Mermaid epic clashes with film titans

THE movie features Greek warriors, pirates, and mermaids that kill men during sex, including a sultry Bond girl who plays the mermaid queen. Most of the actors are American, and the cameras use 3-D technology.

But this potential blockbuster, Empires Of The Deep, is not another fantasy dreamed up by Hollywood. It is being conceived and shot north of Beijing on the world's largest studio set.

A heady cocktail – with more than a flavour of Avatar, Gladiator and Pirates Of The Caribbean, shaken and stirred in a Chinese hot pot – this project is the vision of a film-obsessed real estate magnate, Jon Jiang.

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It is also the boldest effort yet to establish China as a global moviemaking powerhouse, producing English-language spectacles to rival those of Hollywood. The producers say the budget for Empires is 65 million – less than Hollywood juggernauts, but the biggest ever for a Chinese movie.

The actors come from the United States, Brazil, France, Japan and elsewhere, its directors hail from Canada and the United States, and the script, written by Jiang, has gone through 40 drafts with the help of 10 Hollywood screenwriters.

Of course, there is a risk that Empires, scheduled for a summer 2011 release, could become China's biggest cinematic flop. Take, for instance, the fact that one French and two North American directors have left the project; the movie is now on its fourth director. And the budget has ballooned from 32 million.

Jiang shrugged off the project's tribulations.

"My idea is to make movies on the biggest scale there is," said Jiang, who was listed by Forbes in 2002 as one of China's richest men. "I want to distribute movies to 160 countries. I want it to be epic."

Jiang has no prior filmmaking experience but said he had watched 4,000 movies. He compares himself not to Chinese art house filmmakers like Zhang Yimou, but to George Lucas, James Cameron and Peter Jackson, the titans of Hollywood fantasia.

"I'm an international producer," he said. "I don't want to make Chinese movies. I don't know the Chinese way of storytelling. I don't know how movies are made in China."

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To help open international markets, the producers are hiring foreign talent, including lots of relatively little-known American actors. The biggest star, as the mermaid queen, is Olga Kurylenko, the Ukrainian actress who appeared in the last James Bond movie. (Jiang had originally wanted Monica Bellucci or Sharon Stone, but they said no.)

"There are as many sceptics in the industry about this project as there are believers," said Jonathan Landreth, who writes for The Hollywood Reporter. "But one thing is for sure: if the producers pull it off – if the finished film looks like they actually spent $100 million to make it – it will begin to attract more real co-productions here."

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A real hindrance to the Chinese film industry is the government, which tries to exercise strict censorship on major projects and insists on conformity to Communist Party sensibilities. On Empires, officials insisted that the movie include more Chinese elements, so the producers had to add a race of dragon people and cast a major Chinese actor, Hu Jun, as a dragon lord. Those scenes are expected to appear only in the version released in China.

Sceptics have zeroed in on other problems during a half-year of production: shoddy shooting schedules, late payments to cast and crew members, and a revolving door of disaffected directors. First came French director Pitof, who left before production began. Next in line were Jonathan Lawrence, Michael French and Scott Miller, none of whom had previously directed a big-budget action movie.

Last month, Miller was to be seen fresh in from Los Angeles, scurrying around the set. The shoot was behind schedule. Chinese labourers were frantically building a palace for a banquet scene atop a giant fish. Actors playing mermaids and Greek warriors lounged around in costumes little better than those at a Halloween party.

Several workers began sawing off the top of the palace they had just built. The interior had turned out to be too dark for the banquet scene.

"I guess that's one way to get light," Miller said.