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Beijing Film Festival: Arnold Schwarzenegger makes a splash

Beijing Film Festival organizers seek to raise event's profile

Arnold Schwarzenegger took center stage at Thursday’s opening of the Beijing International Film Festival, thanking Chinese fans for their embrace of his movies, touting the increasing importance of the Chinese market, and promising “I’ll be back” within months to promote “Terminator Genisys.”

 The former California governor, whose “Sabotage” is opening in China next week, made a splash on the red carpet, signing autographs and telling fans he kept fit by working out twice a day and playing chess.

 Bounding onto the stage at the opening ceremony just after the vice minister of propaganda delivered a raft of statistics about China’s booming movie market, the deeply tanned, 67-year-old action star said that when he wanted to promote “Conan the Barbarian” around the world 30 years ago, Universal Pictures executives said he only needed to go to England, and maybe France or Italy.

 “Studio executives now recognize that two-thirds of the money is made overseas, not in America,” he said.

 With the Beijing festival now in its fifth year and China’s movie market the No. 2 in the world behind North America, government organizers have sought to lift the event’s profile, professionalism and glamour this year. The opening ceremony, broadcast live in both Mandarin and English, was held at a striking new international convention center in the north of Beijing – never mind that it didn’t actually include a film screening.

 Among the international filmmakers and executives in attendance were “Kung Fu Panda 2” director Jennifer Yuh Nelson, South Korean auteur Kim Ki-duk, Paramount Pictures Vice Chairman Rob Moore, Chinese director Feng Xiaogang, “Black Swan” director Darren Aronofsky and “The Lion King” and “Forbidden Kingdom” helmer Rob Minkoff.

Organizers dodged a weather bullet, with blue skies and a warm breeze settling over the venue as the sun set. A day earlier, the Chinese capital had experienced a vicious sandstorm that reduced visibility to a few hundred feet, abraded the skin and eyes of pedestrians, and sent the city’s air quality index off the charts.

 “If the opening ceremony happened yesterday, how many masks would they have had to prepare for us?” joked Chinese director Zhang Guoli.

 The event was a striking international cultural mélange. One dance number featured Chinese dancers in blond Marilyn Monroe-esque wigs and white dresses, while another featured Chinese acrobats.

 American one-hit wonder Bertie Higgins (who is best known stateside for his 1982 single “Key Largo,” but has toured with some success in China in recent years) sang his song “Casablanca” as scenes from the 1942 Humphrey Bogart classic played behind him.  South Korean R&B singer The One performed the operatic pop song “You Raise Me Up” in English.

 Paolo Taviani, the 83-year-old Italian co-director of the opening film, “Wondrous Boccaccio,” made an appearance, as did a number of octogenarian Peking Opera stars. A collection of Peking Opera films is being screened as part of the festival.

 Fifteen films are competing for the festival’s Tiantan (Temple of Heaven) prizes. A jury led by French director Luc Besson will present the awards at next week’s closing ceremony.

“Five years is very young,” Besson said of the festival. “But I’ve never seen a baby so mature.”

Follow @JulieMakLAT for news from China

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