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Award-Winning Director Zhang Yimou On Board for New “Chinese Netflix” – Awkward for “Netflix of China”

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Ten years ago, in the early days of original online video content, the idea of a celebrated, award-winning director creating a web series would have sounded far fetched. And yet, here we are: Zhang Yimou, the legendary director behind Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and Raise the Red Lantern, has signed on with Hong Kong’s Huanxi Media Group to direct three web series (one of which might be produced as a feature film). Huanxi’s Chairman Dong Ping has said that their goal is to “create a Chinese Netflix.”

Zhang Yimou’s contract with Huanxi will net him 100 million RMB (about 15.6 million USD), for production over the next six years, with allowance for four additional years if necessary.

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The move marks an interesting event for everyone, but especially for Zhang Yimou. Zhang rose to fame as an early star in China’s much-respected Fifth Generation of filmmakers, for his beautiful, stirring period dramas. He achieved even wider-reaching levels of greatness in the 2000’s, with international hits like Hero and House of Flying Daggers, which defined a new era of kung fu and wuxia cinema.

More recently though, Zhang has been tackling different kinds of projects. His last major film, The Great Wall, was a Chinese war epic/giant monster movie starring a medieval Matt Damon. It bombed in the box office, and was widely criticized for whitewashing the lead role. Now, as Zhang sets up to dive into another atypical project (three of them, no less), eyes will be on him to see whether the decision will constitute another stain on his portfolio.

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Let’s pull the lens away from Zhang though, and address another key player in this piece of news. Huanxi’s stated goal to become the “Chinese Netflix” is at least a little presumptuous, considering a hugely successful company has already pretty much staked their claim on the title. Online video powerhouse iQIYI has been called “the Netflix of China” by international outlets since day one — and they’re doing it really well. They have some of China’s biggest hit shows, the largest platform in the space, and are owned by superpower tech company Baidu. So for Huanxi to step up to the plate with big “Chinese Netflix” dreams creates a bit of an awkward situation — especially considering the Hong Kong company has lost more than 184 million USD over the past few years.

Well if there’s anyone who might be able to help them achieve their goal, it’s Zhang Yimou. That is, if his new projects can avoid the harsh criticism that plagued his last Matt Damon-driven dragon-fighting historical epic The Great Wall. Cinephiles and Sinophiles alike will be rooting for Zhang.

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Adan Kohnhorst
Adan Kohnhorst is a Shanghai-based writer, producer, and multimedia artist, and the Associate Editor at RADII. His work has been featured in publications such as Maxim and the Chinese-language StreetVoice, and he’s an active member of the hip-hop and DIY music scenes in Shanghai, NYC, and Dallas. He learned Mandarin in high school so he could train at the Shaolin Temple, but now just uses it to interview rappers.

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