Con­flict­ing Sto­ries

Zhang Li:

NewsChina - - CONTENTS - By Liu Yuan­hang

Chi­nese cinema wit­nessed a re­mark­able mile­stone in the year of 1979: the Bei­jing Film Academy, then the coun­try's only film school, re-opened af­ter it was closed dur­ing the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion (1966-76). Four years later in 1982, 153 stu­dents grad­u­ated, earn­ing a spe­cial ti­tle – the “fifth gen­er­a­tion” of film­mak­ers. The class of 1982 takes pride in its most dec­o­rated alumni: Chen Kaige, Zhang Yi­mou, Gu Chang­wei, Li Shao­hong and Tian Zhuangzhuang – and Zhang Li.

Widely ac­claimed as China's finest di­rec­tor of his­tor­i­cal dra­mas, Zhang is best known for pro­duc­ing qual­ity his­tor­i­cal tele­vi­sion se­ries such as To­wards the Repub­lic (2001), The Great Ming Dy­nasty in 1566 (2007), The Road We Have Taken (2009) and Young Mar­shal (2015). Both To­wards the Repub­lic and The Great Ming Dy­nasty in 1566 earned an ex­cep­tion­ally high rat­ing of 9.7/10 on China's lead­ing con­tent re­view web­site Douban. The Road We Have Taken was also well-re­ceived with a rat­ing of 9.

Like other fifth gen­er­a­tion di­rec­tors, many of Zhang's works, which tar­get an ed­u­cated au­di­ence, ex­plore the depth and pro­fun­dity of the na­tion's his­tory and im­bue it with hu­man­ity. Zhang's name has been con­sid­ered a guar­an­tee of qual­ity cos­tume dra­mas. Nev­er­the­less, the 61-year-old di­rec­tor as­ton­ished au­di­ences with his new di­rec­to­rial work, Mar­tial Uni­verse, a fan­tasy drama adapted from a pop­u­lar web­novel of the same ti­tle. Air­ing on Au­gust 7, 2018, the show has drawn much crit­i­cism from book fans for not be­ing faith­ful to the orig­i­nal work. Zhang at­tempted to in­still a sense of his­tory into the light­hearted show, but the young au­di­ence is not con­tent with his changes.

Rep­re­sent­ing His­tory

The late 1990s and the early 2000s saw a boom in cos­tume dra­mas fea­tur­ing the leg­endary fig­ures of China's by­gone dy­nas­ties on prime time tele­vi­sion, among which Zhang Li's To­wards the Repub­lic was deemed by crit­ics to be “a mile­stone in Chi­nese tele­vi­sion.”

First broad­cast on CCTV in spring of 2003, To­wards the Repub­lic show­cases sig­nif­i­cant events dur­ing one of the most vivid, in­tri­cate and tu­mul­tuous pe­ri­ods in China's mod­ern his­tory, namely the time be­tween the late 19th cen­tury and the early 20th cen­tury. Dur­ing this era, China wit­nessed a se­ries of ma­jor events that led to the col­lapse of the Qing Dy­nasty (1644-1911) and the found­ing of the Repub­lic of China, in­clud­ing the first Sino-ja­panese War (1894-1895), the “One Hun­dred Days of Re­form” of 1898 (a failed 103-day na­tional, cul­tural, po­lit­i­cal and ed­u­ca­tional re­form move­ment un­der­taken by young Guangxu Em­peror and his re­form-minded sup­port­ers); the Boxer Re­bel­lion of 1900; the Xin­hai Rev­o­lu­tion of 1911, which put an end to China's more than 2,000 years of im­pe­rial reign and es­tab­lished the Repub­lic of China; mil­i­tarist and politi­cian Yuan Shikai's short-lived at­tempt to re­store the monar­chy in China by el­e­vat­ing him­self to the sta­tus of em­peror, and the at­tempted restora­tion of the last Qing em­peror Puyi.

