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November 4, 2018

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Chinese opera movies a silver screen hit

CHINA’S first 3D Kunqu Opera movie “The Bell Tolls for a Dynasty” recently received the Best Artistic Contribution Award at the 31st Tokyo International Film Festival. It is the first time a traditional Chinese opera movie has been honored at the festival.

Former UNESCO Director-General Koichiro Matsuura, a Kunqu Opera lover, was the film’s award presenter.

The shooting of the film, produced by the Shanghai Center of Chinese Operas and Shanghai Kunqu Opera Company, started in September 2015.

Its story is based on the classic play “The Prophetic Paintings.”

Set in the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the film features martial arts scenes and stunning visual effects to depict the fall and last turbulent days of the dynasty.

It is also a story about the tragedy of Chongzhen, the last emperor of the Ming Dynasty, who committed suicide when rebels reached the capital.

Directed by Xia Weiliang, it stars award-winning Kunqu Opera performers Li An and Wu Shuang. Kunqu Opera masters Cai Zhengren and Zhang Jingxian are the film’s art directors who offered their suggestion in movie script and acting.

Last year, the film also garnered the Best Theater Film award and the Best Theater Film Director award at the Canada Golden Maple Film Festival.

Director Xia mainly attributed the film’s success to its efforts in preserving the nation’s traditional culture, which received wide recognition from both critics and audiences.

“The Kunqu film’s artistry, in-depth portrayal of the characters and their delicate emotions have touched audiences,” Xia said.

As early as 2003, director Xia made attempts at shooting 3D opera films to make traditional Chinese theaters more accessible to young audiences and foreigners.

In addition to “The Bell Tolls for a Dynasty,” he also put Peking Opera plays “Farewell My Concubine” and “The Story of the Jade Bracelet” onto the big screen.

Since stage art and cinema have big differences, shooting an opera movie is challenging for both the director and actors.

As for “The Bell Tolls for a Dynasty,” the movie script cut some scenes from the original stage production, such as the meeting of the imperial court and each character’s introduction singing episode.

Spectacular war scenes are featured in the film. The 3D technology presents more impelling visuals of thousands of horses galloping ahead and highlights the martial arts episodes.

Emotional scenes, however, about the emperor’s complicated love for his wife are saved in the film to provide a strong conflict of dramaturgy when the emperor has to kill his wife and children in case they are tortured by the enemies.

Performers usually have exaggerated facial expressions when they are on the stage but in front of the camera they are more natural.

Li An, who plays the leading role in the film, said that they have to practice a lot more to adjust their acting to the camera.

“Cinematography is more complicated and diverse,” Xia said. “We should ensure that every detail is taken care of, including make-up, props, costume, acting and music. All these things must stand the test of 3D film shots.

“As to the performers, they should also get used to acting a single scene a couple of times, which is quite different from performing on stage.”

The Kunqu Opera has been hailed by an increasing number of Japanese people for its elegance and artistry in recent years.

It is also a popular theater genre for cultural exchange.

At the closing ceremony of the Tokyo International Film Festival’s China Film Week, artists from Shanghai Kunqu Opera Company performed a martial arts play “The Hu’s Village,” which attracted famous Japanese actress Komaki Kurihara.

They also staged classic excerpts at well-known colleges in Japan, including Waseda University and Meiji University.

According to Gu Haohao, president of the Shanghai Center of Chinese Operas, Kunqu Opera has made huge progress in inheritance and development since 2001.

“Producing films based on traditional opera plays is a method to attract younger audiences to the theater for brilliant Chinese culture and art,” Gu said.

Other 3D Chinese opera films include Peking Opera film “Cao Cao and Yang Xiu” and Yueju Opera film “The Love Story in the Western Chamber.”

Celebrated Peking Opera artists Shang Changrong and Yan Xingpeng collaborated in the film “Cao Cao and Yang Xiu” 30 years after the success of their play of the same name.

Shot in 4K resolution, it portrays the delicate relationship between the powerful Eastern Han warlord Cao Cao (AD 155-220) and his adviser Yang Xiu.

Starring Yueju Opera performers Qian Huili and Fang Yafen, “The Love Story in the Western Chamber” is a romantic story between Cui Yingying and Zhang Junrui.

“These movies can record the best state of the performing artists,” Gu added. “Valuable performing episodes of varied schools of vocal and performance will be preserved for the future generations as cultural heritage.”

In addition to making 3D opera films based on classic plays, some other kinds of innovation and attempts have also been made for traditional opera to reach out to younger generation.

Xia mentioned the success of Taiwan writer and scholar Pai Hsien-yung’s innovative adaptations of two Kunqu Opera classics, “The Peony Pavilion” and “The Story of the Jade Hairpin.”

“Traditional Chinese theaters can make innovation in its subjects,” Xia said. “The story can be adapted to focus more on contemporary meaning and connection with today’s audiences.

“Meanwhile, theater education is also important. It demands cultivation in school and home.”


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