Mark this in the Mixed Blessings column: Catherine Hardwicke, one of Hollywood’s few women studio directors and a vocal proponent on behalf of female filmmakers, has just landed her biggest production budget yet. But the film in question will continue one of the industry’s worst tendencies: the trope of the Special White Person (also see: “The Last Samurai,” “Dances With Wolves,” every movie in which a black character goes inxplicably out of their way to improve a white stranger’s life.)
First, the good news: Hardwicke will shoot a female-led romantic epic budgeted at $50 million. “Loulan” takes as its historical basis the discovery of a “Caucasian [mummy] with European features” (among many other mummies) in Western China. The film, a US-China co-production, is set in 200 BC China and centers on a princess who may be the “great-great-granddaughter” of that mummy. The princess will be played by a (mostly like white) American or British actress.
“We have the princess, who is in a kind of neutral kingdom at the nexus to the Silk Road, Loulan, and she’s trying to keep peace and stay neutral, try[ing] to stay like Switzerland between the Huns to the north and the Han dynasty to the east,” Hardwicke said. The script is currently in development and intended to be the first installment of a trilogy. The director added that she was attracted to the project because, like “Twilight,” it’s a “powerful love story that [i]s intimate yet ha[s] scope and scale and beauty.”
Because of the travel and exchange among different countries and cultures that the Silk Road facilitated, the Loulan of the film is common ground for Persians, Indians, Greeks, Romans and Chinese. “I loved the idea of this mix of cultures and these young [characters coming of age] that are in love and that are struggling with very heavy issues of war and peace,” Hardwicke said.
Perhaps the exciting multiculturalism of Loulan makes it even more egregious, then, that the film seems to have been conceived with a white lead. “Loulan” doesn’t just take part in the audience-insulting assumption that ticket sales are dependent only on white protagonists, but also seems to exemplify a small trend of “white woman in exotic lands” that champions strong female characters while reinforcing whiteness as the central perspective. “Loulan” is, in fact, the third film of this kind in recent memory (the other two being Werner Herzog’s “Queen of the Desert,” starring Nicole Kidman, and the just-announced “The Lady Who Went Too Far,” nicknamed “Florence of Arabia” by its producers).
Because of China’s increasing box-office clout, we can expect more trans-pacific co-productions and films set in that country. I suppose “Loulan” will be a good guinea pig in terms of how interested Chinese audiences are in movies about their history featuring white protagonists.
“Loulan” will begin filming in 2016 and be released in late 2017 or early 2018.