Zhang Ready to Do Battle for Weinstein Films

Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi and the Weinstein Co. are in negotiations for her to star in three pictures, including a remake of Akira Kurosawa's legendary "The Seven Samurai," the New York-based Weinstein Co. confirmed Monday.

While talks between Zhang and Weinstein Co. began well before last month's Festival de Cannes, according to Zhang's agents at WMA, the complex three-picture deal is far from closed.

Zhang ("Memoirs of a Geisha") is interested in playing the role in "Samurai" of a peasant girl who hides from bandits in boy's clothes. Contrary to Internet rumors and published reports in Asia, no writer, director or co-star is yet signed. The Weinsteins acquired the remake rights to "Samurai" in 2002 for Miramax Films, and brought the project with them to their new company. Harvey Weinstein worked with Zhang when Miramax Films released Zhang Yimou's global hit "Hero" in 2004.

Zhang also is discussing starring in another Chinese cross-dressing tale for the Weinstein Co. as folk heroine Hua Mulan -- the girl who dresses as a man to do battle in place of her ailing father. The same myth was the basis of Walt Disney Pictures' 1998 animated feature, "Mulan."

Several players have been pushing "Mulan" projects, most notably actress-producer Michelle Yeoh and producer Terence Chang, who are working with Shanghai tycoon David Dong's Meridian Pictures Group. The partnership shares ownership of the script written by Wang Hui-Ling ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"). The question still to be negotiated is whether the Weinsteins will be able to place Zhang into this "Mulan" project or embark on a version of their own.

The third project has not been nailed down and will be announced soon, the Weinstein Co. said. The three projects are expected to be English-language, sources said.

Zhang's Beijing-based company, run partly by her brother, Zhang Zian, could not be reached for comment.

The Weinstein Co. is active in Asia and last year opened a Hong Kong office, which is run by vp Asian acquisitions and co-production Bey Logan, who told the South China Morning Post, "We are definitely discussing ("Samurai") with Zhang's management. It's all still in the early stages."

At Cannes, Bob and Harvey Weinstein continued their Asia push by unveiling a label called Dragon Dynasty, under which the Weinstein Co. will release Asian films. Titles will include "Ong Bak 2," "The Protector" (aka "Tom Yum Goong"), "Born to Fight," "SPL," "Seven Swords" and "Dragon Squad." It also will encompass a package of 43 titles that have been licensed from Fortune Star Entertainment, the distribution division of News Corp.'s STAR Group. Dragon also will handle a collection of 50 movies from the Shaw Brothers including John Woo's "The Killer" and "Hard-Boiled." Quentin Tarantino, a longtime champion of Asian cinema, will actively work with the Weinsteins in all aspects of Dragon's brand development.

The Weinstein brothers built much of their reputation on buying U.S. distribution rights to foreign films. While running Miramax, they introduced American moviegoers to the 2002 Hong Kong cop sleeper "Infernal Affairs," from director Andrew Lau. They also gave America the 2001 film "Shaolin Soccer" from Stephen Chow, shining a Hollywood spotlight on the Hong Kong comedy star who went on to make the hit "Kung Fu Hustle."

Miramax also produced Tarantino's "Kill Bill" films -- which, though partly shot in Beijing, were banned in China. The brothers' most recent foray into China resulted in the Weinstein Co.'s backing out of a deal last year with state-run industry giant China Film Group to distribute in the U.S. leading Chinese director Chen Kaige's "The Promise." The Weinsteins and the filmmakers disagreed on how wide to release the film in the U.S.

Zhang will next appear in "The Banquet," directed by popular mainland Chinese filmmaker Feng Xiaogang. Due for release this year, the film is billed as a "Hamlet"-inspired drama set in an ancient Chinese court.

Jonathan Landreth reported from Beijing; Anne Thompson reported from Los Angeles.

Jonathan Landreth and Anne Thompson write for The Hollywood Reporter.

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