Shanghai’s star turn

Thursday, June 26, 2014, 10:37
Shanghai’s star turn
By Matt Hodges


Shanghai's star turn
Drago Lazetich (front) poses with other cast members of the Chinese TV drama Detective Yang Jinbang. Lazetich plays the head judge on the show. (Photos provided to China Daily)
Shanghai's star turn
Alexia Kalteis performs in the musical Rock On! Halloween at a popular theater in Shanghai.
Shanghai's star turn
Independent filmmaker Richard Trombly coaches actresses Emily Feist (middle) and Emily Wallace-Kalouch (left) during the making of his latest production, Analysis.

Hong Kong continues to be a movie magnet, but foreign actors and filmmakers with an eye on the mainland hope to cash in on the action as it moves to China’s financial hub. Matt Hodges reports.Drago Lazetich is among a growing stream of European and American actors who are banking on Shanghai’s motion picture industry becoming a top regional if not global player as domestic movies grow in stature, co-productions proliferate and new infrastructure takes root.

Shanghai DreamWorks Animation, for example, is building a $2.4-billion entertainment complex in the city in conjunction with Chinese investment fund CMC Capital Partners. The project is already being touted as the next big thing after New York’s Broadway and London’s West End.

This will mean more jobs for foreign actors, screenwriters, directors of photography and even visual effects’ artists as fresh opportunities arise and entrenched attitudes change, expats say.

“I thought for sure before I came to China they’d have me playing bad guys, as a foreigner, but I can count the number of those roles on one hand,” says Lazetich, who claims to have “co-starred” in 50 films in China, although the majority did not involve speaking roles.

His latest role as a Roman gladiator in Jackie Chan’s Dragon Blade saw him spend three weeks filming fighting scenes in the Gobi desert.

“I’ve been a priest, a general for the Flying Tigers (squadrons of American pilots who fought for the Chinese Air Force in World War II), a US spy,” says the hulking actor, who studied for a time at the University of California, Los Angeles, and has a martial-arts background. He is wearing a black Warner Hollywood Studios bomber jacket and black Reebok Pump sneakers when we meet at a coffee shop downtown.

Lazetich, who is in his early 40s, was born in Mostar, a city in southern Bosnia-Herzegovina. He got hooked on showbiz as a cast member of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers World Live Tour in 1995.

“I mostly do TV shows and World War II films,” he says. “Sometimes months can go by while I’m waiting and waiting for the phone to ring.”

He earns between 400 yuan ($65) to 3,000 yuan a day, depending on whether the role is silent or scripted and is about to work on an indie movie that will be filmed in Shanghai and Beijing. He hopes this will be his big break.

Shanghai has carved a role for itself as a magnet for big-budget Hollywood flicks in recent years from Mission Impossible III (2006) to Skyfall (2012), Looper (2012) and Spike Jonze’s Her (2013), which featured several futuristic-looking backdrops in Pudong among other shots.

The city’s under-construction “Dream Center” will include the film production facilities of Oriental DreamWorks. One of the studio’s most high-profile animations, Kung Fu Panda 3, is due out next year. One-third of the animation work is set to be done in Shanghai.

The city is also set to open its much-anticipated Disneyland at the end of 2015.

“Shanghai, in my opinion, is the new Hong Kong,” says Austria-born actress Alexia “Lexi” Kalteis.

Like Lazetich, Kalteis has been living and working in China for about a decade. She studied Chinese and acting at the Shanghai Theater Academy and now serves as co-chairperson of the city’s East-West Theater.

Among her film credits are stints in the Jet Li flick Fearless and The Painted Veil starring Edward Norton (both 2006). She also teaches drama at a local primary school.

“So many movies are going to be shot here. The rate has already shot up so much since 2004. There wasn’t much work for struggling actors back then, but the competition is increasing like crazy now,” she says.

Hong Kong became synonymous with bloody police-gangster flicks and martial arts movies in the late 1980s thanks to directors like John Woo and stars such as Chow Yun-fat. For decades, the territory’s motion picture industry was only bested in size by Hollywood and Bollywood. Then South Korea crept in and stole the show with ultra-violent hits like director Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance trilogy (the second installment, Old Boy, reached theaters in 2003).

One of the biggest releases from South Korea in recent years seems to point the way forward: Na Hong-jin made the male leads of his excellent thriller Yellow Sea two ethnic-Korean Chinese from Yanbian, Jilin province. Having rival gangsters from both countries engage in a long bloodbath was guaranteed to draw an international audience.

Lazetich, meanwhile, is keen not to put all of his eggs in one basket. He says he has found a niche with Wise Hit, the web series he both stars in and directs. The spoof Western set in a modern Asian city has met with enviable success on and Blip, another online platform for original web series.

Given the explosive growth of Chinese cinema, it is little surprise that local productions are creating more speaking roles for expats, with the caveat that they often have to say their lines in Chinese.

“I like the fact that most of the roles I’ve been playing recently are the good-guy roles, not the stereotypical ‘bad foreigner’ that seems to be all too prevalent in Chinese productions,” says Karl Dominik, who owns Constellation talent agency in Shanghai.

“I am daunted by the amount of Chinese I have to learn, but I love a challenge.”

Another of Shanghai’s top foreign acting talents, Englishman Charles Mayer, had a high-profile supporting role in Yip Man 2 (2010) as a corrupt police sergeant in wartime Hong Kong. It was exactly the kind of racially charged role people like Dominik are eager to avoid.

“Things are changing, which is great, because there are some real acting heavyweights here like Arran Hawkins, Christy Shapiro and Jim Bennett,” says Kalteis, reeling off a list of well-known names among Shanghai’s theater community.

“The Chinese used to treasure looks way above acting skill. If you weren’t model-skinny they weren’t interested, but now they appreciate real talent,” she adds.

Others say Beijing offers greener pastures than China’s glamorous commercial hub.

Richard Trombley, a Beijing-based independent filmmaker, left Shanghai several years ago to forge closer ties with industry figures. He says he is now seeing his efforts bear fruit.

“All the big deals these days are done in Beijing. It’s still a bit more government-run than in Shanghai, but the industry is also more developed and professional here,” he says.

“It’s still very challenging for anyone to initiate a project here, but there are plenty of ways to get involved if you have some talent, for example as a director of photography or screenwriter.”

“Commercials, corporate videos and indie films are really the way to get your foot in the door,” he adds.

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