Genghis Kahn Conquers the Moon. The title of this film sounds…well, eccentric. Even its producer Zhen Li admits to being uncomfortable at first with the title and premise. He comments, “At the beginning, I though the idea was a bit bizarre, then I decided it was wacky instead of bizarre. It’s very bold to do a project about a well-known historic figure doing something against the historical fact. However, after reading the script and understanding what the metaphor implies, I abruptly changed this opinion. The story is special and unique with wit, humor, and intellectual sarcasm.” You don’t have to take the word of Li though; the achievements and recognitions of this film speak volumes. Genghis Kahn Conquers the Moon was an official selection at the Cannes Film Festival (France) 2016 (Short Film Corner), Sci-Fi Film Festival (Australia) 2015, Camerimage International Film Festival (Poland) 2016, The London International Festival of Science Fiction and Fantastic Films 2016, Los Angeles Independent Film Festival Awards 2015, Taipei Film Festival (台北電影節) 2017 Nominated for Best Short Film, Los Angeles Independent Film Festival Awards 2015 [Best Actor], and a 20th Century Fox Visual Effects Fellowship 2015 Recipient, and countless others too numerous to list. This diverse list of accolades attests to both the exceptional story and production as well as its universal appeal to different cultures spanning the globe. Celebrated actors James Hong and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa perform as the two main characters (Kahn and the wizard) in this film and bring the weight of their impressive Hollywood resumes to this production. Zhen Li’s confident and experienced presence is felt in every aspect of this film from the performers onscreen to its presence on the film festival circuit.
There is no denying that VFX has created a situation in modern cinema that takes any idea a filmmaker might have and manifests astonishingly believable imagery. This eliminates the need for the viewer to suspend their belief as a courtesy to the storyline; the actions are clearly visible and believable for all to see. One bit of reality that VFX has not suspended is the truth that budgets still exist in filmmaking and it is the role of the producer to figure out what fits into the financial constraints and what does not. Because the premise for Genghis Kahn Conquers the Moon was finalized pre-budget, Zhen Li was faced with a great idea and cast but in need of ways to pay for this. Utilizing crowd funding, studio sponsorship, and other sources, Li created a plan and budget that would allow the film to possess the desired production value. The impressive look of this film allows one to easily understand that the VFX budget was both sizable and well worth it.
Revealing the evolution of his approach, Zhen states, “Our original plan was to shoot scenes in Death Valley with the spectacular landscape of an apocalypse. After some research, we found it will be over 130 degrees Fahrenheit and thus impossible for us to shoot there. We luckily found Lucern Dry Lake which has a similar look to our vision. It was still extremely hot in summer, as there was no cloud and trees, only with direct sunlight. We rented 4 RVs and had huge fans blowing cool air off of giant ice cubes to cool down the crew.”
While this took care of the Earth scenes, the moon was the actual VFX challenge. Rather than constructing a large scale lunar surface, Li had a miniature of the moon’s topography built with a gradually-changing scale ratio. Scenes were shot on a green stage with the moon’s surface as a plate. These were then composited together in post-production. VFX supervisor Gene Warren III (whose credits include: Hellboy, The Expendables, Resident Evil: Apocalypse, Underworld, The Simpsons) professes, “Genghis Kahn Conquers the Moon is an ambitious project of impressive imagination and great execution. As a producer, Zhen Li did an incredibly amazing job, which allowed us to be able to make Khan land on the Moon.” When a film has a premise that is asking a lot of the audience, the images are often the tipping point for them to invest completely in the story.
It should go without stating that what is paramount to every production is the incredible performances of the actors. For Genghis Kahn Conquers the Moon, Li procured a cast of minuscule size but immense impact. Most notably of these were Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (as Kahn) and James Hong (as the wizard). The credits of these two actors spans many of the most beloved films and TV productions of the past thirty to forty years. The gravitas and levity that they brought to this film is evident from the moment they first appear on the screen. Zhen discovered that this is well founded. He notes, “They are both so established and recognizable from their many Hollywood large-scale studio productions; even so, they like to work with younger filmmakers who tell unique stories and experiment with different styles of performance. Working with these experienced actors, their devotion and enthusiasm touched me. Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa had to wear the Genghis Khan costume including the helm, armors, and leather boots. The costume was more than 20 pounds and he was wearing it in the insanely hot weather. He was sweating like a fountain but he never once complained. He kept working until the sweat ruined his makeup and then we would have to re-do it. The improvisation between these two lead actors brought a great deal to the film.”
Genghis Kahn Conquers the Moon was an official selection at the Cannes Film Festival; a festival so notable and respected that even those with no knowledge of the film community understand what an achievement and honor it is to have your film selected to appear there. Cannes is more than just recognition; it opens a window of opportunities to both show films and see films from the most talented filmmakers all over the world. It is a community of the upper echelon and provides inspiration and a springboard to future projects. While in attendance at Cannes to support Genghis Kahn Conquers the Moon, Li’s film attracted crowds and garnered him invitations to some of his favorite directors’ screenings, such as: Woody Allen’s Café Society, Pedro Almodovar’s JULIETA, Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman, Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden, Paul Verhoeven’s ELLE, Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, and many other internationally lauded productions.
Perhaps the highest indicator of the quality of your work comes not from the critics or the box office but rather, those whom you work with in the industry. James Hong (Daytime Emmy Award-Winner and Genghis Kahn in this film) states, “It’s great to work with this young talented producer. Zhen Li will soon be known as the driving force in the film industry.”