The 59-episode se­ries man­ages to present a new his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive by boldly re­assess­ing the rep­u­ta­tions of rel­a­tively re­cent his­tor­i­cal fig­ures and events, an ex­er­cise which is fre­quently at odds with the of­fi­cial ver­sion of his­tory sup­ported by the Chi­nese au­thor­i­ties.

The se­ries at­tracted con­tro­versy by por­tray­ing in­fa­mous his­tor­i­cal fig­ures – Li Hongzhang, Em­press Dowa­ger Cixi and Yuan Shikai – in a sym­pa­thetic light.

Li Hongzhang, a lead­ing gen­eral and states­man of the late Qing Em­pire, has been a tar­get of crit­i­cism as a traitor to the na­tion for his re­la­tions with West­ern pow­ers and Ja­pan, and the ap­praisal is echoed in of­fi­cial text­books and other doc­u­ments. Zhang's show ex­plores the mul­ti­ple sides of this com­pli­cated fig­ure and de­picts him as a so­phis­ti­cated politi­cian, adept diplo­mat and in­dus­trial pioneer of the em­pire.

Cixi has long been con­sid­ered a no­to­ri­ous his­tor­i­cal fig­ure and is blamed for sev­eral de­ci­sions that re­sulted in a se­ries of woes for the coun­try. In Zhang's drama, Cixi's po­lit­i­cal tal­ents, fem­i­nine vul­ner-

abil­ity and moth­erly sides are por­trayed, which make the char­ac­ter ap­pear more hu­man and three-di­men­sional.

Due to its por­trayal of his­tor­i­cal is­sues deemed po­lit­i­cally sen­si­tive, the se­ries was cen­sored by the gov­ern­ment. Some episodes had to be re-edited, and a planned re­peat air­ing on pro­vin­cial tele­vi­sion sta­tions was can­celed.

The Great Ming Dy­nasty in 1566 (2007) is an­other of the di­rec­tor's well-known cos­tume dra­mas, and is fa­vored by au­di­ences. It panoram­i­cally dis­played the his­tor­i­cal im­ages dur­ing the reign of the Ji­a­jing Em­peror of the Ming Dy­nasty (1368-1644): the in­tri­cate po­lit­i­cal strug­gles from the court to gov­ern­ments of all lev­els, ram­pant cor­rup­tion and false­hoods from of­fi­cial­dom to busi­ness cir­cles, as well as Chi­nese peo­ple fight­ing against Ja­panese pi­rates. Some ar­gue that the show draws upon his­tor­i­cal al­le­gories to ex­plore the his­tory and power re­la­tions of con­tem­po­rary Chi­nese so­ci­ety.

In 2009, Zhang pre­sented The Road We Have Taken, which de­picts the chaotic pe­riod from 1925 to 1949 us­ing the fate of three chil­dren of a large fam­ily in Hu­nan Prov­ince set against a num­ber of ma­jor his­toric events, such as the Sec­ond Sino-ja­panese War (1933-1945), Chi­nese Civil War (1945-1949) and the foun­da­tion of the Peo­ple's Repub­lic of China.

In 2015, the di­rec­tor filmed Young Mar­shal, a drama cen­ter­ing on the leg­ends of Zhang Xueliang, a renowned gen­eral from Chi­nese mod­ern his­tory. Zhang, nick­named the “Young Mar­shall,” kid­napped his com­man­der-in-chief Chi­ang Kai-shek. The act, known as the Xi'an In­ci­dent of 1936, changed the course of Chi­nese his­tory and cost Zhang his free­dom for the rest of his life.

A Ca­reer Water­loo?

Zhang's lat­est di­rec­to­rial work, Mar­tial Uni­verse, was adapted from a fan­tasy novel of the same name writ­ten by a web writer un­der the pseu­do­nym Heav­enly Silk­worm Potato.

