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(The pronunciation of the names of the following celebrities and other well-known Chinese figures can be found in the "Common Mispronunciations" section in HyperChina.)
ZHANG YIMOU'S TURANDOT
After a year-long preparation, the much anticipated version of Puccini's opera Turandot directed by Zhang Yimou finally opened on June 5th, at Teatro Comunale of Florence, Italy, and has generated overwhelmingly great reviews. The dozens of schedualed performances were instantly sold out, the frenzy to get the hottest tickets in Florence was comparable to that usually reserved for a crucial soccer game. Among the enthusiastic audiences were director Bertolucci and actress Sophia Lauren. Before being invited to direct Turandot by Teatro Comunale of Florence last year, Zhang Yimou confessed that he has never been exposed to Western operas at all. And yet, a year later, his Turandot was able to move the critical Florentines to a 15-minute standing ovation. The key to Zhang Yimou's triumph is his successful employment of the brilliant elements of Chinese opera into this famous Italian Opera about a fictitious vengeful Chinese princess, whose cold-blooded cruelty is eventually melted by love.
Conventionally, Turandot is staged in a strange and gloomy atmosphere, accentuated by dark and cold color hues. While Zhang Yimou, by using the bright costume, colorful stage design and symbolic body languages that are characteristic of Chinese opera, totally transformed this darkened imagery to a dazzling spectacular. And the Italians loved it. "Brilliant," "poetic" are the key words that repeatedly appear in raving reviews from numerous Italian newspapers. According to Zhang Yimou, what he really intended to do is to change the Western impression of Chinse culture as old and backward to an understanding of its beauty and splendor. For him, this chance to direct Turandot is indeed a rare opportunity to demonstrate to the West the aesthetics of Chinese dramatic experiences.
Just added to CLAS is our film critic Jerlian Tsao's latest review of director Chen Kaige's (Farewell My Concubine) new film "Temptress Moon," starring (who else?) Gong Li. This lengthy review not only discusses Chen's new work but also touches on trends in contemporary Chinese filmmaking in general. "Temptress Moon" has just been released in the U.S.
GONG LI UPDATE
1996 was probably the first year since 1988 that the American audience missed Chinese movies starring the actress GONG Li. In case you're wondering, well, Miss Gong was the big star in CHEN Kaige's 1996 film "Temptress Moon," however, the movie has not been released in the U.S. and nobody knows if it ever will be. Branching out from her acting career, Gong Li has signed up with Taiwan's "Rock Records" (the world's largest Chinese pop music conglomerate) for an undisclosed huge amount. Miss Gong has talked about her love for singing in various interviews, and if you remember well, she even did a little bit in the 1995 movie "Shanghai Triad." Presumably we will be hearing her new album in 1997.
On the personal side, Miss Gong has just got married and settled down in Hong Kong. Her husband, a Mr. Huang, is a high-ranking representative for a huge tobacco company. Now, in her capacity as Mrs. Huang, Gong Li is quite active in Hong Kong's social circles. But don't worry, she is not going to give up her acting career just yet. Her new movie "China Box," with Wayne Wang (Dim Sum, Joy Luck Club, Smoke) directing and international backings, has started shooting in late January. This is going to be Gong Li's first English-speaking role, and Jeremy Irons might be playing opposite to her. Irons' character is an Englishman in Hong Kong, who falls in love with a woman (Gong Li, of course) from mainland China. The award-winning Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung is also starring. This movie is obviously meant to capitalize on the biggest, pre-determined, historical event in 1997 - the return of Hong Kong to China. Hopefully, the finished version will be a lot more imaginative than the tritish outline revealed to us up to this point.
Director Chen Kaige ("Farewell My Concubine", "Yellow Earth") has a new movie out. The Chinese title is Feng yue ("wind moon"), while the English translation is "Temptress Moon." The movie, pairing Gong Li (Gong is the last name) and Leslie Cheung ("Farewell My Concubine") against the background of 1930s Shanghai, is about a woman in a big family having affairs as she gradually discovers herself. Since its shooting in 1994, "Temptress Moon" has generated a lot of media hype. The original actress chosen for the leading role was a new face - a model from Taiwan; however, her acting had much to be desired and consequently she got fired by director Chen. Several other actresses tried their hands, but no one could compete with the great impressions director Chen always had of Gong Li. At that time Gong Li was shooting "Shanghai Triad," and the entire production of "Temptress Moon" was actually halted for several months just for her to join in.
