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August 8, 2020

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Exploring the essence of famed TV director

Director Zheng Xiaolong is often credited as the man behind the surging popularity of Chinese “harem dramas,” a genre that depicts the catfights of royal concubines in ancient Chinese palaces.

His 78-episode epic, “Empresses in the Palace,” first aired on TV in 2011 and has been rerun every year since. It is also among the most watched series on Internet platforms.

Its success prompted dozens of copycat dramas, but few have approached the acclaim of Zheng’s work, which enjoys a rating of 9.1 out of 10 on Chinese movie review site

The series has been sold and shown around the world, including on Netflix, which acquired the show in 2015. Lead actress Sun Li, known in China as the “queen of television,” was nominated as best actress in the 2013 International Emmy Awards. She didn’t win, but she has taken home scores of other prestigious acting awards.

“You all consider it a ‘harem drama?’ No wonder,” Zheng told Shanghai Daily at the Shanghai TV Festival this week, where Zheng serves as jury president in the best drama category.

“It’s a classic example of criticizing the marriage system in feudal societies,” he said. “It is a costume drama with cinematic realism. The ‘catfights’ are the result of such a system. They are filled with tragedy. But now, most ‘harem dramas’ convey the attitude of enjoying or praising such fights, encouraging people to travel back to the past to fight with other women.”

Despite the show’s enduring popularity, Zheng remains somewhat low-profile outside TV circles. He is certainly one of the top Chinese TV directors, but many associate his name only with the “Empresses in the Palace” series. That’s a pity since his body of work spanning more than 40 years is so impressive.

His name actually shows up in the screenwriting, directorial and production credits of many highly acclaimed TV series that Chinese grew up watching. Those works include China’s first sitcom, “Stories from the Editorial Board” (1992); “Beijinger in New York” (1994), shot almost entirely in the United States; and “Red Sorghum” (2015), which was adapted from the novel by Mo Yan, winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature.

Zheng, 67, has won every prestigious Chinese TV award multiple times, including best director twice at the Shanghai TV Festival. His work has been acclaimed by professionals for its cinematic realism in reflecting various aspects of Chinese society.

“Empresses in the Palace,” at first glance, seems to be the oddity in his long list of accomplishments. It remains the only “harem drama” ever to win a best director TV award.

“I have never diverted from my pursuit of cinematic realism,” Zheng said, rebuking the idea that “Empresses” is an oddity. “You can certainly have cinematic realism in costume dramas. There is a difference, often mixed nowadays, between works with cinematic realism and those depicting contemporary life.”

So realistic was Zheng’s direction in the 2016 production of “Emergency Room Doctors” that it went viral on the Internet when the coronavirus epidemic broke out.

One episode, depicting a virus outbreak, was deemed to be prophetic, down to the use of the phrase “novel coronavirus.” Its detailed scenes of front-line responders bore an eerie similarity to what was happening in real life.

Zheng’s early career as a journalist focused on reporting farm life in the late 1970s. That may help explain his attention to lifelike details and his constant rebuking or rephrasing of media questions, though always done with politeness and a soft voice.

Shanghai Daily sat down with Zheng to discuss his career and his views on cinematic realism, the boom in Internet-produced TV dramas and technological changes in film and TV production.

Q: The Shanghai TV Festival for the first time includes Internet-produced dramas in competition. How do you feel about that?

A: The so-called Internet dramas are essentially the same as TV series produced in television stations. The only difference lies in the distribution platform. They are shown only online instead of on TV channels. Internet series may have bigger budgets. I think we ought to do better in terms of storytelling and the exploration of human nature.

But so far, there is no revolutionary change in production or content or viewing habits because of the new technology.

Q: Some would argue that viewing habits have changed because of audience fragmentation? On the Internet, a show can be produced that targets only a fragment of viewers rather than for everyone when aired on TV? You can also receive online feedback about shows on the Internet.

A: I’m not interested in audience fragmentation. I still want to make TV series for the general public.

The emotions of ordinary people are very intriguing, equally their values. Certainly, film and TV makers want their works to be seen by larger audiences. But individualized feedback under the idea of “audience fragmentation” may just accelerate the divisions in society and cause a lack of exposure for ideas different from your own. That is horrifying.

Q: What’s a real revolutionary Internet drama then? Have you seen any, domestically or abroad? Are you exploring that potential?

A: I haven’t seen any.

Revolutionary Internet drama should be completely distinct from a traditional TV series and more interactive, where viewers can participate directly, thanks to new technologies.

For example, when the protagonist leaves a house, maybe the audience can choose whether he turns left or right. If he turns right, he gets into a car accident. If he turns left, he spots a bag on the street. They can have choices of multiple clues and perspectives that lead to different story lines. That way, you bring the audience into the show, quite literally.

That is something you cannot do with shows aired on TV channels. There are some intriguing ideas I’m exploring.

Q: You seem to imply that new technologies may change content creation?

A: When a new technology appears, film and TV makers experiment with it. In the short term, it may bring down the quality of content, due to an obsession with the technology. But that will change once technology becomes more commonly applied, and many new ideas can technically help film and TV makers find new ways of making content, of addressing human nature and of reflecting on the relationships between people.

Q: In recent years, there has been talk of a returning boom in realistic TV series — some well-acclaimed and quite popular with audiences. As a director famed in this realm, do you agree?

A: I’ve often talked about the fact that there is difference between cinematic realism and works depicting contemporary life.

A drama with content about what’s going on now doesn’t make it a realistic drama. Many people in the industry and in the media confuse the two. In fact, many such dramas are not realistic, for example, a teenybopper show.

You can apply realism to works about current society, and you can also apply it to costume works. It is important not to get them mixed up, otherwise we can never figure out what is important in a production.


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