In a remote and mountainous part of China's southwest Yunnan province on a cool autumn morning, three of Asia's top movie stars are waiting for the action to begin.


Donnie Yen, Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tang Wei have traveled with the rest of the 200-plus crew to this isolated spot near the border with Myanmar, where they have been camped out since late August.


'Wu Xia,' from director Peter Chan, is a $20 million martial-arts drama slated for release next summer. The story, which takes place during the end of the Qing Dynasty, is about a repentant killer living a simple life in a secluded village and whose past catches up with him.


Mr. Chan, one of Asia's most-successful filmmakers, is looking to put a new spin on the martial-arts genre with 'Wu Xia,' which translates roughly as 'martial-arts chivalry.' He's assembled an A-list cast, two cinematographers, an award-winning costumedesigner, and a visual-effects team from South Korea to bring what he describes as detailed authenticity to the film. Its ambition underscores the current trend in Chinese cinema toward highly polished blockbusters.


Still, there is little Hollywood glamour out here on location. Filming today is in a tiny village about an hour's drive from Tengchong, a city of several hundred thousand -- relatively small by Chinese standards -- in western Yunnan. Tengchong is home for the cast and crew during the shoot. Getting to today's location involves a convoy of trucks, buses, vans and cars -- all of us sharing the road with villagers and livestock along a series of smooth two-lane highways and bumpy, unpaved paths through fields and forests. To get to the shoot, the crew and cast -- sporting shin-high rubber boots to trek around in the mud -- hike across steep terrain marked by rocks and puddles to the river valley below.


'It's hard going down and exhausting going up,' Mr. Chan says as he arrives on the set.


Rain earlier in the week interrupted filming for a few days, but today the sun is out. 'We've been shooting here for two months and I can't remember a single day other than today that it hasn't rained at least a little bit,' he says. 'We've been fighting the weather all the way through.'


But irony has its revenge: For a scene the next day, the crew has to create rain using two giant hoses.


Actors and dozens of extras roam around the set in period costumes, looking more at home in the rural setting than the crew in their jeans and T-shirts. Curious locals watch the bustle and activity. Their dialect is unfamiliar to most of the crew, who come from places like Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. Some villagers from the area have been hired as extras. Li Xingli, a 51-year-old farmer, says she isn't familiar with the movie's star cast. 'But it's fun,' she says with a smile, 'and my husband supports me.'


Ms. Li, in fact, is workingalongside three very recognizable actors. Mr. Yen is arguably Asia's leading martial-arts star following a string of recent hits including 'Ip Man' and its sequel, 'Bodyguards and Assassins' and 'Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen.' Mr. Kaneshiro -- this is his third film with Mr. Chan -- has been a top leading man for nearly two decades. Ms. Tang, with just a handful of films to her credit so far, is one of Asia's leading young actresses.


The cast also includes Jimmy Wang Yu, one of Hong Kong's biggest action stars from the 1960s and '70s, in his first film appearance in more than 15 years.


Mr. Chan sits under an orange tent about five meters from the actors. His blue director's chair faces a video monitor that shows what the audience will see. Messrs. Yen and Kaneshiro arrive on the set in full costume -- Mr. Yen dressed as an ordinary villager with a long, single braid of hair that was customary of the era, and Mr. Kaneshiro looking elegant in a gray robe and brimmed hat -- and prepare for a scene on a small cliff over the riverbank. A few takes later, the director and Mr. Yen huddle in front of the monitor to watch a playback. Mr. Yen returns in front of the camera to shoot another take after a couple minutes of quiet discussion, although to the casualobserversubsequent takes all look the same.


Mr. Chan later joins Mr. Yen, who also is the movie's action choreographer, for one of the film's action sequences. A character in the scene is pushed over a bridge. Above the heads of the crew, a highway of carefully placed cables and wires are wrapped around the forest trees. The stunt isn't simple. On one end are the men maneuvering the wire, and on the other end a stuntman dangles above the whitewater rapids far below. After several takes, they wrap for the day.


'With Peter Chan, everyone knows it's going to be a powerful, dramatic movie,' Mr. Yen says. 'That's one of the main reasons why I want to be in this film in the first place.'


For Mr. Kaneshiro, he says working with Mr. Chan is more important than the script. 'The character changed as we talked about the script,' he says. 'I didn't know how to do this guy,' but one day they decided to give the character a Sichuan accent and everything fell into place.


Ms. Tang also describes developing her character with Mr. Chan -- a new experience compared with how she has worked on previous films. ''I really love it, because it's really flexible and very similar to film as a student in college.'


During the week, minor mishaps abound on the set: A stunt coordinator slips on a rocky ledge, leaving large scratches along the side of his body; the continuity girl is bitten by a wild dog in a bamboo forest; and an assistant production manager is shoved around by a group of tourists eager to get to a scenic waterfall blocked by the film crew.


'I think working in China is somewhere between Hong Kong and Hollywood,' Mr. Chan says.


As movie budgets in China grow, the film industry has adopted a system that's more similar to Hollywood. 'Production costs are getting higher and we have crews that are more professional,' he says. 'In a way we have developed, learned, adapted and adopted a certain managementsystem of Hollywood big movies, but at the same time we still have retained a lot of flexibility.'


Dean Napolitano

Dean Napolitano