De­pic­tion of Chi­nese Schindler falls short

China Daily (Canada) - - LIFE -

The first TV por­trayal of the story of a Chi­nese diplo­mat, who risked his ca­reer to save thou­sands of Jews from the Nazis, at­tempts to shed light on a lit­tle-known piece of his­tory but may have missed the mark, re­ports.

Anew tele­vi­sion drama based on the true story of a Chi­nese diplo­mat who saved thou­sands of Jews dur­ing World War II is the first at­tempt to pub­li­cize this lit­tle­known piece of his­tory, but it has drawn mixed re­views from both crit­ics and reg­u­lar view­ers, and from those with in­ti­mate knowl­edge of the his­tor­i­cal events.

The Last Visa, a 46-episode se­ries that be­gan air­ing on NewYear’s Day on the satel­lite sta­tions of Bei­jing and Jiangsu, got its in­spi­ra­tion from the story of Ho Feng Shan (190197), who was posthu­mously awarded the ti­tle of “Righ­teous among the Na­tions” for his “hu­man­i­tar­ian courage” by the Is­raeli gov­ern­ment in 2000.

The TV drama does not use Ho’s name and even splits Ho into two char­ac­ters.

A fo­rum or­ga­nized in Jan­uary by one of the pro­duc­tion com­pa­nies, Jiangsu Broad­cast and Tele­vi­sion Sta­tion, which screen­writer Gao Man­tang also par­tic­i­pated in, was a lauda­tory fest for the heav­ily pro­moted show.

Pu Yu, pres­i­dent of the sta­tion, says that de­spite nu­mer­ous screen sto­ries aboutWorld War II in China and other coun­tries, this one can shape China’s im­age abroad and let the world know what Chi­nese did dur­ing that time.

Asked for her re­ac­tion to the se­ries, Ho Manli, the daugh­ter ofHoFengShan, re­spond­ed­via WeChat from San Fran­cisco.

“I re­al­ize that dra­matic li­cense is of­ten taken in fic­tion­al­iz­ing his­tor­i­cal events. How­ever, since this drama is be­ing heav­ily ad­ver­tised as based on true events, there is some ex­pec­ta­tion and re­spon­si­bil­ity to at least get the his­tor­i­cal con­text right.”

A China Daily ad­viser since the pa­per’s in­cep­tion in 1981, Ho Manli first brought her fa­ther’s story to light and has spent years on re­search and doc­u­men­ta­tion.

She is can­did in her eval­u­a­tion: “I man­aged to watch three episodes of this se­ries on­line and couldn’t go on be­cause it is so laugh­ably un­re­al­is­tic. This is an em­bar­rass­ingly bad soap opera with poor pro­duc­tion val­ues, an ob­vi­ous lack of un­der­stand­ing of both the Euro­pean and Chi­nese his­tory of that time, and ridicu­lous car­toon­ish char­ac­ters.”

Ac­cord­ing to Ho Manli, this tele­vi­sion pe­riod drama in­ac­cu­rately con­flates his­toric events which took place over the course of seven years — when per­se­cu­tion of Jews es­ca­lated from ter­ror and co­erced ex­pul­sion from Nazioc­cu­pied ter­ri­to­ries to the Fi­nal So­lu­tion, the ex­ter­mi­na­tion of Jews.

When her fa­ther was sav­ing lives in Vi­enna from 1938 to 1940, the Nazis were try­ing to ex­pel Jews and the dilemma for Jewish refugees was find­ing safe haven, HoManli says.

As if real drama were not enough, the TV retelling turns it into a lurid melo­drama. The por­tray­als of the Vi­en­nese, of the Jews, of Ger­man of­fi­cers, and even of the Chi­nese diplo­mats are all car­i­ca­tures, Ho Manli says.

“There is a cer­tain for­mal­ity and Euro­pean so­phis­ti­ca­tion par­tic­u­lar to the Vi­en­nese and to the Ger­mans, not to mention ed­u­cated Chi­nese— es­pe­cially those in the diplo­matic ser­vice of the Na­tion­al­ist China era — who be­haved with cul­tural re­fine­ment and strict deco­rum. It’s noth­ing like what is de­picted in the show,” she says.

Xu Jiang, a critic, also found it jar­ring that the main Chi­nese char­ac­ters, whowere sup­posed to hail from Shang­hai and Nan­jing, speak with a dis­tinct Bei­jing ac­cent.

