Movie Pitch: Chinese Money, Sino-American story? “Flying Tigers”

tigers

If there’s one thing August of 2018 has underscored, it’s the growing position of Chinese money and in film production and the impact the Chinese market international and Asian-American audience at home.

Everything from “The Meg” to “Crazy Rich Asians,” has benefited from Chinese production cash and content catering to Chinese and Asian audiences. Even “A.X.L.” and “Kin” have Chinese cash on their books on the production side.

That being the case, there is one story, a natural East/West tale culled from Chinese history, unlike that abomination “The Great Wall” — the movie, not the wall — that begs for Chinese production money and Hollywood know how.

Japan invaded China twice in World War II, actually kicking off the war by occupying Manchuria. The second Sino-Japanese war was fought by a Japan with imperial designs on conquering and enslaving Asia, and a fractious China ruled by Chiang Kai-Shek, but fought for by the communists led by the future Chairman Mao, as well.

And Americans helped with their war effort. First, Chinese American pilots left this country to aid the Chinese Air Force. This is a wholly untold, basically unknown story begging for a Chinese-financed movie, even if it does bring up troubling “where your true loyalties lie” questions about the nationalist-racist era that WWII was fought in.

Then there’s the more famous story, of America’s Flying Tigers, the American Volunteer Group who took to the skies to defend Chinese cities and the last supply route into the country, the Burma Road, from the Japanese. They were mercenaries, volunteers, allowed to resign from America’s military air arms and join Claire Chennault for a deadly, epic adventure in the Far East. Roosevelt encouraged them, under table, let them have P-40 fighters to match up against Japanese bombers and Zero fighters.

History has us mis-remembering their story, largely due to a 1942 film starring draft-dodger John Wayne that wholly fictionalized not so much their exploits, but their timeline. They volunteered to go and got to China months before Pearl Harbor, but didn’t see action until after the Japanese attacked the United States and Britain.

Sam Kleiner’s new book on the Tigers refreshes our memory and corrects the historic myths, to a large degree. It covers what will be familiar ground to anybody who has read much on the Tigers. And it’s short. As nobody in Hollywood reads, that’s a plus.

Many filmmakers I have spoken with over the years have talked of getting a new version of this story on the screen. Producer/writer Pen Densham was the first. 

And every time I talked with the great Chinese director John Woo, he or I would bring it up. The Hong Kong action auteur moved into Chinese epics, and longed to get his arms around this East Meets West story of heroism, sacrifice, Fish Out of Water Culture clash, all of it.

Perhaps it is the Nationalist (non Communist) part of the story that has always been the hangup. The seductive Madame Chiang figures into the tale, surely one of the great villains of Chinese history, according to the Communists who have ruled the place since the 1940s.

But Woo never got to make this film. And even though there’s been a version in pre-production, off and on over the years (including now), it never happened.  Tom Cruise and John Woo were pushing competing visions and versions of it about 8 years ago.

If the time was ever right and ripe for making this project, it is now. Digital effects for the air to air combat, a cast of young actors and actresses (romance in the combat zone), a grizzled 40something leader, lots of Chinese pilots, officials, soldiers and lovers, remote Chinese locations — this thing pitches itself.

Why isn’t it happening?

 

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