Moviegoers in China enthusiastically see American films, yet the reverse is almost never true. But you’d think if there would be someone who might bridge the divide -- someone whose personal background, connections and professional expertise could help bring Chinese films more into the U.S. mainstream -- that person might look much like Wendi Murdoch.
Born and raised in mainland China, educated at Cal State Northridge and then at Yale, employed at Star TV in Hong Kong, she married News Corp. titan Rupert Murdoch in 1999. Now, she’s teamed up with another prominent media mogul’s wife, Florence Sloan (who is Malaysian Chinese and married to former MGM Chairman and Chief Executive Harry Sloan), and is taking her first shot at cracking the code.
The two women joined forces to turn American author Lisa See’s book-group blockbuster “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” into a feature film with Mandarin and English dialogue and a multinational cast that Murdoch and Sloan believe can appeal to a substantial audience in both countries.
Already in theaters in China, where it grossed nearly $5 million in its first 10 days of release, according to China-based research group EntGroup, “Snow Flower” will premiere stateside Friday in limited release from News Corp.'s Fox Searchlight division.
See’s English-language romance, set in 19th century China, has been transformed by Chinese American director Wayne Wang (“The Joy Luck Club”) and three screenwriters to include a 21st century framing device. This parallel modern story is intended to set “Snow Flower” apart from so many period-set Chinese films that strike American audiences as dusty, inscrutable and inaccessible.
“Snow Flower” marks the producing debut of Murdoch and Sloan, and the women are rallying their well-connected friends to spark interest in the film. They also called in a favor -- Murdoch’s close friend Hugh Jackman has a small but showy role as a nightclub owner -- to give the film some extra Western appeal.
The fledgling producers took “Snow Flower” to the Allen & Co. summit in Sun Valley, Idaho, this month where the invite list included Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Sergey Brin and Larry Page and their significant others. Arianna Huffington touted the film (“Take your girlfriends to see ‘Snow Flower,’ ” she wrote); actress Rita Wilson tweeted, “This could be a classic in the making.”
Murdoch and Sloan need that English word of mouth to multiply logarithmically, especially because early U.S. reviews have been mixed.
Americans have long shown scant interest in subtitled films, with some rare exceptions being Asian martial arts movies such as “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Hero.” Rupert Murdoch’s Fox International Productions makes local-language movies in China, but the films (including last year’s hit “Hot Summer Days”) are not intended to travel beyond Asia.
The “Snow Flower” producers hope they can change the trend.
“Wherever I go with Rupert, people ask me, ‘What’s going on in China?’ ” Wendi Murdoch said in an interview this week with Sloan at the Beverly Hilton. “And they also ask me, ‘Are there any good new Chinese films that reflect what’s happening there?’ ”
She said the answer to the latter question is that Chinese cinema is improving dramatically, but most top current films can’t be seen outside of the country. U.S. distributors, she said, are convinced there’s no audience for these movies, and because they won’t release them, the cycle becomes self-fulfilling. “We want to be the exception,” she said.
See’s 2005 book is a historically vivid account of a close but eventually troubled relationship between two women in rural Hunan province that spans decades and marriage, childbirth, heartbreak, war and death. Paired at age 7 as lifetime companions, or laotong, by a matchmaker charged with finding them husbands, Lily (China’s Li Bingbing) and Snow Flower (South Korea’s Gianna Jun) communicate through a secret, female-only script called nu shu, in which messages are written in the folds of a fan.
As adapted by screenwriters Angela Workman, Ron Bass and Michael K. Ray, “Snow Flower” retains the shape of See’s bestseller. At Wang’s suggestion, the film adds a parallel, modern-day Shanghai story with occasional English dialogue about two women, Sophia and Nina -- one of whom is writing a novel about Lily and Snow Flower. Like Lily and Snow Flower, Sophia and Nina (also played by Li and Jun) experience a fracture in their friendship.
“The book spoke to us,” Sloan said. “We wanted to be true to the book. We wanted to portray the women as strong, that they endured.”
Though the movie retains the book’s central story and its themes of judgment, betrayal and atonement, it minimizes the novel’s most disturbing depictions of the young women’s foot binding. Also absent from the film are Snow Flower’s multiple miscarriages and the suggestion that the adolescent Lily and Snow Flower are sexually attracted to each other.
Wang said Chinese censors asked that some of the gruesome sounds related to foot binding be dialed down. “But if I didn’t have somebody like Wendi and [executive producer and prominent financier] Hugo Shong, I would have been in much bigger trouble,” he said, because the two are so well-known in China.
But he was more upset with the demands from the Motion Picture Assn. of America. To get a PG-13 rating, Wang said, he couldn’t show how much sexual pleasure Snow Flower has with her husband.
Murdoch, who used her own and Sloan’s money to option See’s book, said that she had little trouble raising financing for the film’s production. “Everybody in China wanted to give us money,” she said. “In China, everybody knows who I am. It definitely helped. They have confidence in me.”
She would not discuss the film’s budget, but a person familiar with “Snow Flower” said it cost about $6 million. The movie has product placement from Louis Vuitton, Samsung and other companies to defray costs, and was co-produced with IDG China Creative Media.
Wang said he was determined to add the modern story not just to broaden “Snow Flower’s” appeal -- “I didn’t want people to go away from the movie thinking Chinese culture is all about foot binding and macho males,” he said -- but also because Shanghai “is so relentlessly contemporary now. It’s almost like New York mixed with Las Vegas.”
He said any number of recent Chinese movie imports -- including John Woo’s “Red Cliff” -- failed to connect with American audiences because the storytelling isn’t ambitious. “They keep making the same kind of thing -- these big, epic sword-fighting period dramas,” he said. “I don’t think a lot of these filmmakers are great storytellers.”
Murdoch said “Snow Flower” is a first step. “We hope to inspire other people to make Chinese films for everyone.”
Sloan, who has two other movies in development with Murdoch, knows the film is not an easy sell. But she hopes that the things that make it challenging could also buoy its prospects. “It’s not,” she said, “kung fu.”