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Racing to Develop Film of Chinese Detective Hero

June 26, 1988|ELLEN FARLEY

Watched by a curious monkey while taking his morning tea, (he) notices the scavenger has a shiny treasure. He entices the animal to drop his new-found prize, a gold ring with a precious stone. Dried blood on the ring leads Dee to the discovery of a mutilation murder.

The above is a producer's synopsis of a plot from the life of Judge Dee, a Chinese detective from the 7th-Century Tang Dynasty and a hot topic among Western film makers planning to make movies in China.

Screenplays have been commissioned by competing film makers hoping to make a Judge Dee movie as a major production with the People's Republic of China, a la "The Last Emperor," which was filmed in China and just collected nine Oscars (best picture, best director, etc.).

Judge Dee first became known in the West in the '50s with the publication of the first of 16 Dee detective novels by China scholar and Dutch diplomat Robert Van Gulik, who wrote 72 volumes about China in all. Van Gulik, who was still working on the Dee series when he died in 1967, based the detective on a real figure in Chinese history, Dee Jen-djieh.

Director Paul ("RoboCop") Verhoeven is committed to direct one Judge Dee movie, now in development at Tri-Star, based on the Van Gulik novels.

The other Dee project is based on historical material about Jen-djieh, according to its would-be producer, Franco Giovale, who was associate producer of "The Last Emperor."

Tri-Star approved plans for the Van Gulik Dee movie on the day after "Emperor's" triumph at the Oscars, although the company had been negotiating for almost a year with Dee Productions, the independent company that brought Verhoeven and the Dee idea to Tri-Star.

The Tri-Star and Giovale projects are feuding, each claiming sole rights.

Dee Productions is two women, both would-be first-time executive producers: Rita McMahon, 38, a TV marketing consultant from New York, who optioned the Van Gulik novels and wrote summaries of them (including the synopsis at the beginning of this story) to help sell the movie to Tri-Star; and a French woman, Francoise De Leu, 45, who has worked as an art director on "many" French films, she said, including "My New Partner" and "The Perils of Gwendolyn."

McMahon first optioned the Van Gulik books six years ago, after she had worked as a marketing consultant on two TV miniseries set in the Orient: "Marco Polo" and "Shogun."

De Leu also tried to option the Van Gulik books and teamed up with McMahon when she learned the latter had the rights.

As it turned out, Verhoeven had an option on the books even before McMahon ("I have been in love with the Van Gulik books for 20 years," the Dutch director said) and first pitched the idea to Hollywood studios in 1981.

But at the time, "Everyone was terrified of doing a picture in China with Chinese people," he said. "There was a negative answer from every studio in town."

This time, Verhoeven and the two women teamed up with producer Mike Wise ("Making Mr. Right"), who helped sell the package to Tri-Star.

A spokesman at the Shanghai Film Studio, which has an agreement to co-produce the Judge Dee movie with Dee Productions, said, "We are preparing for (the movie) now." (The Shanghai agreement will not be completed, however, until Tri-Star officials have a chance to meet with the Chinese, after Tri-Star signs its deal with Dee Productions on July 11.)

Before Verhoeven directed "RoboCop," a huge hit in the pop entertainment category, "Everybody in town turned us down on this project, except (Tri-Star production head Jeff) Sagansky," said producer Wise.

"After 'RoboCop' was screened, everyone offered us a deal, but we decided to stay with Tri-Star," he said.

As planned, Chinese workers at Shanghai will build the sets, make the costumes and work as crew members and extras, but Westerners will have the principal roles. There is talk of John Lone as Dee, but the writers' strike has delayed completion of a script--by screenwriter Rospo Pallenburg ("The Emerald Forest")--and, therefore, the casting process.

Verhoeven pitched the Dee idea to Tri-Star as "like 'Star Wars.' "

Like "Star Wars"?

In the sense, Verhoeven explains, "that you are jumping, falling into another world, a place that looks like a different planet, even with the costumes and the way people behave. It is sometimes a little bit barbaric, because we are talking about 1,500 years ago."

Elaborating on the "Star Wars" context, Wise speaks of "incredible battle sequences with the kind of weapons that we've never seen on the screen before, steel and metal objects used to kill or maim or injure that were actually used in Chinese warfare but that Western society has never seen."

"It's action, it's violence and you do have sex," De Leu said.

"It is not very erotic by our standards, but it does have eroticisms. Dee and his lieutenant do have love affairs. They have Chinese dancers, the flower women, who are very important to the stories.

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