Chinese language cinema
Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more
Film director Renny Harlin photographed in Wan Chai, Hong Kong, during an interview on his latest action thriller, Bodies at Rest, and his experience of making films in China. Photo: Edmond So

Hollywood director Renny Harlin on his China career, directing Jackie Chan, and new film Bodies at Rest

  • Harlin moved to China five years ago to direct Jackie Chan in the hit 2016 release Skiptrace and has since made the country his home
  • He has tasted both success and failure since the move. Here he tells the Post all about his experience so far

Renowned internationally for directing such popular action thrillers as Die Hard 2 (1990) and Cliffhanger (1993), Renny Harlin is now better known in the Chinese-speaking world as that rare Hollywood filmmaker who uprooted from Los Angeles and moved to China on a full-time basis.

It is five years since he arrived to direct Jackie Chan in the hit 2016 release Skiptrace. Since then, the Finnish veteran has founded his own company, based in Hong Kong and Beijing, to develop a range of feature films and TV shows for the China market. He has also had tasted failure: his second film after moving, last year’s Legend of the Ancient Sword, was a flop.

His third film since he relocated, Bodies at Rest, is a Hong Kong-China co-production. Set in a morgue on Christmas Eve, the story revolves around the attempts of a forensic expert (played by Nick Cheung Ka-fai) and his assistant (Yang Zi) to fend off a trio of masked criminals (headed by Richie Jen Hsien-chi), who have broken into the premise to look for a particular body.

The filmmaker recently sat down with the Post to reflect on his China experience.

Your new film, Bodies at Rest, is set on Christmas Eve. Does this setting remind you of Die Hard 2?

Yeah, I think it’s funny to go for Christmas! At least in the Western world, Christmas is a peaceful time when families come together and everything is perfect. So the setting of a dramatic, explosive story during that time has always felt like a good idea to me.

When we talked about when the movie [should] take place, we talked about the fact that we wanted the villains to wear masks in the first part of the movie. What if they wear Christmas-themed masks? And then we kind of built the story around Christmas. I even tried to use some of the same music that I used in Die Hard 2, but eventually we didn’t go with the song that I wanted to use.

Can you tell us a bit about the origin of this screenplay?

One executive from Wanda [Pictures] was going through Hollywood agencies looking for material. He read hundreds of screenplays, read this one and really liked it. He bought the rights for Wanda – it was a totally American movie at that point.

(From left) Yang Zi, Richie Jen and Nick Cheung in a still from Bodies at Rest.

Then the script was translated into Chinese. Then, Wanda hired a Chinese screenwriter to take the translation and make it a living, breathing Chinese story. When they decided to let me get involved with this movie, they translated that script back to English – so now it’s the fourth generation of the film script.

I read that translation. You know how in Mandarin, words and sentences can be interpreted in so many different ways? There were literally things I couldn’t understand. At that point, I asked to read the original American script. Now that I knew the movie they wanted to make, [I told them], “I will write the script from the original American script.”

Harlin (third from left) and the main cast of Bodies at Rest at the Beijing premiere.

What was the process like to make that original script culturally relevant to a Chinese audience?

My company has a team of young film students who have graduated from UCLA [University of California, Los Angeles] and NYU [New York University] – they’re Chinese and have come back. They are my advisers. With their cultural knowledge and understanding of humour, behaviour and all the details, we then created this screenplay that became the movie.

We wrote the screenplay simultaneously in English and Mandarin, which was then translated into Cantonese. It was a long process. This script represents a very typical example of the challenges for filmmakers like me. It’s hard for some Hollywood producers to come to make a co-production movie in China. It’s hard for them to comprehend how vast the cultural differences are.

It’s not just about the language, or eating or not eating certain kinds of food. It’s about human interaction, family, relationships and certain reservations that [Chinese] people have that Western people might not. For me, it’s a daily learning experience.

