The day a blockbuster was born
The seeds for a groundbreaking Chinese TV period drama that recently celebrated the 30th anniversary of its first broadcast were sown on distant shores
When Wang Fulin visited London it was not Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London, black taxis or red doubledecker buses that left the deepest impression on him. Instead, as he flew home to China, the picture fixed in his mind was a very Chinese red.
It was 1979, and Wang had just spent several days in the British capital with a delegation of the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television of China. They had visited the BBC at a time when the series Downton Abbey was still years away from even being an idea on a storyboard, but when the British broadcaster had already made a worldwide reputation for itself with its TV period dramas.
One of those was the 1967 adaptation of the John Galsworthy novel The Forsyte Saga, which ran in 26 parts and was broadcast all over the world, and of which Sarah Crompton of the Daily Telegraph in London has said: “It was not the first literary adaptation on TV, but it was longer and more ambitious than anything screened before, and it has come to represent every value and standard to which British TV has aspired ever since.”
So when the filmmaker Wang visited the BBC that day, the idea that occurred to him was essentially this: “If the British can do it, why can’t we?”
Wang says now: “They had adapted many world classic novels into TV series, and I wondered why we could not do the same with Chinese classics and have them shown worldwide.”
What Wang specifically had in mind was the dazzling story and dozens of complex characters that make up the 18th-century novel Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin. The novel is considered one of Chi- na’s Four Great Classical Novels, alongside Water Margin by Shi Nai’an, Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong, both written in the 14 th century, and Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en, written in the 16th century.
Dream of the Red Chamber chronicles the downfall of the Jia family during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) against the backdrop of the country’s social and political upheavals.
Earlier in his career Wang, now 86, had directed the nine-episode TV series Di Ying Shi Ba Nian, or 18 Years of the Enemy Camp, about Chinese Communist Party soldiers. The series came out in 1980, the first TV series made on the Chinese mainland.
“At that time, unlike Chinese film, which started in 1905, China’s TV series production was in its infancy,” Wang says. “When I proposed making a TV series based on Dream of the Red Chamber I ran into a lot of opposition.”
He spent two years organizing auditions, searching for film locations and preparing scripts, and no expense would be spared in its making.
Whereas a typical Chinese TV series in those days cost 10,000 yuan to make, Dream
A book titled written by actor-turned-director Ouyang Fenqiang, was published recently.
Chinese actress Chen Xiaoxu (left) and actor-turned-director Ouyang Fenqiang play the leading roles Lin Daiyu and Jia Baoyu in the TV series.