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A tale of three film titles

Spoiler alert: They’re all the same movie
November 3, 2018

Not that many people noticed, but there were three film titles released with Bruce Willis’ name and visage front and center this past week: “The Bombing,” “Air Strike,” and “Unbreakable Spirit.” 

Upon closer inspection, it’s fairly easy to see: They are all the same movie. 

Now, it’s not uncommon for films to change their titles prior to release (“Pretty Woman” was originally called “3000,” “The Breakfast Club” was originally “The Lunch Bunch” and “Pulp Fiction” was going to be “Black Mask”), but what makes “The Bombing/Air Strike/Unbreakable Spirit” so unique is the amount of backstory that overshadowed any name the film could select as its title. 

Now, there’s usually no reason to get excited for a Bruce Willis film here in the States, as he’s been coasting on direct-to-streaming films for quite a number of years (10 of his last 11 films have not seen a theatrical release).

Overseas, Willis’ name still carries clout, which is why he headlined director Xiao Feng’s latest film, reportedly the most expensive Chinese film ever produced. Mel Gibson had signed on as an “art director” and is ultimately credited as “creative supervising producer,” whatever that means. The film is set in 1939 during the Sino-Japanese War and weaves together three main storylines: a U.S. Air Force commander (played by Willis) who trains Chinese pilots to fend off Japanese air raids; civilians living in the wreckage of a tattered city; and a former pilot (played by Liu Ye) who must take a mysterious package to a military base and also befriends a scientist with a key to breeding pigs that would help fight off famine. 

When Willis arrived in Shanghai for filming years ago, he was not expecting his hotel room cost to not even be covered, as was reported in Variety magazine. When the news outlet dug deeper into the production, it found that the film’s initial producer, Shi Jianxiang, who scored a hit with “Ip Man 3,” had inflated the film’s numbers and run a lending operation that never paid investors, and then ultimately fled the country while “The Bombing/Air Strike/ Unbreakable Spirit” was still in production.  

Jianxiang is currently on China’s “Most Wanted” list. 

But the film’s production woes were far from over. 

Fan Bingbing, one of the film’s co-stars and a Chinese superstar on both screen and stage, has been listed as one of the highest-paid celebrities for four years running, according to Forbes China. Then, on July 1 of this year, she “went missing.” After Chinese authorities fined her about $127 million for tax evasion, she subsequently popped up on social media and apologized to her fans for her behavior, promising to repay the money.

Epic in scope, the film had an initial budget of $22 million ... or $65 million ... or $90 million, depending on where you search (if you view the actual film, you may be inclined to err on the side of $22 million, as the copious dog-fighting air sequences resemble more of a “Duck Hunt”-era videogame). But its ballooned budget was difficult to track, as the film market is still undergoing severe growing pains, and much of its money is unaccounted for.  Even though the film wrapped in 2015, and had its China release cancelled, it received a limited U.S. release and a straight-to-DVD release in the UK on Oct. 26, 2018.

Director Feng (who ultimately dug into his savings to spring for Willis’s hotel room) took to social media, essentially throwing up his hands at the whole ordeal: “My sincere apologies to my crew, the distribution team, and all audiences who had high expectations of the film. There were so many truths and facts but none of them could help us, and our innocence couldn’t be seen because so many haters defamed us. So many efforts become nothing ... It doesn’t mean we give it up. It’s just so hard to walk through it after eight years raising of Air Strike. I apologize to everyone who supported me, to my friends and the crew, to the distribution team and audience who still want to see the film. I believe good will be rewarded with good, and evil with evil.”

The film has made its mark on the burgeoning Chinese film market, just perhaps not the one it intended. In early October of this year, the State Administration of Taxation launched a campaign to regulate taxes within the industry to prevent another “Bombing/AirStrike/Unbreakable Spirit” backlash. For those in the U.S. who still have an interest in checking it out (it’s on DVD and streaming in the U.S. Oct. 29), promoters did eventually settle on a title that presumably summarizes the behind-the-scenes ordeal of the film: “The Bombing.” 

  • Rob is the head of the English and Communications Department at Delaware Technical Community College, where he teaches film. He is also one of the founders of the Rehoboth Beach Film Society and is lead entertainment writer for Influx Magazine. Email him at filmrob@gmail.com.