The trouble with women

Three movies are to be released about the mistress who felled Tang Dynasty

The trouble with women

Who will make the best Yang Guifei? Fan Bingbing, Yao Chen and Zhang Ziyi are all cast to play the beauty

“Cherchez la femme” – blaming a woman when a man behaves badly – seems to have roots across a number of cultures.

One of the best-known examples in China comes from Tang dynasty concubine Yang Yuhuan, blamed for an eighth century rebellion that toppled her lover, the Emperor Xuanzong. Chinese historians have said the emperor lost his throne because of Yang, who distracted him with her beauty (and who had a cousin in cahoots with the rebels).

Also known as Yang Guifei (‘Imperial Consort Yang’), she was then strangled on the insistence of Xuanzong’s advisers, as the emperor and his troops fled from their capital Xi’an to Chengdu, in one of the most well-known moments of Chinese history.

Three new films about Yang’s fate, each at different stages of production, point to some of the copycat tendencies within the industry – there was something similar over the last couple of years with films featuring the Nanjing massacre.

They also suggest an enduring fascination with her story. And perhaps more coincidentally, they are coming at a time when there has been a lot of chat on the divergent fortunes of two Chinese women familiar with power. The first is Gu Kailai, the wife of the disgraced Communist Party scion Bo Xilai; the second is Liu Yandong, a State Councillor and ‘princeling’ who might make it onto the next Standing Committee of the Politburo later this year.

For example, traditionalists are making the comparison between Gu and eighth-century Yang, the parallel being that both had a major role in a man’s downfall (Gu is suspected of involvement in the murder of Briton, Neil Heywood, which precipitated Bo’s fall from grace).

And while no one is saying anything damaging about Liu, if she makes it into the inner circle of power at the 18th Party Congress, she’ll be making history as the first woman to do so.

That would run counter to a historical narrative often rife with male chauvinism (apart from Yang, others to get a famously bad rap include the Empress Wu Zetian and Mao’s wife Jiang Qing).

Meanwhile, at least one of the trio of Yang films is experiencing trouble because of – you’ve guessed it – woman trouble. At the end of April, Beijing’s Chunqiuhong Culture Company and Japan’s Tristone Entertainment inked a deal for one of the movies about Yang, to be directed by a Korean, Kwak Jae-young. The proposed title – for which no official English translation is yet available – is ‘Sheng Tang weiji’ or, roughly, Crisis in the Flourishing Tang. The cast is being drawn from China, Japan and Korea, the Beijing News reported, and the film has a $20 million budget.

Kwak told the newspaper that he was aiming for an Oscar and hoped that the film would draw worldwide audiences (they should prepare for a shock: most won’t expect to see their leading lady throttled).

But the production, which will feature local star Fan Bingbing, is already running into problems. Fan is upset that a rewrite of the script shifted the focus more towards the rebel leader, An Lushan, and away from her own character, Yang.

She evidently staged a rebellion of her own and may have got her way. On Wednesday, Kwak was fired, Sina.com Entertaiment reports. The reason given was his failure to “accord a traditional Chinese understanding of the Tang Dynasty,” it reported.

Yang movie number two is backed by money from Xi’an, Xuanzong’s former stomping ground, and also has Hollywood involvement in Antoine Fuqua, the director of Training Day, the Wall Street Journal reported. Qujiang Film and Television Investment Group plans to spend $30 million on its own version of the story, which it says has been in the works since 2007.

Originally the production was to be directed by local filmmakers with a Chinese script. Later the group began looking for an American director to help “interpret Chinese history and culture in a way that Westerners could understand,” QFTV chairman Guan Zhaoyi told the Journal. August 2012 is the tentative start date for shooting, with Qujiang also hoping a successful outcome will lead to closer ties with Hollywood.

David Franzoni, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter and producer of Gladiator, is writing the script, the newspaper said. But the problem this time is that state censors have already demanded that An, the rebel, be portrayed a lot less sympathetically than Franzoni seems to have originally envisaged (subtext: don’t be complimentary about challengers to the status quo). They were unconvinced by Franzoni’s argument that even villains need a human face to be believable, and apparently he has revisited the character to accomodate more of their view.

“I treat the Emperor and Yang like Adam and Eve, and the palace like the Garden of Eden,” Franzoni told the Journal of his new approach.

The film’s backers hope that well-known stars Chow Yun-Fat and Zhang Ziyi will take lead roles in the movie, which is currently titled Love Affair of the Tang Dynasty.

How about the third film in the group? It is being planned by well-known Chinese director Chen Kaige, in cooperation with Japan’s Kadokawa Pictures. Then again, Chen has a queue of projects ahead of him so “no-one’s holding their breath” about the release date, the Beijing News reported. It’s rumoured that actress Yao Chen will play Yang in this version.

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