Beijing Juben Productions has taken over rights to the popular “Wolf Totem” novel from China Film Group and is working on a sequel to be delivered in 2021 or Chinese New Year 2022. It also has a zombie film up its sleeve, as well as a British co-production about Shakespeare and a Chinese drama with half an eye on Cannes.
The firm, whose Mandarin name “Juben” translates to “script,” was founded by producer Luna Wang in 2013 and employs a team of ten. It focuses on artistic films with mainstream commercial potential and has mostly worked with early-career directors.
One of its first projects was 2013 comedy “American Dreams in China,” by Peter Chan Ho-sun who is this week head of the competition jury at the International Film Festival Macao.
Juben went on to back “12 Citizens,” a 2014 Chinese remake of “12 Angry Men,” and last year’s “Ayka,” which was shortlisted for the Oscars as Kazahkstan’s entry to the race and screened in the main competition at Cannes, winning best actress.
The relationships forged with Russia and Kazakhstan in “Ayka” have led Juben to turn more towards that part of the world than the U.S. or Europe for its biggest project yet, a $28 million sequel to 2015’s “Wolf Totem,” which grossed $110 million.
Popular on Variety
“There’s a cultural closeness between China and the Silk Road countries,” said Wang. France will remain a presence, however, through Wild Bunch, which is also involved. Cannes best actress-winning Samal Yeslyamova (“Ayka”) will act, and Aisholpan Nurgaiv, the Kazakh Mongolian girl subject of the documentary “The Eagle Huntress,” has also been approached to participate.
The film will feature some of the same characters from the previous film and book. The idea is to make the movie more approachable to a youthful audience and emphasize the nature survival angle, centering on the story of sent-down youth searching for a wolf deep in the wilderness.
Juben’s “Guns and Kidneys” could become one of China’s first theatrically released zombie films — if it ever passes censorship. Also backed by Wanda Pictures, it was written and directed by Chinese filmmaker Zhang Meng (“On the Balcony,” “Run for Love”), and has spent two years in limbo awaiting approval. Having begun prep as long ago as 2015, it completed shooting in 2016 and finished its special effects by 2017, it is now hoping for a 2020 release.
The film stars Wang Qianyuan (“Shadow”) and Huang Jingyu in one of his first-ever roles, before he became a megastar through films such as “Operation Red Sea” and Han Han’s “Pegasus” that did not get stuck in regulatory tangles.
Zombies have appeared in recent online movies, but “Guns” gets around China’s theatrical ban on them by presenting the story as a film within a film. The censorship hold-up at the moment ironically doesn’t appear to be the zombies themselves, for whom it’s “it’s just a question of the degree of gore” permissible to show on screen, said Wang. Rather, it’s the fact that it’s set in the factories of China’s hardscrabble, post-industrial northeast rustbelt, and depictions of the region — notoriously known for an abundance of mafia connections, and for films about such — have suddenly become frowned up.
The producers are now stuck with the dilemma of having to change the entire setting and likely tone of their completed film, which is adding costs to their initial $10.6 million (RMB75 million) budget.
“In those two years [of production], when resources and money were abundant, things were much more open when it came to pre-production approval, and things moved very quickly,” Wang said. But she was sanguine about her own bad luck. “In the years that things were more open, a lot of content was generated that was leading the market in the wrong direction, requiring a correction. So I can understand that things need to be slightly stricter now to help clean up the whole market environment.”
Juben is also putting together an official co-production film with the U.K. that is currently in script stage. The story is about Shakespeare and his Chinese translator, across two different countries and eras. The main Chinese portion takes place in the 1930s and tells the story of China’s first-ever translator of the bard, and who struggled to translate the British playwright’s entire oeuvre amidst the chaos of war with Japan.
Juben’s next title, “Wu Hai,” takes its name from a mining town in Inner Mongolia where it is set and is a drama about a couple. A production with cameras and production firm ARRI and the second film from “Old Beast” director Zhou Ziyang, it has finished shooting and is hoped to be ready by Cannes 2020. It stars Huang Xuan (Feng Xiaogang’s “Youth,” Lou Ye’s “Blind Massage”) and Yang Zishan (2017 Cannes Un Certain Regard selection “Walking Past the Future”). Casting doubt over whether they’ll make it, however, is the fact that it’s now hard to know how far ahead a film must be completed in order to pass censorship approvals for festivals.
Juben’s most recent film is “Meiduo,” a girl-on-the-road movie with a romantic component about a war journalist who finds herself through travels in the Tibetan countryside. Made on a budget of $2 million (RMB15 million), it was shot in Beijing, Sichuan, and Lebanon and stars Zhu Zhu (Netflix’s “Marco Polo”).