Bruce Willis in a still from Die Hard 2 (1990), directed by Renny Harlin. Photo: Twentieth Century Fox

Now that you’re completely based in China, how does it feel?

I feel like I’m in a very privileged position that I can live in China, and live this life and encounter these things every day – compared to somebody who flies in and does one project, and tries to digest everything that unfolds around them.

It was just being in the right place at the right time. I came here to do Skiptrace, and the journey started from there. I started researching locations and travelling around China, slowly learning things about people, history, culture and food. The more time I spent here, the more I loved it.

Of course, I still thought that it was just [going to be] one of the couple of dozen movies I made outside Hollywood. But things went so well [and] I really enjoyed working with a Chinese crew. I have so much respect for them; they’re such hard workers and collaborators. There’s also this sense of improvisation which was refreshing [when] compared to Hollywood.

The first movie went so well, the local people here asked me to stay and make more movies. The film industry was just starting to explode in China and they felt, with my Hollywood experience, maybe I could bring some ingredients into the filmmaking scene here.

Jackie Chan and Johnny Knoxville in a still from Skiptrace (2016).

What do you remember from the experience of working with Jackie Chan on Skiptrace?

It was an amazing experience. It was [also] like jumping into very cold water. Because working with him – his films are very improvised. They literally come up with ideas in the morning and shoot them in the afternoon. I’m used to a very organised, Hollywood way of planning everything.

For our action scenes, I would show Jackie storyboards and descriptions on how I was planning to do things. He would be excited and interested, but also immediately start suggesting, “That’s good, but we can also do this.” The same thing continued on the film set [throughout].

People love movies [in China] and they build new movie theatres every day – while in America, they changed them into bookstores
Renny Harlin

Some scenes, of course, involve more dialogue and story; they went exactly how I planned. But in some action scenes – he was extremely respectful and supportive of me, but he would offer things like, “What do you think if we do this or we add this?”

For him, it’s always like, “Don’t have just two jokes. The third joke is going to be the one that’s really going to make the audience love the scene.” And, “Don’t have just two beats in the action; have the third beat, fourth beat.” So, the most valuable lesson I’ve learned since I started in Hollywood is to be open to improvisation; don’t be afraid to improvise.

Richie Jen in a still from Bodies at Rest.

What’s the current state of Hollywood in your opinion?

I feel that, for a long time, the number of studio movies being made in Hollywood has gone down every year. It’s either the Marvel-type superhero movies or the Blumhouse-type of low-budget horror films. There are a very small number of movies in between. It’s not at all like it was when I went there in the ’80s and ’90s. It’s all Netflix and Amazon now, and I like making theatrical movies.

I was in a unique position in that I was an outsider in Hollywood to begin with. So I found it very easy to say, “OK, this is the next chapter of my life. I’m going to go to China and see how things go and develop.” It’s been snowballing. The more I get to know people, the more I work here, the more I like it and learn about it.

So why not China? People love movies here and they build new movie theatres every day – while in America, they changed them into bookstores [laughs]. Maybe not bookstores, but some kind of stores. It’s sad to see old movie theatres that have been turned into something else.

Harlin says he now tries to work with fully Chinese crews, rather than search for people who are bilingual. Photo: Edmond So

What has your time in China taught you as a filmmaker?

You learn about the importance of finding the right material. I think many filmmakers are like me: we love making movies so much that we don’t necessarily make the right decisions, because we’re so passionate to get behind the cameras. I’ve developed patience in that sense.

I’ve also learned more about being very particular about who I cast in roles. You realise you’re just as good as your casting crew.

Also, putting the crew together: at first, I was very particular that my DOP [director of photography] and costume designer had to be bilingual. And then I realised that the talent is much more important than the language. The language [issue] we can always resolve, but the talent is the key. So now I go with a fully Chinese crew where nobody speaks English; I can always get people to translate. Finding the right people to help you paint the pictures is the most important thing.

Want more articles like this? Follow SCMP Film on Facebook