SHANGHAI (AP) - Susan Sarandon cracked jokes with Chinese actor Zhang Guoli. Matt Dillon tried out his Mandarin and Rupert Murdoch touted the new movie his Chinese-born wife is producing.
Hollywood's elite joined China's biggest stars at the Shanghai Grand Theater to usher in the 14th edition of the country's leading international film festival on Saturday - in a sign of respect for what is fast becoming one of the American movie industry's key foreign markets.
Chinese box office numbers surged 64 percent to hit $1.5 billion in 2010. And despite import restrictions that effectively limit the country to 20 foreign blockbusters a year, American movies are doing brisk business. Last year, the James Cameron 3-D sci-fi epic "Avatar" - distributed by the Hollywood studio Fox, a unit of Murdoch's media company News Corp. - brought in $204 million as it became China's top-grossing release in history.
Keen to gain exposure in this blossoming market, American stars were well-represented on the red carpet that kicked off the Shanghai International Film Festival in the eastern financial center.
It was Sarandon's first visit to China, but she wasted no time in picking up on local cultural cues. After receiving a lifetime achievement award from festival organizers, she jokingly asked veteran actor Zhang to give her acceptance speech on her behalf. Zhang had just finished delivering a lengthy ribbing to Chinese director Feng Xiaogang, who was honored for outstanding achievement to Chinese cinema.
The "Thelma and Louise" star then invited Zhang to a game of table tennis. Sarandon owns several table tennis clubs and bars in the U.S.
"Maybe he'll play pingpong with me if we open one in Shanghai. And that would be a good excuse to come back to China," she said.
Zhang stood up and obliged and joked that he was an ace player.
"My acting is much better than my pingpong. Maybe you can wear a blindfold," Sarandon responded.
Sarandon's appearance is telling because she has been critical of the Chinese government in the past, joining other Hollywood celebrities in signing letters urging Beijing to ease up on film censorship and calling on Washington to scrutinize China's human rights record.
Earlier, Dillon stumbled through the Chinese greeting "Shanghai Film Festival: Here I am" on the red carpet and then thanked fans for braving the heavy rain.
Mischa Barton from the American teen TV drama "The O.C." also greeted fans.
Barton, Dillon and Sarandon were in Shanghai just to attend the opening ceremony. None of the three is promoting movies at the festival.
Murdoch also attended with his third wife, Wendi Deng Murdoch, and was quick to mention the upcoming film she is producing, Chinese-American director Wayne Wang's adaptation of the novel "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan," which stars Chinese actress Li Bingbing and South Korea's Jun Ji-hyun.
"I'm very proud of my wife and her film 'Snow Flower,"' Murdoch said.
Murdoch and wife and Fox Film Entertainment Chief Executive Jim Gianopulos are also scheduled to speak at a panel discussion on film finance on Sunday.
An American director is chairing the jury for the Shanghai festival's Golden Goblet prizes. "Rain Man" director Barry Levinson is leading a seven-person panel that also includes British screenwriter Christopher Hampton, Japanese director Yoichi Sai, French-Vietnamese filmmaker Tran Anh Hung, Spanish actress Paz Vega, Chinese director Wang Quanan and Chinese actress Zhang Jingchu.
A second panel headed by Japanese filmmaker Shunji Iwai will hand out prizes to promising young Asian directors.
The Shanghai International Film Festival runs until June 19.