Per­sonal Tai­lor prom­ises light mo­ment for movie­go­ers

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE - Con­tact the writer at raymondzhou@chi­

Zhou Bing has lots of friends in South­east Asia. When they have a party, his friends would use mul­ti­ple lan­guages to talk to dif­fer­ent peo­ple in the same room. “Many of them can speak seven lan­guages and di­alects, in­clud­ing Man­darin, Can­tonese, Hakka, Fuzhou di­alect, south­ern Fujian di­alect, Malay and English. They would keep on switch­ing from one to another and sprin­kle one lan­guage with words from oth­ers,” ex­plains Zhou, a doc­u­men­tary film­maker. Zhou spent much of the past three years vis­it­ing nine coun­tries in South­east Asia that are col­lec­tively known as “Nanyang” in Chi­nese. It was the desti­na­tion of many Chi­nese em­i­grants in the old days. Zhou and his team em­barked on a mis­sion to chron­i­cle the cur­rent lives of th­ese peo­ple as well as the his­tory of their an­ces­tors.

The re­sult, South of the Ocean, has been broad­cast on the His­tory Chan­nel in the United States. That was a two-hour high­light, and the ful­l­length 10-episode ver­sion will hit the air­waves on the doc­u­men­tary chan­nel of China Cen­tral Tele­vi­sion.

“Nanyang is a mir­ror, which can re­flect not only China’s past, but its present and fu­ture,” says Zhou. “Once you min­gle in that so­ci­ety, you’ll know how our an­ces­tors lived and their cus­toms, in­clud­ing how they dec­o­rated their homes and wor­shipped their gods. Even tra­di­tional hol­i­days we cel­e­brate to­day are more elab­o­rate and com­pli­cated over there.”

Zhou is es­pe­cially im­pressed by the pop­u­lar­ity of an­ces­tral halls that dot ur­ban and ru­ral land­scapes in Nanyang.

“Th­ese venues are not just col­lec­tive homesteads of an­tiq­uity, but still have many func­tions. A new ar­rival can stay there, and get help in job hunt­ing or even ob­tain­ing loans for a busi­ness startup. Af­ter you make it big, you can do­nate to the or­ga­ni­za­tion. Many of the big halls run schools and other non­profit ac­tiv­i­ties. InMalacca, a town with a small pop­u­la­tion, it is like a se­nior cit­i­zens’ en­ter­tain­ment center, where peo­ple sip tea and sing karaoke.”

Many of the cus­toms can be traced back to the Ming Dy­nasty (1368-1644), but tang­hao prob­a­bly orig­i­nated in the Song (960-1279) or even ear­lier Han Dy­nasty ( 206 BC-AD 220), an­a­lyzes Zhou. “It refers to your an­ces­tral root. So, you’ll see posted on some doors place names, such as Yinchuan or Dun­huang far in north­ern China. Young peo­ple in China have never heard of such a prac­tice or even the name tang­hao.”

Not only are Zhou’s doc­u­men­taries richly in­for­ma­tive, but they em­ploy a film lan­guage that is lav­ish and en­gag­ing. “One ofmy col­lab­o­ra­tors is a grad­u­ate from film school and I share with him the no­tion that our work should re­sem­ble a Euro­pean art film in vis­ual style,” he says.

In South of the Ocean, made for a to­tal cost of 24 mil­lion yuan ($4 mil­lion), some of the im­ages, in­clud­ing the aerial shots, are so eye-catch­ing

If we want Chi­nese arts and cul­ture to be ac­cepted by main­stream Western me­dia, we have to find out, in con­cept and tech­nique, the in­ter­na­tional way of com­mu­ni­ca­tion.”



they would not be out of place in a big-bud­get fea­ture film. Ten years ago, Zhou made The

For­bid­den City, a 12-episode doc­u­men­tary that made ex­ten­sive use of drama­ti­za­tion and com­puter im­agery. The enor­mity of the project and its huge in­flu­ence turned it into a mile­stone in Chi­nese doc­u­men­tary film­mak­ing.

“We had been try­ing to learn the cre­ative model of Na­tional Ge­o­graphic, and by 2003 we had the chance to work with them. We de­signed The For­bid­den City to ap­peal to a global au­di­ence,” Zhou re­calls. “If we want Chi­nese arts and cul­ture to be ac­cepted by main­stream Western me­dia, we have to find out, in con­cept and tech­nique, the in­ter­na­tional way of com­mu­ni­ca­tion.”

