Adult entertainment

Disney’s Cinderella tale woos China’s grown-up audience rather than kids

Cast member Lily James laughs at the premiere of "Cinderella" at El Capitan theatre in Hollywood

You will go to the ball

Charles Perrault’s folk tale about Cinderella was written around the seventeenth century. But a Chinese legend bearing a striking resemblance to its plot seems to have appeared in the Tang Dynasty, almost a millennium earlier.

It is the story of a very bright girl named Ye Xian. Not only is she beautiful she also has a very kind heart. But her father dies so she is forced to live with her stepmother. One day when drawing water Ye catches a fish with red fins and golden eyes. She takes the fish home and places it in the pond, taking every scrap of food she can find to feed the fish. Unfortunately her stepmother snatches and kills (then eats) the fish while Ye is out running errands.

When Ye discovers her fish is gone she becomes terribly upset. A little old man (the fairy god father?) magically appears and instructs her to retrieve the fish bones, put them in a bowl in her room and it will grant any wish she wants.

One day, during the annual festival for young maidens to meet potential husbands, her stepmother and stepsister set off for the dating fair. Ye wants to go too and prays to her fish bones. Suddenly Ye finds herself clad in the most beautiful green silk robe with jade and other fine jewellery adorning her. More importantly, she is also given a pair of gold embroidered slippers.

In her new outfit, Ye rushes to join the celebrations. She is so beautiful that men and women – including her stepmother and stepsister – start wondering who she is. Worried that her identity could be compromised, Ye runs back home but leaves one of her slippers. The Emperor later finds the slipper and becomes determined to find its owner… (Presumably, you can predict the ending.)

That helps explain why many Chinese are familiar with the Cinderella story – even if they didn’t grow up watching the famed Disney cartoon. And last week, Disney’s live-action film Cinderella became the biggest box office winner, taking in over Rmb200 million ($32 million) during its opening weekend.

The film, which stars Lily James in the title role and Cate Blanchett as her evil stepmother, has been well received in China. On Douban, a popular Chinese movie review site, the film was rated 7 out of 10, with many saying that the visual effects were “stunning” and that the fantasy tale, though old, was very “satisfying” to watch.

“When I was a little girl with boxes of story books, I always dreamed about what a princess looks like and how she dresses, with golden locks and rosy cheeks. So when I was watching the film and seeing Cinderella glide down the stairs with her blue dress and beautiful hair, I could feel every girl in the cinema shared the same thought: our childhood dream is saying hello to us!”

Critics say the film’s widespread appeal is part of the reason for its success. “Cinderella rekindled the audiences’ passion for classic fairy tale films. The IMAX version, in particular, really helps transport the audience into the dream-life environment and awakes every young girl’s dream for a fairy tale ending,” says Tencent Entertainment.

And while some critics in the West complain the film is “unoriginal” and “too loyal” to the Disney cartoon, Chinese viewers don’t seem too bothered by that. “The live-action version of Cinderella looks exactly the same as the one I saw when I was little. There’s no reinterpretation, no unnecessary alterations. Even though the scenes featuring the stepmother have increased in this film, it totally fits with the story,” another critic wrote on Douban.

Interestingly, while the film’s biggest fan base in the US are children – for example, the New York Times says 43% of the audience was under the age of 16 – the demographic is dramatically different in China, where the majority of moviegoers are adults. People’s Daily, for instance, reckons that the film is more suitable for adults than for kids. Many domestic film blogs also say Cinderella is too difficult for children to follow because they will have a hard time reading subtitles, and only a few cinemas showed a version dubbed in Mandarin. “For a kid-friendly movie, you should probably bring them to watch Paddington,” one advised.

Moreover, some say Cinderella is hardly a role model for small children. Chu Tian Golden News, for instance, calls the character a “cultured but calculating social climber”. Its critique goes on: “Which daughter will tell her father to just bring her a twig from his travels? And when she tells the prince not to shoot the deer, she is using her warmth and charm to seduce him. Moreover, to retaliate against her stepmother she delivers the most hurtful line, ‘You are not my mother and you never will be.’ But when she is in front of the prince, she tells the stepmother that she forgives her. Doesn’t that just send chills down your spine?”

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