Gem of the (Pacific) Ocean


By Stefan Hammond

Barbara Robinson wants to help revive Asian audiences' interest in their own movies. As managing director of Hong Kong-headquartered Columbia Pictures Film Production Asia, Robinson is responsible for the development, production and acquisition of local-language feature films. But as a Mandarin-fluent film executive with years of experience in the Greater China region, her understanding of local audiences and the Asian film scene brings essential perspective to Columbia's efforts in Asia.

Robinson began her career in Asia in 1984, teaching at Qinghua University in Beijing. In 1986, she moved to Taiwan, where she joined Era International Ltd. three years later. As Era's VP of production and licensing, she worked on several award-winning films including Hou Hsiao Hsien's A City of Sadness (Golden Lion Winner, 1989 Venice Film Festival) and The Puppetmaster (Jury Prize, 1993 Cannes Film Festival); and Zhang Yimou's Raise the Red Lantern (Silver Lion Winner at Venice 1991, Academy Award Nominee for Best Foreign-Language Film) and To Live (Grand Jury Prize and Best Actor Award, Cannes Film Festival, 1994).

When Robinson joined the Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Group (a Sony Pictures Entertainment company) to establish their local-language film production division in April 1998, the overall picture for Asian film production was far from rosy. The economic downturn initially precipitated by the breaking of the U.S. dollar currency peg for the Thai baht in mid-1997 was affecting the entire region, and production in Hong Kong had slowed to a trickle. 'This slack period was a boon for us, as it allowed time to review the overall picture and help build contacts within the region,' says Robinson.

The slowdown didn't linger. In 1999, the division launched Zhang Yimou's Not One Less (Golden Lion Winner at the 1999 Venice Film Festival) and The Road Home (winner of the Jury Grand Prix Silver Bear, 2000 Berlin International Film Festival), a pair of mainland features that enjoyed critical acclaim and strong revenues in the international marketplace. Robinson points out that interest in Japan was especially strong, with both films enjoying six-month runs at Tokyo art houses.

Clawing and Roaring

In 2000, Columbia Asia produced Tsui Hark's Time and Tide, a noteworthy effort which nonetheless was overshadowed by another CA co-production: Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The film went on to win four Academy Awards as well as many other awards in ceremonies from London to Hong Kong, and set box-office records in the United States and around the world.

But perhaps its most remarkable accomplishment was the mainstreaming of subtitles for North American audiences. Traditionally, American audiences regard subtitled films as art-house or film festival fare. Yet, critic after critic spun tales of seeing Tiger at their local mall-plex, only to hear titters at the outset when the subtitles first appeared—vague mutterings that morphed to gasps of adulation as Lee's magnificent tale of swordsmanship (and swordswomanship) swept up the film fans of the world. Robinson offers a unique perspective on Columbia's bold decision to release the film subtitled: 'You can't overlook the Internet as a factor. Spending hours online has helped the younger generation become hip to text-recognition, and I think this eased acceptance of Tiger's subtitles.'

Robinson's intriguing observation is one example of the savvy that helped make Tiger such a worldwide blockbuster; a film that pulled off the rare trifecta of critical acclaim, boffo box-office and gestalt shift. Sony Classics co-president Michael Barker related that a 13-year-old boy at a New York preview told him: 'You know, subtitles are cool.'

Looking Forward

Helping bring Asian stalwarts like Chow Yun-fat and Michelle Yeoh to American audiences in a Mandarin-language film is no minor feat. But as Robinson explains, Columbia Asia's mandate is to succeed with Asian films, among Asian audiences. While Korea and Japan are desirable markets, Greater China is the main target for the current slate of films. Robinson says that the game plan calls for three to five productions per year—primarily in Asian languages—with an eye towards keeping the budgets modest and with a welcome emphasis on value-added DVD release.

The Current Slate

In 2001, Columbia Pictures Film Production Asia put four films into production—all destined for '02 release. The diverse quartet comprises A-list talent from Taiwan, mainland China, Hong Kong and Hollywood.

Big Shot's Funeral is a comedy from mainland Chinese director Feng Xiaogang, starring Donald Sutherland, Paul Mazursky and mainland star Ge You. (The latter won Best Actor at Cannes 1994 for Zhang Yimou's To Live.) Sutherland plays a big-shot Hollywood director working on a major project in China, with Mazursky as his producer and Rosamund Kwan as his secretary. (HK film fans will recall Kwan as 'Aunt Thirteen' opposite Jet Li in the Once Upon A Time in China series.) With dialogue in Mandarin and English, the film is a co-production with Huayi Brothers & Taihe Investment Co., Ltd. and the Beijing Film Studio, giving Big Shot a status that assures its domestic distribution throughout the mainland.

Double Vision, by Taiwan director Chen Kuo Fu, stars Tony Leung Ka-fai (a veteran Hong Kong actor perhaps best known for his role in Jean Jacques Annaud's The Lover) and David Morse (The Green Mile, Proof of Life), in another Mandarin/English-language film. Described as 'a suspense thriller with a Taoist twist,' Double Vision was shot in Taipei and Melbourne. The plot revolves around Taiwan's first-ever serial killer, whose miscreant behavior inspires the Taiwanese cops to call in an American FBI specialist (Morse) to help crack the case. 'This is one of the most intriguing and original projects we've seen,'' declares Robinson, adding that while the FBI practice of profiling serial killers is an American construct, the film itself is very much a Taiwanese story.

Virtual Twilight is a sexy, high-tech action piece from acclaimed Hong Kong director Cory Yuen, who also served as action director on Lethal Weapon 4, Romeo Must Die and Kiss of the Dragon. Written by Hong Kong's Jeff Lau, the film stars Taiwanese actress Shu Qi and China's Vicky Zhao as a pair of sisters who are in the paid-assassination business. Hong Kong actress Karen Mok plays their nemesis, a policewoman intent on reining in the ne'er-do-well siblings. With dialogue in Cantonese and Mandarin, this is perhaps the most 'Hong Kong' of Columbia Asia's forthcoming releases and—given the success of 'reverse-engineered' Hong Kong girl-power, kick-butt flicks like Charlie's Angels—might find favor in auxiliary markets.

Rounding out the slate is Heroes of Heaven and Earth by Chinese director He Ping, helmer of Red Firecracker, Green Firecracker. Set in the Gobi Desert during the Tang Dynasty, the story follows two warriors and master swordsmen, Lieutenant Li (Jiang Wen) and Japanese emissary Lai Qi (Kiichi Nakai). After decades of service to the Chinese Emperor, Lai Qi longs to return to Japan, but is instead sent to Western China to chase wanted criminals. His ticket back to Japan is the capture and execution of Lieutenant Li, a renegade soldier wanted for refusing to kill female and child prisoners. Things twist when Lai Qi inadvertently saves the same young woman, Minzhu (Vicky Zhao), whom Li had rescued five years earlier.

A martial-arts epic set in the desert, Heroes of Heaven and Earth is a co-production with Huayi Brothers and the Xian Film Studio and is in Mandarin. 'He Ping has been a member of the Columbia Pictures Film Production Asia development and production team since our inception, and we are thrilled to finally have him in the director's chair,' says Robinson.

Bullish on Asia

Columbia Pictures, which has the distinction of being the only studio with a fully dedicated production division in Asia, is determined to build on its Crouching Tiger success. 'I'm pleased with our accomplishments so far,' says Robinson, but it's clear that Columbia Asia is not spinning its wheels. With these intriguing films in the pipeline, it could well be that the best is yet to come.