Southern softie

Viewers say Zhejiang’s Zhou isn’t tough enough for Red Sorghum’s remake


Too sophisticated to play a rural Shandonger? Actress Zhou Xun

Soon after Mo Yan became the first Chinese author to win a Nobel Prize, the authorities in his hometown made a major announcement. They unveiled plans for a Rmb1.7 billion ($277.49 million) ‘Mo Yan Culture Experience Zone’ in Gaomi, creating a theme park based on his most popular novel, Red Sorghum.

While most of the park is still under construction, the “Red Sorghum TV Production Base” is now open to the public. For Rmb10 (or Rmb20 at weekends), visitors can look at props and scenery used in the latest TV adaptation of the book, which has been showing in China this autumn. For instance, they can sit in the traditional sedan chair used by leading lady Zhou Xun in one of the more memorable scenes in the show. Or they can sample the tofu dish she munches in another episode.

The TV adaptation of Red Sorghum has appeared on four satellite networks since late October. The book was previously adapted into a film by Zhang Yimou in 1987, propelling both its director and its lead actress Gong Li to stardom. But for the TV version, Zhou replaces Gong as plucky leading lady Jiuer.

“Comparisons are inevitable, but I think films and television are different from each other. They have a different format and different capacities,” Zhou told reporters who asked her about being compared to Gong’s portrayal of the character.

“I hope that [original stars] Gong Li, Jiang Wen, and [director] Zhang Yimou will see it and like it.”

But will the TV effort enjoy anything like the same success as the film? The series is about three-quarters through but Xinhua is already certain that Red Sorghum is going to be a “classic in Chinese television history”. In a testament to its popularity, Qilu Evening Post is also reporting that people have been greeting each other by asking, “Have you watched Red Sorghum?” instead of the more habitual “Have you eaten yet?”

Not everyone is impressed, mind you, including those who complain that the TV series is too commercial, resembling more of a “dynastic court drama”.

Others say the small screen adaptation misses what makes the book and the film so special in the first place – the portrayal of a rustic, country life.

“The TV series loses all the authenticity,” one netizen wrote. “There are also many modern words in the series that no country people would ever use. How is this still a show about rural Shandong people?”

But most of the controversy surrounds the choice of Zhou in the lead role. Despite being an adaptable performer – “her acting is impeccable,” Hainan Daily resolutely declares – Zhou is from the eastern province of Zhejiang. Her critics say that this makes her unconvincing as a character supposed to be from Shandong further north. Northern Chinese tend to be taller with bigger bone structure than southerners, and some viewers are complaining that Zhou doesn’t fit the bill herself as the lead character.

“Zhou can elicit sympathy; she can make you fall in love with her; but she is not fit to play a ‘wild rose’ like the character Jiuer. Everything about Zhou shows the temperament of a southerner. Zhang Yimou, on the other hand, was much smarter, choosing Gong Li, a native Shandong girl, to play the role. Their aura is something that is ingrained in their genes, something even a good actress can’t replicate,” Hainan Daily agrees.

(The Chinese take provincial stereotypes very seriously. For a quick guide to some of the main generalisations, see WiC124.)

Netizens are even finding fault with Zhou’s enviable complexion. “No matter how you look at it, Zhou Xun looks just like someone from the south. Her features are too delicate and her skin is too soft. She also looks too sophisticated to play an uneducated country girl,” one netizen wrote.

Sometimes attributed to the warmer climate in the south, northern Chinese women are generally regarded as tougher and more independent than their southern counterparts. But the director of the TV series, Zheng Xiaolong, has defended Zhou, arguing that she is as feisty and strong-willed as the Shandong stereotype. “I think Zhou is able to express a type of resilience that’s typical of people of Shandong – even if they fall into a pit, they can pick themselves up. I don’t think physical attributes are that important,” he told Nanfang Daily.

The Gaomi government will be desperate to see the TV series succeed. Not only did the town announce the Red Sorghum theme park, they have also planted at least 200 hectares of red sorghum grain to serve as a backdrop for the TV production. This turns out to be a revival of sorts. The China Daily says local farmers stopped growing sorghum in the late 1980s because it was often unprofitable. It sounds like that is still the case – other than attracting the tourists, local farmers say there’s little point in planting sorghum today…

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