Palace intrigue over remake

Female retirees cause a stir with their production of a much-loved drama


The original Empresses in the Palace

Empresses in the Palace, also known as Zhen Huan Zhuan in Chinese, is one of the most highly acclaimed TV dramas from China in recent memory (Netflix purchased the streaming rights to the show for broadcast in the US back in 2015).

The historical series, which was first released in 2011, stayed popular long after its season finale and it was played repeatedly on other satellite networks and online video platforms.

After Youku purchased the rights to the series from the now defunct LeTV in 2018, the drama drew a record 160 million views within the first week, surpassing other much-hyped rivals in the same year.

Milk tea brand HeyTea was one of the latest companies to strike a commercial deal with the rights holder, launching themed drinks to celebrate the show’s 11th anniversary.

The drama, set in the Qing Dynasty, follows the life of the innocent and kind-hearted Zhen Huan (played by actress Sun Li), who is chosen as one of the emperor’s concubines. Along with her friends, Zhen learns how to survive the perils of imperial politics. In the end, she rises through the ranks to become the Empress Dowager.

The drama was once again in the news last week after a group of female retirees from Shanghai travelled to Hengdian (a vast studio complex where many costume dramas are shot) to recreate scenes from their beloved show.

They later posted their efforts on social media and the video quickly generated a lot of buzz.

According to ThePaper.cn, the 16 ‘aspiring actors’ from Shanghai, who have an average age of 62, decided they wanted to work on a remake of their favourite TV drama together. So they hired a production studio that put together a filming schedule, bringing the women to Hengdian, which is in Zhejiang province.

Upon arrival, the group changed into elaborate Qing costumes and were given a short time to memorise their lines (there wasn’t much need – they already knew them by heart, reportedly). They filmed five scenes in total, which took about six hours to complete, and roles were decided by drawing lots.

One of the women was said to have dragged along her husband to play the role of Emperor.

The video of their ‘remake’ quickly caught on, winning laughs from the netizens. “Their happiness is infectious. I want to experience that joy when I’m retired,” one wrote. “It’s great to see that all these retirees may be old, but they are still young at heart,” another added.

If the women were excited by their new-found fame, their enjoyment was to be short-lived, however.

Soon afterwards, the studio that owns the copyright to Empresses in the Palace issued a statement saying that the video had infringed its rights, asking social media platforms to take the footage down.

Cao Ping, one of the show’s producers, told Beijing Youth Daily, that there wouldn’t be any further action against the retirees: “They must really love the show. We understand that,” he acknowledged. But legal commentators said the remaking of a TV series like this falls into a grey area of copyright law. “When it comes to the filming or adapting an original work without the consent of the copyright owner, it risks violating the law,” one told Shanghai Morning Post.

“If it was for their own self-entertainment, that’s a reasonable use of the work. However, the studio that was in charge of the filming charged these women a fee and made money out of it, which risks copyright infringement.”

As it turns out, each of the participants had paid the studio Rmb4,000 ($549), which also covered the food and accommodation during their trip.

Tapping into the unexpected publicity around the remake, the studio said that it was offering other ‘remake’ packages including Romance in the Rain, a series that was released in 2001, as well as Tencent’s more recent costume drama hit A Dream of Splendour.

Such “mini films” packages have become popular in Hengdian in attracting visitors who want to fulfil their acting ambitions. Zhang Jinquan, the chief director at Hengdian Film and Television, said in an interview that he has been making mini-films for nearly 10 years and that his company can shoot as many as 50 such projects a day.

Like many vacation packages, these acting experiences come at different prices and quality levels, with the cheapest costing just Rmb3,800, including a director, a cinematographer and a set of costumes. The most deluxe offer (similar to the one selected by the Shanghai retirees) adds make-up artists, production assistants and a stage manager. The studio promises its customers that the quality of the finished product will look close to the real thing.

Some netizens have reacted to the story by arguing that more seniors should be encouraged to participate in remakes of their favourite dramas. Pensioners looking for something to do have often signed up for square-dancing in public places (usually to deafeningly-loud music, much to the younger public’s annoyance). But the women in the video, netizens claimed, have so much joie de vivre, proving that retirement doesn’t have to be dull or monotonous.

Although there is no shortage of holiday packages already on offer to the elderly, many are little more than sightseeing tours with photo-taking opportunities. A more active programme of travelling, acting and filming allows enthused members of the older generation to enjoy themselves in a different way. “If there is a more appropriate way to promote it, it could benefit a lot more people,” says ThePaper.cn of the new trend in moviemaking.

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