Despite the good reviews (not so much in the West), the espionage thriller opened in China last week on a staggering 10,000 screens to what Kong calls “lukewarm” business, a fact he attributes in part to a misunderstanding of the title. “In China, no one knows what a whistleblower is,” he says. “People were asking, ‘Is this a sports movie?'”
Kong has revised his expectations downwards and expects the movie to make “$US15-20 million”. With credits that include Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero, House of Flying Daggers and the upcoming live-action remake of Mulan, he has made enough movies, and had enough hits, that he knows he can afford to take the longer view.
“It’s not really about how many people see it today, how much money you earn today. A movie will be here forever. It’s about how it affects people, how it changes people, how it changes our world,” Kong says. “I made a movie many years back about the Cultural Revolution that was never even shown in China, but for me it’s a very important movie. We’re only sorry we didn’t make more money for the investors.”
Basser adds, “It’s still going to be the largest Australian film of the year and I think that’s important for our industry.”
A former senior executive at Roadshow, Basser last year set up his own company, Gentle Giant, with the express intention of leveraging his many years in Los Angeles to make studio-scale pictures in his homeland. “We should be looking to do more of these co-productions, because it does create great opportunities for our filmmakers and our talent, and China is a really important marketplace that can continue to help grow our industry,” he says.
Because it was made under the China-Australia co-production treaty, The Whistleblower qualifies as a local production in both territories – giving it access to government money and tax incentives in Australia and to a mass audience in China, which has tight restrictions on the number of foreign films allowed into the country.
It cost roughly $45 million to shoot, but government subsidies and tax rebates took its net cost to a little over half that. “You’re certainly not going to make a film of that quality for that price in China,” says Basser. “You’re not going to do it in America either.”
“There’s really no comparison with what we can do [in China],” says Kong. “This is world-standard; if we do our movie in China, we are not world standard.”
The Whistleblower is a curious film, with action leaping from Africa to Australia to China (all but some Chinese scenes were shot in Australia). Its hero, played by Lei Jiayin, is a Chinese executive at an Australian resources company that has developed a gas extraction technology that promises to help rid China of its toxic pollution – but only at the cost of triggering devastating earthquakes.
He’s an in-between character, still waiting on citizenship after more than a decade in Australia, who notes that “as a Chinese working for a foreign company, there’s always a glass ceiling”.
Writer-director Xue Xiaolu – who speaks little English (she communicated with the Australian crew via her assistant, who doubled as translator) – gets some things about Australian culture hilariously wrong, like the media frenzy surrounding the revelation of an affair. The film also creates some scenarios, like a cliff-top hotel digitally constructed at the Twelve Apostles, seemingly to satisfy a fantasy vision of what Australia could be. (A disclaimer at the end of the film no doubt trashes the honeymoon plans of many a Chinese viewer by declaring the imaginary resort “does not reflect the future development intentions of this iconic and protected area”.)
It arguably overplays the protections offered to whistleblowers in Australia too. But even raising the idea of spilling the beans on corruption – albeit corporate, not government corruption – was a risky thing to do, says Kong.
“Even if we have one bad Chinese it’s already a risk for us to pass the censors. We’re walking a very thin line here.”
When it comes to the appeal of making more such co-productions here, though, he is unequivocal.
“When Chinese filmmakers see this, there will be a lot wanting to come over and do this,” says Kong. “The ability to shoot a film that tells the story on three continents, and shoot in one place, is amazing.”
Karl Quinn is a senior culture writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.