Published: 10:22, April 13, 2023 | Updated: 17:01, April 13, 2023
Titanic sails again 25 years later
By Xu Fan

Director James Cameron says he decided to shoot scenes of a Chinese passenger after he read account of his survival, Xu Fan reports.

One of the highest-grossing movies of all time, Titanic, has recently been re-screened in China, giving the audience a chance to revisit the iconic film that stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, and to review the tragic sinking of the British passenger liner RMS Titanic. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Twenty-five years ago, Titanic made its debut in China, swiftly taking the country by storm and dominating local media headlines.

The Hollywood blockbuster also left many Chinese viewers heartbroken as they watched Leonardo DiCaprio's character Jack Dawson leaving his beloved woman to survive alone. However, many viewers may not know that the iconic scene featuring Rose DeWitt Bukater — the American socialite, played by Kate Winslet — lying on a floating piece of wood was inspired by a Chinese survivor who was then on the passenger liner, RMS Titanic.

The British ship struck an iceberg and sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean during its maiden voyage in 1912, claiming more than 1,500 lives of the 2,200 people aboard.

To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the film a new 3D remastered version of Titanic is showing in China on more than 3,000 screens affiliated with the National Alliance of Arthouse Cinemas since April 3. The movie has also been rescreened in various formats, such as Cinity and Imax, in major cinema chains across the mainland.

James Cameron, the legendary Hollywood director, who is also known for his Avatar franchise, tells China Daily that he read the story of the Chinese survivor in Titanic: An Illustrated History, a book written by Don Lynch and illustrated by Ken Marschall. The Chinese man was rescued by Harold Godfrey Lowe, the fifth officer of RMS Titanic and the only officer who returned to save people from the shipwreck.

"They were very good researchers. Lynch and the artist Marschall had done a beautiful book on the history of Titanic, which was also my inspiration for a lot of the imagery in the film," Cameron recalls during the video interview, adding that he had hired them as consultants for the movie.

With the inspiration, Cameron shot some footage featuring a Chinese passenger, played by his assistant Van Ling. The role first appears in a chaotic moment when Jack and Rose are trying to break through bars to get to the upper deck of the ship, and the cameo character can be seen floating on a piece of wood, awaiting rescue.

"I decided to shoot that (floating) scene because I thought it would be important. So, I grabbed Van and I said, 'OK, get over here, Van. And get on the raft. Just start yelling'. He (Van) said, 'My Mandarin is not so good.' I said: 'Do your best!'" says Cameron, gesturing with his hands to demonstrate the actions.

Despite the scene being deleted during the movie's global release in 1997, it was included in a special edition released on DVDs. According to the website jamescamerononline.com, Ling revealed that he spent two weeks shooting the floating scene in Mexico in October 1996 and acted again in February 1997 in another scene to establish the character on the ship.

This little-known story was revisited in The Six, a documentary released in China in April 2021.With Cameron serving as one of the producers, the documentary, for the first time, explored the untold story of six Chinese survivors on the ill-fated British liner and their struggles against racial discrimination during that time.

"It's a very interesting film because no one has ever followed the six Chinese passengers who were on the Titanic," Cameron says. "They all survived, which is pretty incredible because they kept their wits about them.

"It's also a fascinating story that history buried them like they didn't exist. It took some detective work to figure out who everybody was and track down their descendants and relatives."

One of the highest-grossing movies of all time, Titanic, has recently been re-screened in China, giving the audience a chance to revisit the iconic film that stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, and to review the tragic sinking of the British passenger liner RMS Titanic. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

The director reveals that they conducted forensic testing to re-create Jack and Rose's conditions in a hypothermia lab in New Zealand and discovered that Jack's struggle while waiting to be rescued was similar to that of the Chinese passenger who tried to keep his upper body above the frigid seawater.

For a lot of Chinese viewers, the end of the relationship between Jack and Rose is one of the most memorable aspects of the movie.

When asked if he had ever imagined the possibility of both of them surviving, Cameron responds with a smile: "They probably would have a big fight and not even get married."

"Their love felt like a real love to me, one that could last a lifetime, but we'll never know. As an artist, what I was trying to say is that love is tested in tragic circumstances. I don't think the film would have been as successful if Jack had lived and they had held hands and walked off into the sunset.

"Because ultimately it's not a film about Jack. It's a film about her. It's about how he changes her. So, it's really a film about a young woman becoming herself and becoming independent and living the life that she imagines. That's the whole point of the film. So, he had to die," Cameron says.

Despite the movie being made over two decades ago, Cameron says he believes that its themes are timeless, and would evoke empathy in modern audiences and make them imagine how they would deal with such a perilous situation.

"I think it's as relevant today as it was then, maybe even more so because implicit in the film is a warning that we're kind of too arrogant about the problems of the world, like climate change and other things that are coming toward us like that iceberg," he explains.

One of the highest-grossing movies of all time, Titanic, has recently been re-screened in China, giving the audience a chance to revisit the iconic film that stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, and to review the tragic sinking of the British passenger liner RMS Titanic. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Budget overruns and filming delays are common experiences for many blockbuster films, but Titanic faced a bigger challenge. Initially budgeted at $110 million for 138 shooting days, the film's final cost exceeded $200 million, and production work lasted 160 days.

When asked how he handles pressure, Cameron says: "I always joke and say, I eat stress for breakfast."

Explaining that he uses several stress management techniques, such as kickboxing three times a week, and spends an hour watching TV every night, ideally something not related to his current project, Cameron says these help him to clear his mind and sleep without worrying about problems.

"Whatever I'm doing during the day, I say that's a problem for tomorrow. Solve it tomorrow, but not right now," the director adds.

In the past two decades, China's film industry has seen an unprecedented expansion, constructing a total of over 80,000 screens in more than 10,000 cinemas. Speaking about the change, Cameron — who has visited China several times — says he loves the fact that Chinese audiences can enjoy the visual effects-studded epic in a better presentation.

"I admire Chinese filmmakers. I think that they're absolutely as good as anybody coming out of Hollywood. I think they've built an industry with a combination of creating titles that are of interest to a global audience.

"They're also building up a base of internal consumption and putting theaters all across the country, even in small towns where they never even had a movie theater before," he says.

Contact the writer at xufan@chinadaily.com.cn