The outcome of all this hype is a disappointing film despite its wonderful visual imagery. Director Chen Kaige and producer Hsu Feng had high hopes to repeat their luck at the Cannes ("Farewell My Concubine" got the best picture award at Cannes in 1993), but this time "Temptress Moon" won nothing. Moreover, not only is the movie banned in mainland China, box offices in Taiwan and Hong Kong have not been doing well.
The general criticism of "Temptress Moon" in Taiwan and Hong Kong is that the script is simply too weak. Veteran movie-maker/critic, Li Hanxiang, who lived through the 1930s in Shanghai, writes in his column that the grifter character played by Leslie Cheung is far too lame to depict the "dark sides of the society" that Chen Kaige set out to portray.
After "Temptress Moon," director Chen Kaige was going to work on a story of a much smaller scale. This project, titled Yi qu nan wang (Unforgettable Song), depicts what happens within a day inside a library in contemporary China. For sure, it is not about exploring the dark sides of humanity that Chen Kaige is very fond of doing. Lu Liping, the actress in "The Blue Kite," was to play the leading role and the leading male role was to go to the actor who plays the most unfortunate guy in "To Live," Ge You.
However, according to the latest news, the project has been abandoned for unknown reasons. Instead, Chen Kaige will take on a historical drama of "The Assassination of the First Emperor of Chin," set in the third century B.C. This story is well-known to all Chinese, but it's too complicated to relate here. We'll save it for the next update. Stay tuned.
A final note: Feng yue (wind moon) in Chinese refers to sexual liaison. The word is literary and not used in spoken language.
CHEN KAIGE'S LATEST PROJECT
Director Chen Kaige's new historical project "The Assassination of the First Emperor of Chin" will begin shooting early next year. In the meantime, a virtual historical site for this movie set in the Warring States period (475 B.C.-221 B.C.) is being reconstructed in Changxian, Hebei Province. The location is not a random choice. The assassination of the Chin emperor was commissioned by the Prince Dan of the Yan state, located precisely in present-day Hebei province. When the site is completed, a historical city will reappear on the ancient plain, and will remain there as a theme park after the movie is done.
As for the actors, GE You (To Live), JIANG Wen (the Red Sorghum), Lesli Cheung (Farewell My Concubine) will don the ancient robes and interpret the story of the most famous assassination in Chinese history for us. By the way, the attempted assassination did not succeed; the poor skill of the assassin JING Ke was to blame for the failure. However, the tragedy has inspired generations of writers as a symbol of bravery and righteousness - two traits that have been considered characteristics of Northern Chinese people.
ZHANG YIMOU'S "POST-GONG LI" CINEMATIC DIRECTIONS
Director Zhang Yimou has always wanted to work on stories about city life in today's China. And now, after breaking up with his long-time leading lady Gong Li, he feels free to do so. His new project, about two men in big cities, is titled You hua haohao shuo (Take it easy), and features Li Baotian (the lead actor in Ju Dou and "Shanghai Triad") and Jiang Wen (the actor in "Red Sorghum"). For viewers who have had enough of stories with a strong female protagonist from an imagined early 20th-century landscape, Zhang's movie is worth looking forward to.
Note: You hua haohao shuo literally means "say what's on your mind slowly and nicely." This idiomatic Chinese phrase is used to calm down a person who is anxiously divulging his or her anger or worries. The situation can be in the heat of an argument, and an arbitrator would utter this phrase to reduce tension.
UPDATE ON ZHANG YIMOU
Director ZHANG Yimou's new film "Take It Easy" has finished shooting. This film is indeed very different from his previous works. Throughout the whole film, the two actors - JIANG Wen (Red Sorghum) LI Baotian (Ju Dou) - talk non-stop in a hotel. Is this going to be the Chinese version of "My Dinner with Andre"? We shall see.
Zhang Yimou has also been invited to Italy to direct Puccini's opera "Turandot" for Teatro Comunale of Florence later this year. The production is scheduled for the summer of 1997; and the conductor is going to be Zubin Mehta. Obviously, Zhang's great story-telling skills and sense of lush visuals are very compatible with Italian opera. We hope that his sensibility may give this "Chinese" story some authentic Chinese flavor.
Beijing Bastards (Beijing Zazhong). Directed by Zhang Yuan. 1993. (Appearances by rock musicians Cui Jian, Dou Wei, a.o.).