BEIJING -- Stephen Lang of “Avatar” fame has signed on to play a pivotal role in the Chinese-German co-production “The Dragon Angel,” which will be shot in Beijing and the southern Chinese province of Sichuan this year. One-name French director and visual effects specialist Pitof (“Catwoman”) will take the helm of the family-friendly film.
“The Dragon Angel," which was voted most promising co-production in development at last year’s Shanghai International Film Festival, tells the story of a 12-year-old American boy who moves to China with his father, an architect who plans to erect the tallest building in the world in a historic part of old Beijing.
The boy wants to save a traditional Chinese courtyard, or siheyuan, from the destruction wrought by the modernization his father represents. The courtyard, it is revealed, dates back to the 19th century and was looted by his great-great-grandfather -- a French colonel -- during the Second Opium War. The boy and two of his friends embark on a fantasy quest in the vein of “Alice in Wonderland,” descending into the underworld to save the house.
Lang will play dual roles: the French colonel who pillages Peking in 1860 and a chauffeur of the American architect in present-day Beijing. “His character is key to the whole plot,” says French co-producer Igor Darbo of Hong Kong-based Popcorn & Friends, whose wife, Dana Ziyasheva, wrote the script.
Pitof agrees that the part of the French colonel is crucial. “During the 19th century when he is looting, he is [high] on drugs; his crack is the victory,” says the director, speaking over coffee during the Beijing International Film Festival this week.
“Next he will have to face his great-great-grandson and explain what he did and how he is looking for redemption in the underworld. Third, he is the chauffeur who symbolically takes the boy into the hutong," or alleyway.
Darbo, who has lived in Beijing for a decade, was inspired to take on the film after seeing large swaths of the old capital knocked down for new development. “On one layer this is a pure treasure-hunt adventure film with some magic and fantasy,” he explained. “Another layer is a deeper issue about responsibility through the generations. This whole East meets West through the kids.”
“The Dragon Angel” will also touch on the politically fraught issue of land grabs and forced eviction. But its fairytale take -- which Darbo describes as “magical realism” -- will soften its bite. Darbo has already had informal consultations with SARFT, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (China’s censorship body) to discuss what might be deemed too sensitive to film.
Shooting in English with some Mandarin and with a budget of $17.5 million, “The Dragon Angel” will be Pitof’s fourth film as director. His superhero movie “Catwoman” (2004) starring Halle Berry bombed at the box office and earned the accolade of worst film and worst director at the Golden Raspberry Awards.
Undeterred, Pitof, who spent one year in Beijing in 2008-09, wants to “look at Chinese traditions with Western eyes” in his new movie. He says that the film will work as a co-production because, unlike some Hollywood movies such as “Iron Man 3” that have used a crowbar to insert China into the plot, “The Dragon Angel" is set in the so-called Middle Kingdom.
“If you want to make a movie in China, you want to make something that has to be in China,” explains Pitof passionately. Otherwise "why go to Shanghai if you can do it in Paris or New York? The point is not to replicate whatever is done in America in China. Hollywood is used to replicating whatever they have been doing. [We are trying] to break this vicious cycle and investigate another world of creation.”