The cliché goes—in the new Wild Wild East of China, anything is possible. Tiring as it is, clichés do seem to exist for a reason.
In early 2006, Betty, a Chinese screenwriter friend living in Los Angeles, forwarded me a movie script in English and asked if I could help rewrite. I was having a two-year filmmaking stint then. There was a small circle of bilingual filmmakers in Beijing who, like me, were trying to leverage the West’s growing fascination with China to work on co-production projects.
But few seemed ever to pan out. Some American independent producers I knew made frequent trips to China, visiting film studios and attending film conferences as “Hollywood experts.” The scripts that they pitched varied from mediocre to trash. One such meeting that I attended was about a 3-D film of humans battling giant alien lizards in the Gobi desert. I admired the Chinese studio head for his patient smile throughout the session.
The central issue, like always, is about money. The most difficult for independent producers is to find the “first money”— usually with nothing more than a script, suggested star castings, and a fantasy revenue forecast—to attract later investors. In an industry well known for its crapshoots, this routine always reminded me of the Chinese saying, “to catch a white wolf with bare hands.”
None of the stereotypes seemed to apply to the project referred by Betty, however. For one, the producer had a real office (albeit in an apartment building) staffed with young faces apparently busy in front of computers. Secondly, he did not mention the need for financing once in our two-hour conversation.
“During my most recent trip to Hollywood, I met with executives from Warner Brothers and Dreamworks,” he said with a deep southern accent. “Your friend Betty helped me a lot. She recommended you to help clean up the English translation of the script.”
No wonder—Betty, an established screenwriter, would never associate herself with such a project. It was a story about an American stranded in Beijing, having a relationship with a Chinese girl while still pining for a Middle-eastern girl whom he had met in Paris and who was now trapped in her war-torn home country. It had all the clichés of a Chinese melodrama and none of the cultural understanding of foreign countries. Structurally, it also needed a complete rewrite.
“I wrote the script myself,” the producer announced proudly. He looked like your average Chinese businessman with his chubby face, faded zipper jacket, and a man-purse on the coffee table. “The West has Gone With the Wind and the Titanic. It’s time that we Chinese have a similar movie classic. Once the script is finished, I’ll go back to Dreamworks and ask Steven Spielberg to direct it.”
That made me gasp. I gathered that he had made a fortune from somewhere; he was an avid movie fan and it was his first time at filmmaking. But hiring Steven Spielberg?
Soon after the meeting I had to leave Beijing for six months and forgot completely about the project. In late 2007, while having coffee with a French filmmaker friend, she told me that she had been working on pre-production for a tri-country love story set in Beijing.
It shocked me that the project had survived this long. Then a year later, after the Beijing Olympics, posters for the movie suddenly popped up at all the Beijing subway stations and bus stops. The entrepreneur-writer-producer ended up directing the film himself. He invited the biggest Chinese movie stars to the premier, and in the press, there was orchestrated fanfare of the movie going to the Oscars!
That the movie opened to a box-office disaster did not shock me. Internet users gossiped that he made the movie on borrowed money and was now in big trouble with the debtors.
I never watched the movie. But the more I think about his story, the more my respect for him grew—fool or not, bare-handed or not, he had a great dream of the white wolf and he went after it persistently until catching it.
With people like him, no wonder people call China the new Wild Wild East.