TV’s unlikely heroine

New TV drama breaks taboos in portrayal of post-war turmoil

TV’s unlikely heroine

Sun Li

First it was time-travel drama. Then game shows and dating programmes. And now foreign TV series are for the chop, too.

On Monday, SARFT announced that it’s banning foreign dramas from prime time schedules (7-10pm). The regulators have also dictated that foreign TV series should not exceed 50 episodes and that overseas productions tackling issues like crime and violence, or with “vulgar content”, are also prohibited, says the Shanghai Daily.

Television executives at 34 satellite stations in China have already been working overtime to cut domestic entertainment shows (especially reality TV) from their lineups.

Now, they will have to turn more of their attention to foreign content. As a result, very few programmes actually make the cut. So perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that one of the breakout hits on Chinese television at the moment returns (yet again) to a tried-and-tested format: a costume drama set in the Sino-Japanese War.

Little Aunt Crane tells the story of Duo He (which translates to ‘crane’ in Chinese), a young Japanese girl who lives in Manchuria during the Second Sino-Japanese War. When the Japanese retreat in 1945, Duo He – played by starlet Sun Li – is injured and is found unconscious by an elderly Chinese couple.

The couple – named Zhang – decide to bring Duo He back to their house and nurse her back to health. In return, they ask Duo He to be the second wife of their son, Zhang Jian, because his own wife Xiao Huan is unable to conceive. As a sign of gratitude, Duo He agrees to carry Zhang’s children.

As the drama proceeds, the Communists win control of the country. From here on Duo He’s life becomes a harder one, yet is sustained by her good-natured optimism.

Even though Little Aunt Crane is primarily a tale about a Japanese woman, it is also a story about how China coped with the aftermath of the Sino-Japanese War. Additionally it looks at the dramatic social changes wrought by the transition to Communist rule (the series spans 1945 to the 1990s).

In fact, SARFT must have deemed some of the subject matter in Little Aunt Crane as rather too sensitive. Although filming finished in 2010, the series wasn’t given the green light to air until this month. But the drama, which is broadcast in satellite stations in Anhui and Beijing, has been receiving critical acclaim. Critics have praised it as uplifting and wholesome. Unlike similar series packed with anti-Japanese sentiment, Little Aunt Crane downplays the worst of the Japanese brutality during the conflict, which mostly takes the form of blurry flashbacks.

In fact, many viewers have been surprised by how favourably the Japanese are portrayed. In the series, the selfless Duo He cleans the house, cooks meals, carries coal and tends children. Other Japanese characters, albeit with much less screen time, are also often depicted as helpful and generous.

Even though Little Aunt Crane at times avoids obvious topics – no mention of the Cultural Revolution, for instance – the show is still worth watching for a reasonably balanced presentation of a family’s struggle to survive four decades of political upheaval.

The story is based on a historical novel by Yan Geling, a high profile writer whose mother fled Nanjing during the Sino-Japanese War. Yan is also the author of The Flowers of War, the book that inspired China’s most expensive movie by Zhang Yimou (see WiC135).

“Women are the ultimate victims of war, and these women sacrificed their bodies for the tender lives of others,” Yan, a 53 year-old former People’s Liberation Army officer, told the New York Times. “I wrote for all of us to remember together.”

Lead actress Sun seems to agree, saying that even though Duo He appears weak and fragile, her resolve to do her best for her Chinese family is humbling.

“Duo He is a role model for me. I hope that all female audiences watching the show will not be discouraged even when they face all sorts of obstacles in life,” Sun claimed. “Like Duo He, we should believe that even the worst will pass and have the will to survive.”

No doubt Chinese TV executives will also be hoping to see their way through the latest rule tightening from the television regulator. But paradoxically – given SARFT’s heavy-handed approach elsewhere – the treatment of Aunt Little Crane looks like a step in the right direction i.e. allowing a drama to portray some of the trauma of China’s modern history.

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