Enter the Dragon

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With her dark coiled hair and richly embroidered traditional dress, Luo Yan looks every inch the Chinese movie star. But here on the Dongbai set of Universal Pictures' Pavilion of Women in China, she is doubling as a producer, and there is no time for glamour. Her immediate concern is the American pyrotechnic team that is refusing to detonate its explosive charges until a fire truck arrives--in case there's an accident. The sun is setting, and Luo is afraid she'll lose the shot. As the hours tick by, the cast and crew--including many professionals from Hong Kong and the United States--are racking up a lot of costly overtime. Says her director, Yim Ho: It's Murphy's Law again.A little difficulty is to be expected in this clash-of-cultures endeavor, as Hollywood expectations collide with mainland Chinese practice. Consider the first morning of production, when crew members found themselves locked out of the studio because the caretaker was late. Without one little key we all had to wait outside, says Yim. He took his time and had his tea. You see, it wasn't his usual time to open the doors. Despite such frustrations, the payoff is visible in the daily film rushes: the exquisite Chinese countryside, hand-stitched costumes and antique props are contributing to the movie's rich texture.
Based on Pearl S. Buck's 1946 novel, Pavilion of Women is Universal's maiden venture in the Orient. The film marks a turning point in Hollywood's relations with the People's Republic. In the past, China served mostly as an exotic backdrop for films intended for American consumption. More recently, though, Hollywood has come to view China's billion-plus people as a potentially lucrative market. Restricted from selling their own films freely in China, U.S. studios are exploring creative alternatives to bypass the barriers. Hence this co-production. In a sense, Pavilion of Women is a high-stakes screen test. If Chinese audiences like it, more co-productions are sure to follow. Certainly, China was on our radar screens, says Ted Perkins, Universal's head of international distribution. We were looking for a project to cement our relations with China.

Pavilion seems suited to that task. A cross-cultural love story set in the 1930s, it's being backed by the Beijing Film Studio, which will support its local release. The production costs are equivalent to a tuition fee, says Luo bluntly. Universal will be closely monitoring promotion and ticket sales when the film opens on the mainland next year. Other studios are also keeping tabs on the experiment. In September 1998, Sony set up a permanent office in Hong Kong to localize production in the region, says Barbara Robinson, head of Sony's Columbia Pictures Film Production Asia. All the studios have been tiptoeing around about what to do in Asia. Robinson has acquired worldwide rights outside China for director Zhang Yimou's 1999 film Not One Less and for Zhang's The Road Home, released so far only in China. Columbia's biggest Asian film to date, the $15 million Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, directed by Taiwan filmmaker Ang Lee and starring Malaysia's Michelle Yeoh, is currently in post-production in Beijing.

Crouching Tiger and Pavilion both seek to mix and match Chinese filmmaking skills from around the world. In contrast, the new Hollywood tactic is to marry Taiwan talent or, more frequently, Hong Kong savvy with mainland advantages like lower cost and market access. Hong Kong is the bridge that makes it work on both ends of the world, says director Yim. As for the culture clash that comes from such combinations, Yim says the trick is to stay calm: Either the experience helps you grow, or you get frustrated. Out of the corner of his eye, the director notices the belated arrival of the fire truck. He barks orders to his cameraman and signals actor Willem Dafoe, who is lounging nearby. On cue, Dafoe dashes across the set. A ball of fire rises above him. It's a print, the director says with satisfaction. Today, at least, the China-Hollywood combination has defeated Murphy's Law.