“Even the look and hairdo of Pu Jizhou, the pro­tag­o­nist, is a far cry from pe­riod au­then­tic­ity,” says Xu.

“The Ger­man sol­diers march­ing in Vi­enna walk like Amer­i­can movie stereo­types. Shouldn’t the ac­tors be at least shown Leni Riefen­stahl’s doc­u­men­tary Tri­umph of theWill to learn how to goos­es­tep?”

“One of the main Jewish char­ac­ters in Schindler’s List is a com­pos­ite of sev­eral peo­ple. How­ever, in de­pict­ing Oskar Schindler, the other ma­jor char­ac­ters and the story it­self, di­rec­tor Steven Spiel­berg hewed closely to his­tory,” HoManli says, by way of com­par­i­son.

The Chi­nese tele­vi­sion story opens with Pu Jizhou run­ning away from his wed­ding — an ar­ranged mar­riage— to take a job as a visa of­fi­cer in Vi­enna.

“This is to­tally lu­di­crous; one can’t just run off to join the diplo­matic ser­vice. There is a for­mal ap­pli­ca­tion and vet­ting and train­ing process. Post­ings abroad are des­ig­nated by the for­eign min­istry, not by any per­sonal whim,” Ho Manli says.

Gao Man­tang, one of the screen­writ­ers, views the drama se­ries as “a tes­ta­ment of the vi­a­bil­ity and magic of re­al­ism”.

Gao says he made three trips to Prague, which is the main lo­ca­tion for the pro­duc­tion stand­ing in for postAn­schluss Vi­enna, and also stood out­side the walls of the con­cen­tra­tion camps, “feel­ing the com­plex­ity of hu­man suf­fer­ing and the light of hu­man­i­tar­i­an­ism”.

Gao is es­pe­cially proud that he took pains to re­count the fam­ily con­flict of aNazi of­fi­cer, re­fus­ing to “de­mo­nize” him but us­ing many de­tails to por­tray his fall from hu­man to devil. “This has never been at­tempted on a Chi­nese screen,” he says.

“One rainy day, I was stand­ing in a place where thou­sands of Jews were buried. I could see the crosses in the dis­tance. I was awed by life and that emo­tion seeped into my words.”

He also ex­plains that he had done re­search to find what diplo­mats could or could not do in other coun­tries. “One must not make up de­tails as one sees fit,” he says.

Re­gard­ing those de­tails, Ho Manli says: “Be­sides the un­be­liev­able plot­line, the de­tails — from the sign in front of the Chi­nese diplo­matic mis­sion, which should have been a bronze plaque in Ger­man rather than what looks like a ‘cul­tural rev­o­lu­tion’ (1966-76) poster in Chi­nese, to the of­fi­cial rank and work of the diplo­mats, to the ill-fit­ting cos­tumes, to us­ing Chris­tian cru­ci­fixes for Jews — show plain ig­no­rance.”

Reg­u­lar view­ers gave mixed re­views. The se­ries scored 6.5 out of 10 points on Douban, a ma­jor re­view site. Some view­ers said they were deeply moved by the story, which they ad­mit they had never heard of, while oth­ers found­many prob­lems with the drama­ti­za­tion.

About the only con­sen­sus are the ac­co­lades for Chen Baoguo, a vet­eran tele­vi­sion ac­tor who is in one of the two prin­ci­pal roles. Wang Lei, the younger ac­tor, re­ceived largely neg­a­tive re­views “for his lack of tem­per­a­ment and act­ing chops”.

On Zhihu, a knowl­edge web­site with con­tri­bu­tions from eru­dite view­ers, the dis­cus­sions have been heav­ily crit­i­cal, fo­cus­ing on the show’s many un­war­ranted lib­er­ties with his­tor­i­cal facts.

“It truly as­tounds me that a great story was given such a ridicu­lous retelling,” wrote Zhang Jia.

Ho Manli would agree. “I’m afraid such a spu­ri­ous de­pic­tion is not even good fic­tion, and it is ul­ti­mately a dis­ser­vice tomy fa­ther, to the Jewish sur­vivors, to the Chi­nese au­di­ence, to China’s im­age and to his­tory,” she says.

Con­tact the writer at ray­mondzhou@ chi­nadaily.com.cn

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