BEIJING — Building cinematic bridges between the U.S. and China is a hot topic in Hollywood these days — American studios are adding special scenes set in China ("Iron Man 3"), casting Chinese performers ("Transformers 4") and erasing Chinese bad guys ("Red Dawn").
Much less is heard — on these shores, at least — about how some Chinese filmmakers are looking to internationalize their movies and narrow the East-West gap. But in a chilly warehouse on the outskirts of Beijing, actress-writer-director Eva Jin was busy last autumn doing just that on the set of her latest romantic comedy, "One Night Surprise."
As Jin adjusted her black mini-dress and prepared to deliver tart dialogue in Mandarin for her cameo, her American cinematographer, Michael Bonvillain, conferred about the shot in English with the Hong Kong-born first assistant director, Sylvia Liu, and camera operator Saba Malzoum, a Canadian who grew up in Taiwan.
Meanwhile, in a sparse dressing room backstage, Korean American actor Daniel Henney went over his lines. Nearby in a small trailer, Chinese star Fan Bingbing studied her English dialogue with a tutor and rehearsed for a scene with Aarif Rahman, a Hong Kong singer-actor of Malay, Arab and Chinese heritage who attended university in London.
Though Jin set "One Night Surprise" in Beijing, it's a sexy, cosmopolitan tale whose bilingual characters could just as easily be going to clubs with pole dancers and driving their Mercedes-Benzes in Seoul, Paris or L.A.
The plot revolves around successful ad agency employee Michelle (Fan), who gets pregnant on the night of her wild 32nd birthday party but isn't sure if the father is her Harvard-educated boss (Henney), her young Canadian-born assistant (Rahman) or someone else.
"People all over the world can enjoy this kind of movie," Fan said of the film, which arrives in Chinese theaters Aug. 9. "The location doesn't matter, the language doesn't matter. It's cool how … there are actors of different nationalities, speaking different languages. We can learn from each other what we are good at. Although it's difficult, it really can be fun."
Jin, who studied Italian opera at the China Conservatory of Music before enrolling in film school at Florida State University in 2001, broke out with her 2009 rom-com "Sophie's Revenge."
A Chinese-South Korean co-production, "Sophie's Revenge" starred Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi as a comic book artist trying to win back her fiancé (South Korean actor So Ji-sub) after he dumps her for a movie star (Fan).
Incorporating a vibrant production design, black-and-white scenes and even animated segments (Jin is a published cartoonist), the movie arrived just as the genre was taking off in China and proved a box office hit. "Sophie's Revenge" made Jin the first woman in the club of Chinese directors whose films have hit the 100-million renminbi mark ($16.6 million at today's exchange rates).
Like "One Night Surprise," "Sophie's Revenge" had a borderless quality about it though it played only in a handful of countries outside China. Writing about the film in the Korea Times, Lee Hyo-won noted: "a point of interest is that the story, set in Beijing, features top Asian stars and Chinese remakes of bouncy K-pop tunes, but shows no hint of regional color and strictly limits the camera to cosmopolitan venues like gyms and modern art galleries."
"I like to create 'ideal cities' and avoid Beijing landmarks; I want to make something that everyone can relate to, and has kind of a timeless quality," Jin, 38, said in her Beijing office, which is decorated with colorful pillows, knickknacks and posters for films including "A Clockwork Orange," "Metropolis" and "300."
Because humor tends to be so culturally specific, comedies aren't typically considered the kind of movies that "travel well" across borders. But for a Chinese director like Jin, it's a genre that actually may be more relatable abroad than, say, historical dramas or martial-arts action films, which have dominated Chinese exports but can be filled with references to ancient emperors and kung fu masters obscure to foreign audiences.
In fact, "Sophie's Revenge" did earn Jin attention in Hollywood; she sold remake rights to Mosaic Media and subsequently began developing another script with Ivan Reitman's Montecito Picture Co.
After FSU, Jin spent several years living in Los Angeles, writing screenplays at Peet's Coffee on Sunset Boulevard, getting feedback from fellow alumni in the business and occasionally working on small independent productions.
"At FSU, we learned how to do every job on a set — editing, lighting, everything," said Jin, who often dresses like a spunky artist but can be businesslike on set. "But when I graduated, people told me if I really want to be a director, just write good scripts. I had some money saved, so I went to L.A., and that's what I focused on. When I came back to China, I had a half-dozen."
Jin says that while she tries to create characters that are believable for Chinese audiences, she insists on Hollywood-style three-act storytelling, which she calls a "scientific method." And she's drawn, she says, to casting actors like Rahman and Henney, who have cross-cultural experiences. "If you want to make an international movie, you need actors who know the beats," she said.
Henney, a Michigan native who says he spends about a third of his time working in South Korea, recently appeared in another cross-cultural Chinese rom-com, "Shanghai Calling," in which Jin had a small acting role.
"Some people these days, you really can't place them in one nationality or another, they are constantly moving between different cultures," Henney said. "Eva is kind of an enigma, but that's kind of what these kind of co-productions need."
Jin and her team are hoping that solid box office results in China can propel "One Night Surprise" to wider international distribution than "Sophie's Revenge," and she's also in talks to sell remake rights to the new film. Though edgy by the standards of China's famously prudish censors, the movie would probably barely rate a PG-13 stateside.
"I'm sure if we make an English version, we could go very far, but in some ways it's cuter when it's more indirect," said Jin. In China, she added, "I'm not going to shoot the physical sex, maybe kissing is the most. I can't watch people kissing on screen. Even good kissing, I feel like 'Oh, I don't want to watch this.' … I'm like, 'OK, cut!'"
Jin said she made a few adjustments in "Sophie's Revenge" with censors in mind — in one dreamlike sequence, a carrot gets chopped instead of a character's head, for instance — but in general seems to feel she has plenty of latitude in which to work. "I feel like now it's more open than before — some movies I've seen, I've been surprised they passed the censorship," she said. (A sequel to "Sophie's Revenge" called "My Lucky Star," directed by American Dennie Gordon but not involving Jin, will arrive in Chinese cinemas this fall.)
Ellen Eliasoph, president and chief executive of Village Roadshow Entertainment Group Asia, has been following Jin's career for nearly a decade and says she has strong potential.
"She just has a good feel for character, emotions and the quirkiness of human beings," Eliasoph said. "She has a lot of potential to make movies that will not only be successful in China but also be liked by audiences outside of China."
See the trailer to Jin's "One Night Surprise" below:Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun