Chinese superstar Gong Li took time out from her duties as Venice jury chief, to announce her role in big-budget, English-language thriller M, being put together by French producer Charles Gassot for TF1.

The film is a 1950s action adventure adapted from The Yellow M, one of 12 books in the French cartoon series Blake And Mortimer. Shooting from next February, it will be directed by James Huth, who previously wrote and directed 1998 French comedy Serial Lover and produced horror-mystery flick Dead End earlier this year.

The story is that of a London emerging from post-war austerity only to be terrorised by a mysterious beast with supernatural powers. Called in by the prime minister, detectives Blake (Rufus Sewell) and Mortimer (Hugh Bonneville) team up with a neuro-psychiatrist (Gong).

"It is no wonder that there have been many previous film adaptations of the Blake And Mortimer stories. This has adventure, glamour, comedy, issues of friendship and loyalty and a fight against evil," said director Huth.

M will boast a $34m budget, put up by TF1 Films Production, TF1 International, which will handle world sales, and TPS, the satellite platform which is also controlled by French broadcast giant TF1. UGC will handle French theatrical distribution. Production is by Gassot's Telema, one of the most consistently successful French production houses.

Gassot said that he expects to see a number of other companies come in as investors or co-producers, in a similar fashion to his recent The Woman Trap, by Enki Bilal. "There is no doubt that Japanese, Korean and German firms are the most supportive foreign partners of French film today," said Gassot.

The film is expected to shoot in the UK and France for 16 weeks, including 12 weeks in studios. Top technical places have already been filled by Edouardo Serra as cinematographer and Thierry Flamand as designer.

Gong said "I had not heard of the character before I was approached by the director, but I found the script to be very exciting and new, with a character who has a personality combining shadow, light and fire."

M is only her second English-language picture after Wayne Wang's Chinese Box in 1997. "The language of the film is not important to me. I am continually looking for different roles to my previous films. What I was looking for was a strong director, a strong script and a strong character," she said.

The film was set up outside the recent production and French distribution partnership between TF1 and Miramax and will not be handled by the newly created TF/M distribution joint venture. But TF1 chief, Patrick LeLay, said: "We will have to wait and see how interested Miramax is in international territories."

If successful, M could be the start of an important franchise. Gassot said that while Telema has not acquired film rights to other comic books in the series, the deal with publisher Les Editions Blake Et Mortimer does include rights to produce a sequel.