On the margin

News that Netflix is to remake Chinese classic draws ire


Coming to Netflix soon

One of the Four Classic Novels, The Water Margin (Shuihu Zhuan 水滸傳) tells the story of 108 outlaws who band together on a mountain during the Song Dynasty in the 12th century, a time of misrule and corruption.

In an extended (but less popular) version of the novel, the government eventually grants an amnesty to the outlaws, who embark on campaigns to defeat rebel forces and repel foreign attacks. Although regarded as heroes for their sense of loyalty and togetherness, the group still commit terrible killings and some even indulge in cannibalism.

On November 14, Netflix tweeted that it was making an adaptation of the much-loved book with “a futuristic twist”, directed by Shinsuke Sato and based on a screenplay by American writer Matt Sand.

Sand wrote the screenplay for the 2016 film Deepwater Horizon, starring Mark Wahlberg, about the BP drilling rig that exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. Japanese director Shinsuke Sato directed Kingdom, a 2019 adaptation of a comic book, which is set during the final days of the Warring States period in China. Both movies fared well in the Chinese market, earning favourable reviews.

Yet many Chinese have reacted sceptically to whether the foreign creatives can meet the artistic demands of a great Chinese classic. On a weibo poll “Are you optimistic about Netflix’s adaptation of The Water Margin?” 60,000 of 80,0000 respondents said that they feared the worst.

“I now understand the pain that Russians must feel watching an American adaptation of War and Peace,” responded one user on weibo. “Chinese story, American investment, Japanese director, Korean actors, African audience?” mocked another.

There have been several adaptations of The Water Margin, but only a handful can be considered as classics. The most highly-acclaimed is a 1998 television series made by CCTV, China’s state broadcaster. The series was filmed between 1994 and 1997, making it something of a labour of love. Yuen Woo-ping, who had worked with the likes of Jackie Chan, was hired to direct the martial arts scenes, and actors were praised for their portrayals of some of the most iconix characters. Commentators also complimented the costumes, props and set design as replicating the realities of Bianliang, the capital of the Song Dynasty in today’s Henan province.

Although the 1998 series was generally met with positive reviews, there were still those who thought that it didn’t measure up to the original work, with complaints that too much of the plot and too many of the characters from the book had been changed.

The Water Margin features hundreds of characters and complex storylines, which are already difficult enough to understand and adapt by Chinese people, much less by foreign creatives,” another netizen warned of the new Netflix project. Others were more concerned that much of the story could fall foul of ‘Western’ concerns about political correctness. “Leave The Water Margin alone, I don’t want to see a group of politically correct foreigners come to perform. There will be serious issues with misinterpretation, and stereotypes when the story is viewed through the eyes of foreigners,” claimed another popular contributor.

Recent attempts by international studios to make Chinese-themed movies haven’t fared very well either. Hollywood’s interpretation of Mulan, released this year, disappointed Chinese audiences, getting low ratings on Douban, the film and TV series review site. Despite Liu Yifei’s star power, the film was widely critiqued for trying to turn Mulan herself into a quasi-super hero (see WiC511). “This version of Mulan is laden with Chinese cultural elements. But at its core, it reflects Western aesthetics and values and a lot of foreign misunderstandings and misinterpretations about Chinese culture,” one of the many critics complained.

Netflix is not available in mainland China – unless the viewer has a VPN. So the target market for the new series is probably the millions of ethnic Chinese around the world. The streaming service’s last period drama set in China – Marco Polo – was not a hit, despite plenty of nudity and martial arts.

That said, not all the commentary on the newest China project from Netflix was from naysayers. “Is it bad for Chinese culture to be known by the world?” asked another contributor to weibo. “Maybe using a Western angle to interpret this great Chinese IP could be very interesting,” commented another.

“The fact is that cultural barriers will always exist. And no matter what the adaptation of The Water Margin, it won’t meet our expectations,” argued another on Huxiu, a portal, before adding “Why not be more open and give this adaptation some time to prove itself?”

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