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August 23, 2011

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Selling the classics on Chinese TV

TO make Chinese classics appeal to more young people, directors are twisting plots, turning wicked women into graceful ladies, and even making the Monkey King a sensitive guy who cries. Xu Wei watches the tube.

The Chinese literary classic "Water Margin" ("Outlaws of the Marsh," "All Men are Brothers") has been adapted into TV series over the years, celebrating the exploits of 108 outlaws who fought oppression and corruption in the late 11th century. In general, they stick fairly close to the plot.

But the newest 80-episode incarnation, now being aired nightly has generated unprecedented criticism for highlighting the roles of four traditionally (in the classic) unsavory and unconventional women. In the original, all are extremely minor characters, but also strong-minded, several of them physically large and strong, skilled in martial arts. There's at least one adulteress, a tavern keeper, two murderers and two skilled warriors.

The series is at its midpoint. It's aired nightly on Dragon TV, at 7:30pm, with two episodes shown a night.

In the new version by Hong Kong director Kuk Kok-leung, the women play major roles and in fact, love and lust in quite a few instances drive the plot.

And they are all attractive, some extremely elegant and feminine, wearing fine clothes though they are hiding in the marsh area south of the Yangtze River at the end of the Song Dynasty (960-1279).

The three lady outlaws are Sun Erniang, known as a "Female Yaksha" (ghost); Gu Dasao, known as the "Female Tiger," and Hu Sanniang, known as "Ten Feet of Blue," referring to her blue hair.

Gu and Hu are warriors and not described as pretty or feminine; they are strong. The wicked one is Sun Erniang: she runs a tavern where she drugs patrons, robs them, cuts them up to make stuffing for dumplings she sells to other patrons.

Actresses slaying Gu and Hu are young and beautiful, even killer cook Sun is attractive - quite unlike their personas in print.

In the classic, a band of 108 outlaws, including three women, defy the corrupt government. They are men's stories, with lots of battles, written by men and for men. The tales were pulled together by Shi Nai'an in the early 16th century.

"There are few female characters in the book, and the writer seldom tackles and or even touches the inner world of women," says an Internet user who calls herself Little Water Droplet.

"The new TV drama version offers a romantic and female perspective, and several aesthetic scenes of the drama make it more like an idol drama," he observes.

Some foreigners have jokingly termed "Water Margin" "Three Women and 105 Men," because there are only three female outlaws.

There is a fourth woman, Pan Jinlian, whose murder (to avenge the death of his brother) sends hero Wu Song into the marshes to join the outlaws. Pan is generally considered wanton, lewd and reckless, but she's far from it in the new shows.

Her appearance is the most controversial in the series. Pan is married to Wu's ugly brother. She tries to woo handsome Wu Song, who rejects her. She then has an affair with a wealthy businessman Ximen Qing, abetted by an old granny Wang Po. The husband finds them in bed and the two conspire with the help of Wang to poison her husband with his medicine. Wu discovers the truth, slays Ximen, ensures Wang is sliced to death by an executioner, and as for the adulteress Pan: he extracts a confession and then decapitates and disembowels her. That's in the book.

But in the TV version she runs toward Wu's sword bravely and commits suicide, with her sweet memories with Ximen flashing on the screen again and again.

"She looks so pure, stunning and fulfilled when she kills herself," says viewer Wang Lei. "Pan seems to be the victim of a tragic marriage and the male-dominated world. The message is that both she and her lover are not much to blame for pursuing true love."

"The extramarital affair is represented as quite acceptable and she is wounded when her handsome brother-in-law, Wu Song, rebuffs her advances."

It's not only the female roles that have changed, there's a big dose of modern cinematography and stunts. And costumes and armor of those hiding in the marshes are magnificent.

The show is the most popular in that television time period. It has gone half through the 80 episodes.

Though the series is criticized by some for its departure from the original highly masculine genre, some Internet users praise it as a bold and creative attempt to attract today's audience, including many women in the post-80s and post-90s generation.

According to Wen Haojie, scriptwriter of the series, former adaptations did not realize women's inherent and strong influences on male characters and their life choices.

Wen says the series is trying to provide realistic insight into human nature and actions - not just monotonous depictions of brotherhood and heroism.

Director Kuk says that before shooting began, the crew studied the aesthetic tastes of the post-80s and 80s young people. The drama uses many first-time actors, he says. "We don't want to judge the characters, instead, we try to display as many facets of their personalities as possible," says Kuk. "Remakes of classics should resonate with people today. If the series interests them, audiences might turn to the originals. That's really what we want."

The four Chinese classics have adapted in many ways and many times. In addition to "Water Margin," the new TV versions of "A Dream of Red Mansions," "Romance of the Three Kingdoms" and "Journey to the West" featuring the Monkey King have all generated controversy.

During the TV screening of "A Dream of Red Mansions" last year, many viewers were shocked by the opera-like and eerie, ghost-like costumes and headdresses of the females, which reminded them of the Hong Kong ghost film "Green Snake."

Director Li Shaohong has been criticized over her casting because many actors came from a televised nationwide casting contest partly based on SMS voting.

Claire Sun, a 30-year-old office worker, says she prefers the 1987 TV serial adaptation. "The novel with more than 600 characters is really profound. The new version's scenes and properties are more elaborate and the Kunqu Opera and guqin (Chinese seven-stringed zither) performances are amazing. But the young actors chosen from the entertainment show don't seem to know much about the classic and can't handle the drama or their roles very well."

Wang Fulin, director of the 1987 "A Dream of Red Mansions," says it took more than three years to film his series and almost all the actors received a year of special training in art and literature, which helped them appreciate the classic and perform well.

Wang urges young film makers today to show more respect for both literature and screen classics that have remained popular through the years. Remaking should not be driven by profit, he said.

In fact, a lot of viers are disappointed by the many true-to-the-original failures by mainland director Zhang Jizhong. Zhang's TV serial adaptations of Louis Cha's (also known as Jin Yong) famous martial arts novels such as "Legend of Condor Heroes" and "The Return of the Condor Heroes" have been criticized for excessive use of visual effects, weak story lines and lack of originality.

Zhang has been nicknamed "Terminator of the Classics" by many Internet users. These days his remake of the fantasy epic "Journey to the West" is shown on Chongqing local TV. Its screening on a Beijing channel was postponed until he revised some of his "foolish" dialogues.

Although more than 100 million yuan (US$14.7 million) had been spent on Hollywood special effects and stunts, the lines and new images are ridiculed by many on the Internet.

The Monkey King can fly on his cloud, but he is told to "slow down and show respect for the elderly." The monkey has a new nose that has been compared to that of evil Lord Voldemort of the "Harry Potter" series. The clever and courageous Monkey King is depicted with a fragile and sensitive side, and he sheds a lot of tears.

Director Zhang once told media that his visual effects in the latest Monkey King have far surpassed those of the 1986 version, and so the film deserves to be called a classic. In his eyes, many young viewers grew up watching Hollywood blockbusters and as a result have become very jaded about fantasy stunts and special effects. Many classics filmed decades ago have terrible sound tracks, poor cinematography, shabby sets and cannot satisfy the tastes of modern audiences.

Many Internet users say he has overemphasized stunts and fight scenes and that what's charming about the Monkey King is its free imagination, light tone of narration and its comingling of the divine, human and animal worlds. In fact, one online survey found that the pig in the story, Zhu Baijie, with his endearing qualities, his love of food and pretty females is the most popular character in the series. Some women polled said they would like to marry a man with that pig's qualities.

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