Too hot to handle

The most delayed film in Chinese cinema history (finally) hits screens

Too hot to handle

Zhang Yuqi: audiences are seeing less of her than hoped

Good things, it is commonly said, come to those who wait. But that doesn’t seem to have been the case for the movie White Deer Plain.

The highly anticipated film took over a decade to make and was beset by delays. Xi’an Film Studio first acquired the rights to a book of the same name in 2002. But it then took producers four years and numerous rewrites to get the script past the censors. Just as filming was about to begin in 2007, director Wang Quan’an then withdrew. The script was shelved for three more years, until Wang had a change of heart and agreed to direct again.

Nor was that the last of the production problems. Originally White Deer Plain was expected to screen in October last year, but was pushed back when censors balked at the latest rewrite. Then, after all the necessary editing had been completed– another seven months, says Xinhua – the producer confirmed that the film would finally make its screen debut in the city of Xi’an – where the story takes place – on September 13.

But impatient film fans were to be disappointed yet again. At the eleventh hour the studio announced that there were ‘minor problems’ with the film’s reel so opening night had to be pushed back yet again.

The ill-starred production – which is set in the first half of the last century and tells the tale of two feuding families – has already cost at least Rmb100 million.

Why all the delays? Industry insiders say it is straightforward: the censors are uncomfortable with the film’s numerous sex scenes. Industry regulators recently sent the director of Dangerous Liaisons, starring Zhang Ziyi and Cecilia Cheung, back to the cutting room for far less risqué scenes, says Liaoning Evening News, and White Deer Plain has been facing a similar challenge.

Longtime WiC readers will know that the censors have form in this area and are notoriously reluctant to allow too much cinematic flesh for public consumption. Indeed, so many cuts were made to Lee Ang’s celebrated Lust Caution that local audiences quipped that the film would have been better titled Caution, No Lust.

But no matter: White Deer Plain was finally ready for public screening last Saturday. So is the film, starring Zhang Yuqi, worth the wait?

Most fans of the book say that the film doesn’t do the novel justice, especially in failing to recapture the full sweep of a saga that’s supposed to span half a century.

“Many important events happened in China during [the first half of the 20th century], a key backdrop. But these important time periods are presented only with the dates on the screen,” says film critic Wang Siwei, adding that producers seem to have expected audiences to have a detailed knowledge of modern Chinese history.

Hollywood Reporter agrees: “Unfortunately, this impressively lensed and scaled work flounders for focus… The film presents historical and personal horrors in fleeting, tableaux-like scenes of little emotional impact. Although the film’s stunning look, coupled with the director’s reputation, may swing limited release in some territories, this is an art film even for Chinese viewers.”

Even when filming first started, insiders were sceptical that the final product would impress. A common prediction was that the project was doomed to disaster (see WiC78) as too difficult to adapt from the page to the screen.

And then there was the problem of the sex scenes, which had caused controversy even in the book. That left the industry more than curious to see how Wang would convince the authorities to allow all of the action, although speculation grew that the director must have been persuasive, when a two-minute trailer was released, replete with some fairly daring images.

But as it turns out, the pleasure was more in the anticipation than the final result. The director seems to have packed virtually all the sex scenes into the teaser footage, leaving audiences disappointed that the full-length version didn’t deliver a little more carnal pleasure.

In fact, netizens were soon joking that scenes showing characters eating noodles were more exciting than some the more anticipated fare, as well as advising those who planned to go see White Deer Plain out of curiosity to think twice before buying tickets.

So the censor’s scissors have proved as sharp as ever, then? The director has since conceded to Yangtze Evening News that he had to make a lot of changes to get the film onto the big screen.

Other netizens were more sympathetic: “This [White Deer Plain] is not a story about the Chinese countryside, but rather a reflection of the tragedy under China’s censorship system. The director said the censors finally took out 20 minutes of footage. I say, they probably took away the soul, too.”

But at least the associated publicity has helped boost box office takings. Last weekend the film reportedly took Rmb21 million in revenues, a strong opening for a domestic production. But because of its tortured path to opening night, that still means that White Deer Plain is some way off recouping its costs.

© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.