To prepare for her role as a pregnant peasant in Zhang Yimou’s 1992 movie The Story of Qiu Ju, Gong Li spent two months living in a small farming village. The film, which tells the story of a woman trudging through the courts in a bid for compensation after her husband is kicked in the groin by the village chief, went on to win the top prize at the Venice Film Festival. Gong also took the award for best actress.
Last week, the TV series The Story of Xingfu, which is inspired by the same novel The Wan Family’s Lawsuit, topped the rankings as the highest trending topic on Chinese social media.
At least for starlet Zhao Liying, who plays the lead in the drama and whose character is similar to Qiu Ju, there wasn’t quite the same need to do as much background research. Born in a poor village in Hebei province, the 34 year-old didn’t last long in education. She took up a range of jobs to support her family until one day she was noticed by a recruiter from a talent agency. Even then, success did not come overnight. Zhao worked diligently for over a decade, first appearing in minor roles in TV series before finally getting noticed in The Journey of Flowers, a popular historical drama released in 2015.
Like Qiu Ju, The Story of Xingfu follows an obstinate heroine in her (frustrating) quest for justice. The story starts with the wedding of He Xingfu (played by Zhao) to Wang Qinglai (Tang Zeng), a villager in a fictional village. The auspicious day soon takes a turn for the worse, however, when the son of the village Party secretary Wan Shantang sexually harasses her younger sister, a bridesmaid at the wedding.
To stop him molesting her, He grabs a chair and whacks Wan junior over the head with it.
Worried about offending the local Party secretary, the Wang family asks her to apologise. But the heroine thinks the perpetrator owes her sister an apology instead and refuses to back down.
Most of the village chooses to side with the molester’s powerful relatives, while He’s new relatives on the groom’s side are caught in the middle of the row, wondering what to do with their headstrong addition to the family.
The People’s Daily has been quick to lend its support to the show. “Compared with other female-centric series, He Xingfu doesn’t have the magic touch or superpowers. But her insistent attitude that ‘everything needs to be within reason’ and her desire to improve and learn is what gives her and the people around her the motivation to make similar contributions to our society,” the newspaper praised.
Netizens, too, say the show’s realistic portrayal of country life is what keeps them tuning in. “The Story of Xingfu is very accurate and very brave. It touches upon a lot of the hot topics of real life. What a great show,” one reviewer wrote.
The villagers’ desire to placate the Party secretary is not without reason. The series is quick to point out that everyone in the village feels indebted to him because he started a quarry in the neighbourhood, improving the local economy. He is so well respected that the Wang family even waits until Wan senior arrives before starting the wedding ceremony.
“The village where I came from is the same: the Party secretary is so influential that whatever he says is echoed by hundreds of people. That is just how it is in the countryside,” another netizen claimed.
The series has also generated a lot of trending discussion online, with many lambasting the tradition of “wedding hazing,” which is often more popular in rural areas. This often entails playing pranks on the wedding party on their big day. It was also the excuse that Wan junior employed for sexually harassing He’s sister, claiming it was all a good-natured prank.
There is no shortage of cases of hazing going wrong in real life, however, many of them reported in the domestic media. For instance, social media footage last year from Shandong province showed a group of groomsmen chasing after a bride and leaving her wedding gown in tatters. In another village in Henan, a bride wearing traditional wedding costume in a two-piece set is seen walking around without the lower half. She is so outraged by the prank that she runs off in tears.
Zheng Xiaolong, the director of The Story of Xingfu, has enjoyed previous successes with female-centric dramas such as 2011’s Empresses in the Palace and Red Sorghum three years later.
To erase any trace of real-life glamour, Zhao stars in the drama with minimal makeup and unkempt-looking hair. The director insisted on not using any filters in the filming of the TV series either, meaning that every line and wrinkle on Zhao’s face stands out. But that all adds to the sense of realism that has appealed to so many viewers. The Story of Xingfu, which is being shown on Dragon Satellite TV and Beijing Satellite TV, and streams on Youku, has dominated primetime ratings since its release last Wednesday.
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