lee's blockbuster Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Chinese filmmakers have struggled to repeat its international success.
But the Quijang Film and TV Investment Group is hoping a new project might provide perfect fodder for a Hollywood hit. The Chinese government-owned company recently invested $30 million in hopes of making a movie that would both celebrate Chinese culture and turn a tidy profit.
It started by hiring an A-list director. Antoine Fuqua, the man behind the Oscar-winning film Training Day, says he didn't know what to make of the offer at first.
"I mean, how often do you get a call that the Chinese government is interested in you making a movie?" Fuqua says with a laugh. "I was like, 'I'm being set up somewhere.' I [was] trying to remember what I did the last time I was in China that might get me arrested!"
But Fuqua signed on, and then the company brought on David Franzoni — the writer behind Gladiator — to draft an epic story about forbidden romance set in China in 700 B.C.
Stan Rosen, a professor of Chinese film at the University of Southern California, knows that China has the money to finance major films. He says what China doesn't have is the infrastructure and the talent to consistently make international box office hits. So the government is learning everything it can from the U.S. film business. But Rosen says the films financed by the Chinese government will likely also serve as a subtle form of propaganda.
"They are trying to get films made that present a somewhat different image of China than the one you read about in the paper — about buying resources in Latin America and Africa and all over the world, jailing Nobel Prize winners, that kind of thing," says Rosen.
But Hollywood has also started making China-friendly films on its own, knowing that the Chinese government bans movies that paint it in a bad light.
In the recent disaster flick 2012, for example, the Chinese save the human race by building impressively large and technologically advanced boats. "Leave it to the Chinese," says one awed Westerner in the film. "I didn't think it was possible."
Censorship Is 'Nothing New'
Still, many moviemakers balk at the idea of letting any government dictate their artistic vision and possibly censor content.
Screenwriter David Franzoni says he plans to make the upcoming T'ang Dynasty film as real and gritty as possible — even if that means depicting cruel, violent Chinese rulers.
"I've got studios who want to censor me," says Franzoni. "This is nothing new. So whether it's a government or a studio, I'm pretty hardened to that. I am not worried about it."
Squabbles over scripts and plots are par for the course in Hollywood. And if China wants to get into this business, that's something the government might need to get used to.