“To at­tempt a dif­fer­ent form or style is to con­front one’s past self. No mat­ter how fierce the chal­lenge seems to be, the at­tempt is def­i­nitely pos­i­tive”

The drama re­volves around the story of Lin Dong, a child from a ban­ished fam­ily of the Great Lin Clan. When he was very young, Lin watched his fa­ther get crushed and crip­pled by Lin Lang­tian, a pow­er­ful genius from the same clan. Lin is de­ter­mined to take re­venge on the man who took ev­ery­thing from his fam­ily. Armed with an iron will and de­ter­mi­na­tion, Lin trav­els across the land in or­der to hone his skills, and later meets two women – Ling Qingzhu and Ying Huan­huan – who both de­velop a ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ship with him.

By chance, Lin ob­tains a mys­te­ri­ous stone tal­is­man cov­eted by many clans in the mar­tial world. Pos­sess­ing this ar­ti­fact sees Lin chal­lenged by many peo­ple of dif­fer­ent clans, and gets him in­volved in var­i­ous other events of the mar­tial uni­verse. Lin even­tu­ally be­comes one of its most pow­er­ful and re­spected be­ings.

In Zhang's eyes, com­pared with the in­tri­cate his­tory of his pre­vi­ous se­ries, the world of Mar­tial Uni­verse is very straight­for­ward and sim­ple – win or lose, good or evil, black or white. Hav­ing no in­ten­tion of mak­ing a sim­ple fan­tasy show, Zhang made lots of changes in his adap­ta­tion to make the story seem more re­al­is­tic and com­pli­cated.

The orig­i­nal novel is mostly cen­tered on the growth of the pro­tag­o­nist Lin Dong. But the di­rec­tor be­lieves that a hero, no mat­ter how great he is, has an or­di­nary side. In por­tray­ing Lin Dong, Zhang in­ten­tion­ally weak­ened his heroic aura and made him more like an or­di­nary per­son.

But the change drew much crit­i­cism from au­di­ences, es­pe­cially loyal fans of the book.

“I per­son­ally be­lieve that what made peo­ple root for Lin Dong was his drive and willpower to im­prove him­self and get re­venge – but the drama ba­si­cally ig­nored this. For the most part the se­ries had ei­ther char­ac­ter A or B help­ing Lin Dong, and they had to en­cour­age him all the way,” one fan of the novel, “Nu­bii,” com­plained.

In the se­ries, the chief vil­lain Lin Lang­tian is por­trayed as a much more multi-lay­ered, rounded char­ac­ter who ac­tu­ally cares for the pro­tag­o­nist, and his ac­tions have been some­what jus­ti­fied.

Nev­er­the­less, such a char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of an­tag­o­nists, man­i­fested in Zhang's pre­vi­ous his­tor­i­cal works, did not work with young au­di­ences. Many could not ac­cept that the show changed a purely evil char­ac­ter into a morally am­bigu­ous and even sym­pa­thetic one, and dis­ap­prov­ingly com­mented that “the evil­ness of Lin Lang­tian has been ar­bi­trar­ily washed off.”

Zhang also strives to ex­plore his­tory in the fan­tasy story. The sense of gen­er­a­tions pass­ing is em­pha­sized in the se­ries: un­like the orig­i­nal novel which is purely ori­ented around the pro­tag­o­nist, the drama high­lighted the fa­ther/son, mas­ter/dis­ci­ple re­la­tion­ships, show­ing the growth of the young gen­er­a­tion as be­ing a func­tion of their eclips­ing the older gen­er­a­tion.

Zhang cre­ates a sense of his­tory by man­i­fest­ing a se­quence of gen­er­a­tions: “Even though Lin Dong even­tu­ally be­comes the great hero who guards the mar­tial world, he is still one link in the se­quence,” he told Newschina.

