In the 2012 movie CZ12, Hong Kong star Jackie Chan hunts down a set of bronze zodiac sculptures. He battles crooks, worms his way into top secret vaults and saves the last bronze head from certain death in a fiery volcano.
The movie, co-produced, written and directed by Chan, is based on an actual set of sculptures which was looted from China's Old Summer Palace by British and French forces in 1860. Of the dozen originals, only seven have been recovered.
Bronze replicas of all the zodiac statues - one of 12 sets cast for the film - are displayed in an exhibition opening at the Asian Civilisations Museum today. They were donated by Chan and will become part of the museum's permanent collection after the exhibition ends in May.
Several of the other sets are housed in museums, including one at Taipei's National Palace Museum and another at the statues' original location, the Old Summer Palace in Beijing.
Asian Civilisations Museum director Alan Chong says: "The exhibition combines the past and present, and raises issues of nationalism, identity and culture. We hope the zodiac will delight visitors as they discover aspects of history."
The whereabouts of some of the original statues are still shrouded in mystery. In 2009, two of them generated controversy when they resurfaced on the auction block under non-Chinese owners.
The auction at Christie's prompted a hue and cry about the repatriation of Chinese cultural artefacts, and one of the most outspoken advocates for their return was Chan.
In a video clip filmed for the exhibition, Chan, 60, says he became interested in the statues in 2000 when several of them were auctioned for tens of millions of dollars. It was then that he began thinking about turning the story into a movie.
For him, one of the most important things was getting the sculptures in the movie right. "I thought that creating the sculptures would be simple, but slowly, I began to realise that to achieve the level of artistry of that time would not be easy," he says in Mandarin in the video.
"But when I think about the sculptures on display in a museum for people to appreciate... then I think it's all worthwhile."
Tasked with creating the bronze replicas was Taiwanese artist Apen, 48. He tells Life! that after much research, the production team decided not to go for a literal copy of each design.
"We created and designed new ones, using the originals as a blueprint. The zodiac is part of Chinese culture and we wanted to create something that can capture the artistry and skills of the past.
"We came up with a more realistic design so that it will have a more modern form."
Chan hopes that with this project, people will have greater respect for cultural heritage. He says: "Even if I can't affect many people, at least I have done what I need to do."
This article was first published on January 31, 2015.
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