For the filmmakers, THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM was also an opportunity to communicate the deeper philosophical truths that are at the heart of kung fu. “What does kung fu mean? What is it really about? That was the primary thread that stayed with me once John told me the story,” explains Silver.
Actor Michael A. Angarano, who plays Jason, the time-traveling teenage protagonist of THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM, points out that over the course of the story, Jason learns to face his fears while learning the deeper meaning of kung fu. “Kung fu is a philosophy,” the actor says. “It’s a way of life; not just a way of fighting, but a way of thinking. It’s a way to find yourself and be at peace with everything around you.”
The role of Jason was first presented to Angarano by casting director Nancy Foy. As he fondly recalls, “After my initial audition for Rob, I was put through a physical test of three hours of kung fu training together with several other kids. It was to test our martial arts learning potential. Following that, I met Jackie Chan on the set of RUSH HOUR 3. That was the final step of the audition and before I knew it, I had the part and I was in China.”
For the role of Ni Chang, three Asian actresses were short listed by Canadian-based casting director, Poping Auyeung, who specializes in the casting of Asians. The role was eventually offered to acclaimed Chinese actress, Li Bingbing. Explains Li, “When Rob, Casey and Raffaella first saw me, they couldn't reconcile my looks with their impression of the White-Haired Demoness. They were under the impression that she was to be an older woman with flowing white hair. It was only after I showed them how I would perform the role that they became convinced I was right for the part.”
The young actress Liu Yifei immediately impressed Minkoff with her audition for the role of Golden Sparrow. “She is an incredible performer and is very serious about her work for such a young age. She has brought an intensity to the character which really steals the show,” says the director.
Faced with the language barriers of a mostly Asian crew and cast – and the challenge of synthesizing Eastern and Western martial arts sensibilities – Minkoff, Silver and de Laurentiis were convinced that renowned director of photography Peter Pau (CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON) was the only one to shoot the film.
“It was very important to me that the film didn’t end up being an Americanized version of a Chinese story,” says Minkoff. “Peter has been a terrific collaborator and we were able to rely on him to show us the true Chinese traditions that ended up in the film.”
“Peter is undoubtedly a master at his craft,” avows Silver. “Without him, we would not have been able to deliver the picture we have delivered. To have somebody who bridges East and West and who is as gifted a cinematographer as he is, we have been extremely fortunate.”