By LIU YINMENG in Los Angeles | China Daily Global | Updated: 2019-11-21 23:59
After six years of research, script-writing and production, Chinese director Hu Mei has a movie that aims to transcend cultural boundaries and spark young audiences’ interest in an ancient Chinese art.
Enter the Forbidden City, a movie that traces the birth of Peking Opera, will hit US theaters in early 2020, bringing an important fabric of Chinese culture to American audiences and the world.
“It’s a reflection of our cultural confidence, because Peking Opera is such a broad and profound art-form,” Hu said in a recent interview with China Daily.
The movie plot, set during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), follows the journey of two opera singers who risked their lives to perform for Emperor Qianlong’s 80th birthday and redeem the reputation of their troupe.
It traces the history of how the eclectic ancient art came together after some members of opera troupes from Anhui province, who stayed in Beijing after a successful performance in the late 18th century, blended their styles with many other local operas.
The production process was not easy. According to Hu, at one point, the studio caught on fire, a disaster that destroyed all the costumes on set as the filming was set to wrap. But she was determined to see her project through.
Hu noted that next year marks the 230th birthday of Peking Opera, a Chinese music ensemble that combines singing, acting and martial arts. She wants to roll out the movie on the eve of the creation of this “national treasure”.
“It is an expression of the wisdom of the Chinese people and condenses the best cultural tradition of the Chinese civilization,” Hu said.
To grasp the history behind the movie, Hu and her team traveled to the mountainous areas of China’s Anhui province, where opera played a key part in the education of children.
“The role that opera plays here is that it condenses China’s thousands of years of music, drama, politics, culture, worldly wisdom and moral principles into various repertoires,” Hu said.
“The about 1,000 popular opera songs in the area were passed down from parents to children, from generation to generation,” she added.
In 2010, Peking Opera was named by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Considered “the national form of theater”, the art form features artists with elaborate makeup, embroidered costumes and tells unique stories.
In the past, movies featuring Chinese opera, such as Farewell, My Concubine, have made their way to big screens in the West and been lauded by international audiences, but still only a few people are familiar with the mysterious drama, probably due to the language barrier and its esoteric nature.
Mei Lanfang, one of China’s premier opera artists, is credited with popularizing the art form to Western audiences after his trip to the United States and Europe in the 1930s.
“Our film depicts the spirit of opera performers’ endless pursuit of arts. It’s precisely due to the hard work and efforts of generations of artists that Peking Opera was able to spread beyond China,” Hu said.
She hopes that the movie creates a bridge for Western audiences.
Peking opera is similar in many ways to Western opera, Hu said.
“Chinese opera, from singing and playing, to the vocalization production method, to the structure of lines and story, is similar to Western operas. It’s also a comprehensive performance system,” Hu said.
She said the film also brings viewers into the lives of Peking Opera artists, who didn’t enjoy a high status in society as entertainers during the Qing Dynasty.
“In Chinese history, Chinese operas, including Peking Opera, play an important role in passing down the heritage of China from generations to generations,” Hu said.
“Peking Opera is not as popular as before, especially to the younger audiences, but its artistic value is very high. We hope that we can bring Peking Opera into thousands of households through our film creation, and bring it to the people around the world,” Hu added.
The movie was written by playwright Zou Jingzhi, and stars Fu Dalong, Ma Jinghan, as well as actresses Wang Ziwen and Ma Yili. It will be distributed by Cinema Libre Studio, based in Burbank, California.
It opened to Chinese mainland audiences on May 10. Its premiered in the US at the Chinese American Film Festival (CAFF) in Alhambra, California (Nov 17, 20 and 21). Hu brought home the best director award and the top 10″Golden Angel Award at the 15th annual CAFF opening ceremony on Nov 5.
Hu, who graduated from Beijing Film Academy in 1982, is among the pioneering members of the fifth generation of Chinese cinema along with fellow graduates Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige.
She is well-known in China for a number of acclaimed television and film works. Her previous film Confucius, which stars Chow Yun Fat, was released in the US in 2010.