Chinese filmmaker turns 'Turandot' into hybrid fantasy

By Zhang Rui
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, October 20, 2021
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Director Zheng Xiaolong said that he tried his best to turn Giacomo Puccini's world-famous opera"Turandot" into a Chinese-Western hybrid fantasy fairytale.

Actress Guan Xiaotong, actor Dylan Sprouse, and director Zheng Xiaolong pose for a photo on the set of "The Curse of Turandot." [Photo courtesy of Flower Film & TV]

Zheng, a highly acclaimed director and screenwriter in China, is responsible for several hit TV series. His resume includes the country's first sitcom, "Stories from the Editorial Board" (1991); the first Chinese TV series shot in the United States, "A Native of Beijing in New York" (1992); as well as the hugely popular historical TV dramas, "Empresses in the Palace" (2011), "The Legend of Mi Yue" (2015) and the most recent, "Medal of the Republic" (2021). However, he has only previously directed one movie, "The Gua Sha Treatment," in 2001, whose portrayal of the cultural gap between China and America was critically acclaimed upon its release.

It was just after the release of that movie that a friend suggested Zheng tackle an adaption of another story that represents a cultural gap between Chinese and Western audiences: "Turandot." Although the opera is recognized globally, it presents a Western perspective or a wildly imagined version of ancient China, and remains largely exotic to audiences in China. In fact, the name "Turandot" is not of Chinese origin at all, with the experts believing it is either a Persian word meaning "the daughter of Turan" or a name originated from the Mongolian word "dulaan," which means "warm."

When tailoring it for Chinese audiences, Zheng saw other problems in the story. "The opera's music is profound, but the logic of the story is not convincing," he said. The iconic Italian opera tells the story of Prince Calaf, who falls in love with the cold-hearted Princess Turandot, but the prince must solve three riddles in order to marry her, with a single wrong answer punishable by death. After several life-and-death tests involving previous suitors, Calaf and the princess eventually marry and live happily ever after. "This love story is cold and cruel, it doesn't make sense for Chinese people and their value and logic, as well their perspective of love."

Zheng rejected his friend's suggestion at the time, but the idea grew like a seed planted into his heart, as well as into the heart of his wife, Wang Xiaoping, a famous writer and screenwriter. Wang, inspired by "Turandot," wrote a three-volume fantasy novel about three magical and cursed bracelets that affect the fate of Turandot and the empire. 

After reading his wife's story about the cursed love, which mends the story's logic, the director decided to review the idea and finally moved to make a film in 2018, with Wang as his screenwriter. The COVID-19 pandemic stalled post-production, but the film was finally released in China on Oct. 15.

The Chinese film version of "Turandot," officially titled "The Curse of Turandot," brings together an international cast and crew, including big domestic names like actor-director Jiang Wen and actor Hu Jun and international stars like French actress Sophie Marceau. There are also several new stars, such as young actress Guan Xiaotong, who was cast as Princess Turandot, while American actor Dylan Sprouse plays Calaf.

A poster for "The Curse of Turandot" [Image courtesy of Flower Film & TV]

Zheng added abundant and authentic Chinese elements to the story, from the costumes, makeup, dialogue, kung fu sequences, sets, and Chinese cultural ideas such as "sacrifice for love," as well as the story of how the ancient Chinese invention of fireworks spread in Europe. Zheng hoped these works could make "Turandot" more Chinese. However, despite trying, he says he was unable to retain any of the original music from "Turandot," such as "Nessun Dorma," even for nostalgic reasons. 

"We had tried music from the opera for the film but it just didn't add up," the director said. Then, the film's music was composed by Simon Franglen, one of the musicians who had worked on "Avatar" and "Titanic."

Zheng added that "The Curse of Turandot" may secure an overseas release at a later date. 

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