Chinese director Chen Kaige announced the start of production on his biopic of Peking opera singer Mei Lanfang in Beijing yesterday. The actual shooting started last Saturday (July 14) in Beijing Film Studio.

Huayi Brothers Pictures came on board as one of the backers just last week, joining the original investors: China Film Group Corporation, Taiwan 's CMC Entertainment, Hong Kong 's Emperor Motion Pictures (EMP) and Chen's own production company.

Shooting of the $15m Mei Lanfang will take approximately six months and it is scheduled for release in August next year, to coincide with the 2008 Beijing Olympics period. China Film Group, CMC and EMP are now in discussions about how to handle the international sales of the film.

Chen was originally inspired to make the film when shooting Farewell My Concubine in 1994, also a drama about love, the pursuit of art and the gender ambiguity of Peking Opera performers in 1930s China.

Mei Lanfang was a Beijing-born master renowned for playing female roles in the opera. According to Chen, the film will focus on his pursuit of art during the war and political turmoil of the early 20th century in China, and the two women in his life.

'We are more interested in Mei's inner strength. And we hope to be able to portray him as an ordinary person and that his greatness in art comes from the simplicity of an ordinary human being,' Chen said at the press conference.

Leon Lai will play Mei Lanfang; Zhang Ziyi plays Meng Xiaodong, a female Peking opera master who had a romance with Mei. Gillian Chung and Chen Hong will play Mei's wife Fu Zhifang as teenager and adult respectively.

Japanese actor Ando Masanobu plays a Japanese military man who is obsessed with Peking Opera.

The production team of the film also received support from Mei's family including his son Mei Baojiu, also leader of the 'Mei Lanfang Opera Troupe'. Mei Baojiu will also be performing the voice for the opera segments.

The crew is composed of Beijing Film Studio staff including Zhao Xiaoshi as director of photography, Liu Qing and Xu Lianwei as production designers; Chen Tongxun as costume and make-up designer and Wang Danrung as sound engineer.