When mak­ing South of the Ocean, the tech­niques and tech­nolo­gies had ad­vanced, but the con­cept re­mains the same, such as the vis­ual style, the qual­ity of the shots and edit­ing and nar­rat­ing skill should be up to the par of a good fea­ture film, says Zhou.

How­ever, in the decade of ex­plor­ing a global mar­ket, Zhou has found that there is no sin­gle “Western mar­ket”. Ev­ery coun­try and ev­ery chan­nel has its own dis­tinc­tive fea­tures. “Take the pace of sto­ry­telling and edit­ing. Doc­u­men­taries shown on Amer­i­can chan­nels are the fastest. France and Ger­many are some­what slower. NHK of Ja­pan is the slow­est, even slower than those in China.”

Zhou joined China Cen­tral Tele­vi­sion in 1993 as a pro­ducer for its news mag­a­zine that fol­lowed the high­est rated evening news pro­gram. The CCTV show was mostly in­ves­tiga­tive, but oc­ca­sion­ally it would fea­ture schol­ars, writ­ers and artists. The diver­sity of the show pro­vided him with op­por­tu­ni­ties to tap into his fields of in­ter­est.

“I was lucky that I found my­self in a work en­vi­ron­ment that en­cour­aged me to do what I loved to do.”

In the en­su­ing years, he made mul­ti­ple-episode doc­u­men­taries on the Dun­huang Grot­toes; the Pek­ing Opera leg­end Mei Lan­fang; the Bund in Shang­hai; the Lou­vre; the Palace Mu­seum of Taipei; and, of course, the wildly suc­cess­fully For­bid­den City se­ries. About half of the projects were com­mis­sioned rather than ini­ti­ated by him­self, but they all en­ticed him with chal­lenges. One of the chal­lenges is the moun­tain of in­for­ma­tion from which he has to cull the most rel­e­vant and most ex­cit­ing to be used in his films. He does not shove it to a team of re­searchers, but would con­duct the in-depth probe him­self so thathe has a firm grasp of the sub­ject­mat­ter. For the first episode of The For­bid­den City, for which he wrote a 6,000- word script, he de­voured his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ments to the tune of more than a mil­lion words. “We even made dis­cov­er­ies that went be­yond what the schol­ars knew, so our film ben­e­fited their re­search.”

Zhou ex­per­i­mented with the BBC for­mat of us­ing an ex­pert who acted as a guide for his film on the Great Wall. But he is not op­ti­mistic about the for­mat in China be­cause, as he sees it, it would re­quire tal­ents who must project trust­wor­thi­ness and elo­quence as well as knowl­edge and eru­di­tion. “Most of the time, we would use a nar­ra­tion and a voiceover that is a friendly third per­son and an all-know­ing god, sight un­seen.”

For his next project, Zhou in­tends tomake a film on tra­di­tional Chi­nese medicine, which will ruf­fle a few feath­ers as the topic is po­lar­iz­ing.

“I’ll in­cor­po­rate dif­fer­ing views on it,” he notes. But above all, he wants to show TCM as “part of China’s an­cient value sys­tem and a vi­tal ex­pres­sion of the cul­ture”.

He even dreams of ven­tur­ing into the realm of fic­tional fea­ture films, but it has to be about an­cient Chi­nese his­tory and he does not trust oth­ers to do the script for him.

“It must be the Chi­nese cul­tural genes in­side me. Whether Ido a doc­u­men­tary or a fic­tional fea­ture or even a car­toon, I want it to carry on tra­di­tional cul­ture and val­ues. It can be en­ter­tain­ing and it must have strong aes­thet­ics, but ul­ti­mately you’re re­spon­si­ble for con­tribut­ing to the cul­tural her­itage. It’s a bur­den I carry onmy shoul­ders.”

The se­ries will air on CCTV9 from Dec 20 to 29, with one new episode per night at 10.


Zhou Bing’s lat­est doc­u­men­tary, SouthoftheOcean, sheds new light on the past, present and fu­ture of Chi­nese em­i­grants’ lives in South­east Asian coun­tries.

The Mid-Au­tumn Fes­ti­val celebration plays a big role in the life of eth­nic Chi­nese liv­ing in Sin­ga­pore.

Tra­di­tional cul­ture like this Malaysian wed­ding is one of the high­lights of the 10-episode doc­u­men­tary.

Zhou Bing and his team visit nine coun­tries in South­east Asia to shoot


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