Hordes of young female fans gripping camera phones were camped out in the lobby of the Park Hyatt in Beijing on Thursday afternoon, hoping to catch a glimpse of Lu Han, formerly of the South Korean boy band EXO, who was appearing there with a clutch of other stars to discuss their participation in the renowned director Zhang Yimou’s latest film, a fantasy adventure epic called “The Great Wall.”
“It’s a little overwhelming when someone like Lu Han shows up,” Matt Damon, whom some might have characterized as the foremost star in the bunch, told a news conference. Mr. Damon, who said the film was the biggest movie he had ever been involved in, chuckled as he spoke about his experience working for the first time with a cast of predominantly Asian actors.
“I think the first night before we started shooting there were something like 400 flower arrangements. It took up the entire hallway,” he said.
“I thought they were for me!” quipped Andy Lau, the veteran Hong Kong actor, much to the amusement of the audience.
Produced by the American company Legendary Entertainment in partnership with Universal Pictures, China Film Company and Le Vision Pictures, the $150 million “Great Wall,” due to be released globally in November 2016, is one of China’s biggest productions to date. Perhaps more significant, it is the largest-ever Hollywood-China co-production, a designation that will exempt it from China’s strict import quota on foreign films and entitle its foreign production partners to a larger share of the box-office revenue.
Hollywood studios have long seen co-productions as a way to grab a piece of China’s booming film market, now second only to the United States. But over the past decade, United States-China co-productions have met with only varying degrees of success, as they have struggled to balance Chinese cultural elements and international box-office appeal.
For many studios, the challenge has been to integrate Chinese elements into films without appearing too obvious. Marvel Studio’s 2013 “Iron Man 3,” for example, angered Chinese officials and audiences when it was revealed that two versions of the film had been released, one for Chinese audiences that included Chinese actors and locations, and one with those scenes cut for international audiences.
With “The Great Wall,” however, the challenge was flipped. Rather than adding Chinese elements, the filmmakers had to determine how to make a Chinese film with a Chinese subject, set in mainland China hundreds of years ago, appealing to global moviegoers.
“This is the first time something like this is being attempted by a director like me who doesn’t speak English,” said Mr. Zhang. “If this film succeeds, it’s going to open a whole new space for U.S.-China co-productions, and it might inspire other forms of collaboration.”
This is the first film primarily in English by Mr. Zhang, the director of “Hero” as well as art-house favorites like “Raise the Red Lantern” and “Red Sorghum.”
“The biggest challenge is to make sure that everyone understands the film, not only Chinese audiences but young people around the world,” Mr. Zhang added. “I asked many experts, what would foreigners think about this line and what about that line? How would Westerners see this?”
After several years of preparation, the project, which is being shot in mainland China, finally began filming in March and is scheduled to wrap in August.
While details of the plot remain under wraps, the filmmakers have disclosed that the story centers on an army of elite warriors who must transform the Great Wall into a weapon “in order to combat wave after wave of otherworldly creatures hellbent on devouring humanity.”
Mr. Damon stars as William Garin, a mercenary who comes from Europe to China with his sidekick Pero Tovar (played by Pedro Pascal, of HBO’s “Game of Thrones”).
Willem Defoe, of “Platoon” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” plays Ballard, a “shadowy outsider.” Jing Tian, the film’s lead actress, is Lin Mae, the leader of the all-female aerial warriors of the Crane Corps. To increase the film’s appeal to younger audiences, the cast also includes young male heartthrobs like Chen Xuedong of “Tiny Times” and Wang Junkai of the boy band TFBoys, as well as Lu Han.
The film was conceived more than four years ago by Legendary Entertainment’s Thomas Tull, the producer behind such films as “The Dark Knight,” the “Hangover” trilogy and “300.”
“Even though this film is about monsters attacking the Great Wall, the most attractive part of this film to me was its incorporation of Chinese culture,” said Mr. Zhang. “It’s hard to believe this story was developed by a Westerner.”