Qi Jieshuang/ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images
Jackie Chan (left) and Jet Li attend a news conference in Hengdian, China, for The Forbidden Kingdom. The film marks the martial-arts superstars' first on-screen encounter.
Jackie Chan (left) and Jet Li attend a news conference in Hengdian, China, for The Forbidden Kingdom. The film marks the martial-arts superstars' first on-screen encounter. Qi Jieshuang/ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images
Louisa Lim, NPR
Actors on the set of The Forbidden Kingdom wait to be called for their scenes.
Actors on the set of The Forbidden Kingdom wait to be called for their scenes. Louisa Lim, NPR
Louisa Lim, NPR
Young extras wearing heavy armor swelter in the 100-degree heat.
Young extras wearing heavy armor swelter in the 100-degree heat. Louisa Lim, NPR
Hengdian, or "Chinawood" as it's been dubbed, is the world's largest film studio — and it's where some of China's most famous films have been shot. Another movie filming in the southern Chinese city may well join those ranks soon: the long-awaited collaboration between two giants of the martial-arts world, Jackie Chan and Jet Li.
A life-size replica of a Qin dynasty palace — supposedly the home to China's emperors 2,000 years ago — is the backdrop for The Forbidden Kingdom, Chan and Li's first on-screen encounter.
The movie is a "celebration of Chinese history, Chinese popular culture, Chinese cinema and Chinese mythology," says American producer Casey Silver.
Director Rob Minkoff, who is most famous for The Lion King, weighs the pros and cons of working in Hengdian studios on the $80 million movie.
"There's tremendous experience and talent available to do many things necessary to create a film. Obviously, hundreds and hundreds of people are required to do everything from building sites, so many skills, many craftsmen are used, and all of that is available to us here," Minkoff says during a recent news conference. "The only disadvantage I can think of is that there's no Starbucks."
But the advantages are many — and boil down to money, says Chan, the film's star. He notes that by moving the production to China, a movie that would cost $200 million to make in the United States now costs $80 million.
And in the high-octane world of kung fu, China has other attractions. No on-site security captain monitors the fight scenes. And that makes things easier, says Chan, who performs most of his own stunts, no matter how risky.
Chan's fighting technique and temperament differ famously from his co-star, Jet Li.
The two men have wanted to work together for more than 15 years. "If we don't work together soon, our combined age will hit 100 years old," Li jokes.
And time is running out for the pair to hit that deadline: This year, their combined age is already 97.
Li is a former national martial-arts champion, famous for his classical technique, his speed, his reserved character and his killer instinct. He is universally known on set as "The Boss," while Jackie Chan's nickname is "Big Brother."
So how is the chemistry between the boss and the big brother?
Li sums it up as "very interesting."
"All day long, Jackie talks about fighting, fighting, fighting. I talk about everything but fighting," Li says.
Chan's trademark is his ingenious, improvisational use of props, his acrobatics, his sense of humor and open nature. He says it's been decades since he's fought like he does on-screen with Li.
"Fighting with Jet Li is incredibly fast. It's so fast that everybody on set complains, 'That was too fast. Can you do it again a bit more slowly?'" Chan says.
With its martial-arts magic and Chinese stars, this film's aim is to bring Chinese culture to Hollywood.
Yet the bosses of this Chinese Tinseltown are actually hoping for the opposite: that the movie will bring Hollywood all the way to the studios at Hengdian.