Nev­er­the­less, the di­rec­tor's at­tempt at a com­pli­cated fan­tasy story did not work with young au­di­ences. This has man­i­fested as an un­be­liev­ably low 4.6 out of 10 rat­ing on Douban. Many book fans

ex­pressed dis­ap­point­ment and ac­cused the se­ries of not be­ing faith­ful to the orig­i­nal novel.

“This is def­i­nitely the Water­loo in Zhang Li's ca­reer,” a Douban user, Cai Xiaoma, com­mented. “What hap­pened to the di­rec­tor who made To­wards the Repub­lic and The Great Ming Dy­nasty in 1566? Why did he stoop to make a poor drama like this?” an­other user com­mented.

For the di­rec­tor, mak­ing Mar­tial Uni­verse was an at­tempt at a new means of ex­pres­sion. “As a cre­ator, there's no point in con­tend­ing with the in­dus­try, but there's a point in con­tend­ing with the self. To at­tempt a dif­fer­ent form or style is to con­front one's past self. No mat­ter how fierce the chal­lenge seems to be, the at­tempt is def­i­nitely pos­i­tive,” he told Newschina.

Never Set a Limit

“Film­mak­ers of my gen­er­a­tion mostly have a strong de­sire to pur­sue high artis­tic stan­dards and har­bor a pe­cu­liar com­plex about the na­tional cul­ture, psy­cho­log­i­cal and his­tory. It's just in our blood,” Zhang said.

His in­sis­tence on high aes­thet­ics and fix­a­tion on his­tory and heavy sub­jects usu­ally ren­der his works too high­brow to be pop­u­lar.

It hurt him to see that the viewer rat­ing of The Great Ming Dy­nasty in 1566 was as low as 0.5 per­cent when it first aired on Hu­nan TV in 2007, merely one-fifth the av­er­age rat­ing of dra­mas on the same chan­nel. Not un­til last year did the pub­lic re­dis­cover this buried gem. Up­loaded to the lead­ing Chi­nese video web­site Youku in 2017, the show soon went vi­ral on so­cial me­dia and a great num­ber of ne­ti­zens re­al­ized they had missed a high-qual­ity drama.

In 2009, Zhang di­rected Con­fu­cius, a cos­tume drama based on the life of the great philoso­pher. The show has al­ready been aired in the US, Ja­pan and South Korea but not in China. Over the past nine years, not one sin­gle Chi­nese TV sta­tion has shown a will­ing­ness to broad­cast this se­ries. “This is the work I am most sat­is­fied with so far. But it can't be broad­cast for they be­lieve it's des­tined to be a show with nei­ther rat­ings nor pop­u­lar­ity. Per­haps Con­fu­cius or the clas­sics are not needed in this era,” Zhang said.

Long troubled by cen­sor­ship, poor view­er­ship and broad­cast fail­ures, the di­rec­tor still strives to pro­vide qual­ity con­tent. “There's a say­ing that goes, ‘Wipe clean the blood on your body, bury the corpses of your com­rades and carry on,'” he said.

Zhang handed a bi­og­ra­phy of the Os­car-win­ning Amer­i­can film­maker Oliver Stone to our re­porter dur­ing the in­ter­view. He very much ad­mires Stone's ver­sa­til­ity in deal­ing with se­ri­ous po­lit­i­cal is­sues in films like JFK (1991), Nixon (1995), W. (2008), Snow­den (2015), and also crime films and thrillers such as Nat­u­ral Born Killers (1994), Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010) and Sav­ages (2012). Zhang him­self strives to be­come an all-around cre­ator that never lim­its the bound­aries of self-ex­pres­sion.

“It is no use to moan that the past was bet­ter than the present. Your past works re­flect your past mind­set, ob­ser­va­tions and con­tem­pla­tion about the ex­ter­nal world. Things have changed now,” Zhang told Newschina. “Film­mak­ers need to find a means of ex­pres­sion that suits the present.”

A scene from Mar­tial Uni­verse

A scene from Mar­tial Uni­verse

A scene from Mar­tial Uni­verse

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