"Bigfoot" director Ethan Wiley with Shennongjia Nature Reserve… (Wiseacre Films )
BEIJING — Unlike Japan, where Godzilla destroyed countless Tokyo landmarks, or South Korea, where celluloid sea beasts slink around the riverbanks into Seoul, China has no creature-feature tradition because film regulators historically have shunned superstition on the silver screen.
But a new film, "Bigfoot," aims to take a swipe at China's long-standing monster movie ban. The Hollywood co-production of a local legend will begin shooting in a central China nature reserve in October with help from a special-effects master who worked on "Gremlins."
Chris Walas, who also won an Oscar for his makeup design on "The Fly," co-wrote the English-language script for "Bigfoot" with director Ethan Wiley, whose next picture, "Elf Man," starring "Jackass" regular Jason Acuña, will be released in North America before Christmas.
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"It's been a dream of mine to bring the Yeren story to life," said Walas, using the Mandarin word for the giant "wild man" of Chinese lore who is akin to the Sasquatch of Pacific Northwest legend in the United States. Walas spoke to a news conference here on Tuesday in a pre-recorded video.
The State Administration of Radio Film and Television typically bans any plot elements that question proven science or the supremacy of the Communist Party, or otherwise may malign Chinese people. In June, censors cut space aliens disguised as ethnic Chinese restaurant workers in New York from "Men in Black 3."
Yet Chinese audiences are increasingly drawn to fantastical Hollywood superhero movies such as "The Amazing Spider-Man," which opened here this week and features an implausible lizard man. And an increasing number of Chinese-made films are depicting the supernatural in an attempt to compete. A fox demon features in the summer hit "Painted Skin 2," for instance, but the Chinese monsters seldom get away with contemporary settings and are placed safely in the past instead.
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"Notes early on in this two-year process said, 'You can't make the Yeren story because it's not scientific fact,'" L.A.-based "Bigfoot" producer Richard Jefferies of Wiseacre Films said. "But then they just started coming around."
"Blue Crush 2" actress Sasha Jackson will star as the tutor of a Chinese boy whose plane crashes in the Shennongjia Nature Reserve.
"It's a survival story," said Wiley, who during Tuesday's news conference presented location scouting footage from the lush forest in Hubei province. "The only way to film with truth and integrity is to shoot in the area where the Yeren may truly exist."
Although the Bigfoot movie has gotten the green light from censors, observers caution that China's film establishment is unlikely to quickly throw open the gates to all things fantastic.
"SARFT has apparently erected a monster-proof shield around Beijing and indeed around all Chinese cities. This is not because giant monsters are particularly scary, obscene or conducive to social unrest. It is because they are politically unacceptable," wrote longtime Beijing resident and media blogger William Moss in a July essay, "Godzilla vs. the SARFT Monster."
"If you can watch a rubber-suit monster smash a tiny representation of your society and not worry that it will somehow erode faith in the actual society, then you've taken an important step," wrote Moss, who has a young son. "And you've done a wonderful thing for every small boy in your country."
Still, perhaps there's hope for horror here. The Chinese Bigfoot film follows close on the heels of the first domestic-made creature film shot all in Chinese.
"Million Dollar Crocodile," which reportedly cost Beijing Geliang Media 20 million yuan, or $3.1 million, to make, grossed $1.9 million in June, according to Shanghai-based film industry consultancy Artisan Gateway. Last week, the CGI-heavy "Crocodile" opened the Montreal World Film Festival.
René Seegers, a Dutch filmmaker who moved to Beijing four years ago and is producing the Bigfoot movie, found lead investor Xiao Mingxing, a real estate mogul turned head of the Shenzhen Emperor Star International Film & Culture Co. They then turned to Wiley and Jefferies, who had previously worked with Walas.
"China needs genre films," said Seegers. "They don't have the technique. Chris Walas' expertise is completely lacking here. The Yeren he's designing is not just an ape suit. It's a suit whose parts can move complexly, like 'Planet of the Apes.' Together with modern compositing and CGI, the U.S. side is capable of making this more real than the Chinese side at the moment."
Seegers said "Bigfoot" initially will cost about $2.4 million. It will be shot with some Chinese dialogue and the filmmakers have made an offer to actor Wentworth Miller, who is hugely popular in China because of widespread piracy of the "Prison Break" television series.
The forest where Wiley will shoot was granted state-level protection in 1999, but state media reports say it lies in one of the nation's poorest areas. At the news conference Tuesday, Wiley thanked officials from the Shennongjia Tourism Board and the Hubei Communist Party.
"Our Yeren is going to be the protector of the forest rather than the violent beast seen in typical Bigfoot movies," he said. "We're exploring the dual nature of the creature, sitting on the razor's edge between man and animal. The film will show the delicate balance between nature and civilization."