Of all the film projects floated at last week's Shanghai International Film Festival, the most mouthwatering had to be Zhang Yimou's $17m Hero, a 'wuxia'-inspired historical adventure that is set to bring together many of Asia's top talents, both in front and behind the camera when shooting starts as early as next month.
In its casting alone, Zhang's epic suggests an Asian equivalent of Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven, which is crammed full of Hollywood box office superstars. Written by Zhang himself and based on the story of the assassination attempt on China's first emperor, Qin, by his own bodyguard, Hero teams Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon's Zhang Ziyi with the two romantic leads from In The Mood For Love, Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung.
Also in the mix is Jet Li, the martial artist who has just been signed up by Miramax Films for a reported $10m to play a Tibetan monk in a New York-set action-comedy. Li's payday, which puts him in the Jackie Chan salary bracket, comes on the back of his breakthrough performances in Lethal Weapon 4, Black Mask, Romeo Must Die and the eagerly-anticipated Luc Besson-produced Kiss Of The Dragon, which 20th Century Fox will release on July 6 in the US.
In Hero, Li will play the assassin opposite Jiang Wen - who also starred in Zhang's Red Sorghum - as the emperor Qin, the dynastic figure who fought to unite China into one empire during the Third Century BC and whose mausoleum is now famously guarded by some 8,000 life-size terracotta soldiers. Qin's story also inspired Chen Kaige's 1999 epic The Emperor And The Assassin, although Zhang is said to be basing his version on events that took place ten years earlier.
Ironically, Kaige's film featured Gong Li, the actress who worked frequently with Zhang before 1995 when their personal relationship ended. Gong was once tipped to star in Hero, as was Jackie Chan in the role of the emperor. In Shanghai last wek , where Gong announced her involvement in Sun Zhou's new film The Train Of Zho Zhu, she demurred on all questions touching on Zhang, Hero and Ziyi, an actress who has been taken to the hearts of Chinese audiences and nicknamed "Little Gong".
Just as impressive as his cast are the collaborators that Zhang is seeking to surround himself with. He has approached action choreographer Yuen Wo Ping, who oversaw the martial arts sequences in Crouching Tiger, Charlie's Angels and The Matrix, to orchestrate the same kick-ass flying tricks for Hero , assuming he can fit this in during a scheduled summer break in the back-to-back shooting of the two Matrix sequels this summer. And Christopher Doyle, Wong Kar-wai's regular cinematographer, is already said to be scouting locations for what would be his first film with Zhang.
To be fully backed by the Chinese Government, Hero may well be set up as a co-production with Hong Kong-based Bill Kong, whose Edko Films was one of the three co-producers on Crouching Tiger, the film that brought worldwide attention to the Hong Kong tradition of sword-wielding wuxia movies.
Edko has a joint distribution venture in Hong Kong with Columbia TriStar, a studio that has established ties with Zhang Yimou through both its Asian production arm and its specialist US releasing operation Sony Pictures Classics (which also released Chen's epic in the US before hitting paydirt with Crouching Tiger). But whether this tips worldwide distribution rights for Hero towards Sony remains to be seen ' Zhang's last film, the Ed Pressman-produced Happy Times, ended up being split between SPC domestically and 20th Century Fox internationally.
But one thing is for sure ' the projected July start date for Wong Kar-wai's 2046, which was set to star both Ziyi and Leung, with Doyle as DOP, will now have to be pushed back until September at the earliest.