Wartime drama spotlights Chinese hero of the Holocaust
When Gao Mantang visited Prague, he was stunned to see tens of thousands of graves of Jewish victims who died during the Holocaust.
The European journey to retrace World War II history gave Gao, a scriptwriter, the inspiration to pen his new TV series, The Last Visa.
The 46-episode series, inspired by the late Chinese diplomat Ho Feng-shan’s heroic deeds during the war, will begin its run on Beijing Satellite TV on Jan 1.
Hailed as China’s Oskar Schindler, Ho served as the consul general of the Kuomintang government’s consulate in Vienna between 1938 and 1940. He saved about 4,800 Jews from the Holocaust by issuing them visas to flee to safety in defiance of his superiors.
“It’s true history that has been hidden for 78 years,” says Gao, who was in Beijing to promote the series last week.
“In Europe, many researchers or old people know the history, but it is not known in China. I feel sorry about that and hope the series will ensure that more youngsters know Chinese humanism and greatness during the war,” says Gao.
From The Legend of Entrepreneurship to The Chinese Old Peasant, the veteran author is known for his handling of history-themed tales.
Gao is behind more than 20 hit dramas and respected as one of the most commercially successful writers in the country.
he diligent author says he has the habit of interviewing as much as possible before beginning to write.
“I heard Ho’s story around 10 years ago, but there were very limited historical records about him, and the timing was not right to shoot abroad,” says the 61-year-old author.
According to media reports, Ho hardly mentioned his deeds to his family or TheLastVisa friends until the very end of his life.
His story drew worldwide attention by accident. When Ho’s daughter published his obituary in 1997 — mentioning the tale of him saving Jewish friends held at gunpoint by the Gestapo — it attracted the attention of a curator and pushed historians to dig out the story.
To develop the tale of The Last Visa, Gao toured Europe three times and visited World War II sites, including concentration camps, museums and memorial halls.
“For me, the records on computers are cold and emotionless. It is only when I saw the sites, which once held tens of thousands of Jews, and their cemeteries, that I felt I was connected to the story,” he recalls.
As many wartime buildings were damaged in Austria, the crew shot most of the scenes in what is now the Czech Republic, which makes the series the largest-ever Chinese-Czech production in history.
Up to 250 crew members from both countries worked on the filming in the Czech Republic, and more than 10,000 extras from the Czech Republic, Poland, Austria and the United Kingdom were used. To resolve the language problem, the crew hired 35 translators.
Gao recalls that, with the support of the local government, the Czechs once closed a railway station and several blocks for the shooting, and let them use an 1890 library as a film set.
As records related to Ho were limited, Gao dramatizes the tale. The television version centers on a young visa official and his mentor-like superior, the vice-consul general of the Chinese consulate in Vienna.
In the series, after witnessing Nazi atrocities, the duo team up with other Chinese diplomats to work to save Jews.
The official is played by rising actor Wang Lei, while award-winning veteran Chen Baoguo plays the superior.
The series will be also broadcast in such markets as Germany, the Czech Republic, Italy, Austria, Switzerland and Israel, says the producer, Zhu Kai.
Zhu says the series will be re-edited to a condensed, 12-episode version that will be broadcast abroad.
He says they plan to invite Steven Spielberg — the director of the 1993 epic Schindler’s List — to be that version’s art consultant.
The TV series will be broadcast on Jan 1. Director Hua Jing (left), scriptwriter Gao Mantang (center) and actor Chen Baoguo at a promotional event in Beijing.