Sars has had a serious impact on film production on the mainland in the past few months as new projects have been put on hold or cancelled. But two big-budget productions have recently been unveiled that could help restore confidence in China's production industry. Peter Loehr, the New York-born producer who is famous for establishing China's first truly independent production company, is developing a US$45 million (HK$350 million) action adventure, Murder In Canton, which is based on the Judge Dee mystery novel, written by Robert van Gulik. John McTiernan, whose credits include major Hollywood movies such as Die Hard and The Hunt For Red October, is to direct the film, which gives some idea of its scale and ambition. Van Gulik, who was the Dutch ambassador to Japan in the 1950s, wrote more than 20 novels about Judge Dee (Di Gong), a real-life Tang dynasty magistrate who travelled throughout China solving mysteries for the Empress. 'They're a combination of Sherlock Holmes and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and are really a lot of fun,' explains Loehr. In Murder In Canton, which is set in 660 AD, Dee is sent to Canton to investigate a plot to overthrow the government. He uncovers a trail of deception that leads all the way back to the Empress and is forced to avert a potential war between China and the Arabs. The English-language film has yet to be cast but offers some juicy roles including Judge Dee himself, described as a 'detective action hero', and his well-meaning sidekick. The film is scheduled to start production either at the end of this year or the beginning of next in China, New Zealand and possibly a European studio. Loehr's Ming Productions is co-producing with two French production companies - Davis Films and D+ Productions. TF1, a leading French broadcaster and movie producer, will co-finance the film as well as oversee its international distribution. Davis Films chief Samuel Hadida - who is also one of France's biggest film distributors with a taste for fantasy titles - says he was attracted to the project because it combines all the elements that he likes to see in a film. 'The basic story is a murder mystery but with elements of adventure, fantasy, romance and martial arts,' says Hadida, whose distribution company, Metropolitan Filmexport, has made a stack of cash distributing The Lord Of The Rings in France. Hadida adds that, as the three partners own rights to all of the Judge Dee novels, they hope Murder In Canton will be the first film in a major franchise. The other big-budget film, Stephen Chiau Sing-chi's Kung-Fu Hustle (working title), is also set in Canton - this time in the 1940s. The long-anticipated film will star Chiau as a wannabe gangster who aspires to join the notorious Axe Gang. This ruthless mob is having trouble controlling one area of its territory - a street that is inhabited by an obnoxious landlady, Fatty Four, and her husband, Granduncle Two. The rest of the cast has yet to be confirmed, but as the film starts shooting in Shanghai on June 27, we can expect an announcement soon. Sony's Hong Kong production arm, Columbia Pictures Film Production Asia, is financing the film that Chiau's production company, The Star Overseas, is co-producing with mainland partners. Although Columbia is keeping tight-lipped about the budget of the film, the Chinese-language press has placed it as high as US$20 million. Whatever the budget, the film looks set to feature the same eye-popping combination of martial arts and special effects that we saw in Chiau's smash hit Shaolin Soccer. Sammo Hung has joined the production as action choreographer and Centro Digital Pictures, which has won awards for its work on Shaolin Soccer, The Eye and The Storm Riders, is overseeing the film's special effects. Meanwhile, Loehr's Ming Productions is also gearing up to start production on Sunflower, the next film from acclaimed Chinese director Zhang Yang. Loehr, who moved to China after working as a TV producer in Taiwan and Japan, produced Zhang's previous three films - Spicy Love Soup, Shower and Quitting - while he was head of Beijing-based film company, Imar Film Studio. Zhang's films were credited with breaking the mould of mainland cinema by presenting contemporary tales that urban Chinese audiences could relate to. All three movies were also commercial and critical hits. Sunflower, which at US$2 million is still more expensive than the average mainland production, follows the story of a family from the Cultural Revolution to the present day. 'It focuses on the issues that Chinese people deal with day to day,' says Loehr. Like Murder In Canton, the film is still being cast, but has already secured finance, from China's Asian Union Film, one of the co-producers behind Crouching Tiger, and Singapore's leading film company Raintree Pictures. Production is scheduled to start in Beijing in mid-September.