A new biographical feature film "Mao Zedong and Edgar Snow," to be shown nationwide from June 1, is a dedication from film directors to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the American journalist Edgar Snow's first visit to China.
For most Americans and other Western audiences, Snow (1905-72) is best-known as the author of the book Red Star over China.
His sympathetic and somewhat romantic introduction of the goals, history and personalities of the Chinese Communist revolutionary army established Mao Zedong as a Chinese hero in the Western media.
Directed by Song Jiangbo and Wang Xuexin from the Changchun Film Studio, "Edgar Snow and Mao Zedong" recaptures the 35-year-long friendship between Edgar Snow and the late Chinese leader Mao Zedong.
"It was such a big venture to shoot Mao and Snow that I wanted to give up several times," recalled Song Jiangbo.
Since late 1995, scriptwriter Li Chao has been traveling across the country to get material for the project, interviewing more than a hundred veteran Chinese soldiers and foreigners now living in China, including Israel Epstein and wife of Dr George Hatem, all friends of Snow.
"We carried out research as thoroughly as possible for the major historical figures the film covers, reading piles of books and historical documents and watching numerous archived newsreels, before we started shooting the film," Wang Xuexin added.
Li Chao said he aimed to sort out the details that best reflected the inner world of Mao and Snow and their 35-year-long friendship, although he admitted it resulted in a somewhat weak dramatic conflict inside the storyline.
"It's especially a tough job to shape Snow, who had a very complicated life and played an important role in the cause of Sino-US relations," said Li, who is from the Changchun Film Studio.
"I was moved by Snow who drew an analogy between himself and a grain of wheat sandwiched between two blackboards to describe his experience under the McCarthyism of the 50s," said Li.
Snow was elbowed out of his country because of his report about the Chinese revolution and Chairman Mao, and he was forced to move to Switzerland.
Scenarios in Snow's life, such as his relationship with Chiang Kai-shek and Chang Hseuh-liang and his insistence on seeing the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) in the 70s, are in Li's view of little-known facts.
Li spent four years writing the script and revised it 12 times.
Unlike other films with similar themes, which usually focus on significant historic events, "Mao Zedong and Snow" goes into the ordinary and trivial details in life which characterized Mao and Snow's relationship.
"Mao and Snow are great men. But they also had human characters. Mao was the son of a farmer from Shaoshanchong Village in central China's Hunan Province, while Snow was a young journalist who loved traveling from the other side of the Pacific Ocean," said director Song Jiangbo.
The film shifts through history using lots of flashbacks.
The story begins in Snow's later life, when he received treatment from a selected Chinese medical expert in Switzerland. The film then jumps to when he first stepped on Chinese soil in the 1930s, then to the scenes where Mao showed great concern for his old friend's disease.
The whole story comes to a climax as formal Sino-US diplomatic relations are established in 1972.
The film is less about Mao's charisma as a great leader, unlike other films such as "Chongqing Negotiation" (Chongqing Tanpan) and "The Making of A New China" (Kaitian Pidi).
Mao's life in cave-dwellings, his inquiries into angry farmers, his free talk with Snow at the dinner table and his visit to the simple funeral of a young soldier are what the movie displays most.
Director Song said he had tried to bring to life Mao's individuality, cultural character, poetic disposition and human nature.
"Despite their different nationalities and cultural backgrounds, Snow and Mao had a mutual understanding and a mutual respect, and in this way their hearts were close and helped nurture a life-long friendship," said Song.
With a time span of more than 30 years, the film needed a large crew of actors, costumes, background props and interior and exterior settings. Mao and Snow were played by different actors in their youth and old age.
"Most roles are public figures that people are very familiar with, which posed great challenges for the actors," said Song.
To represent their characters well, actors need to have a profound knowledge of the facts surrounding their lives, Song said.
If the film's preview is representative of the work, Edgar Snow's portrayal is touching and young actor Wang Ying's depiction of Mao gives another subtle dimension to the great Chinese hero.
John A. Gardner, who came to China 17 years ago and speaks fluent Chinese, plays the young Edgar Snow in the film.
"I respect Snow for his objective report about China and I love China as much as Snow," said Gardner.
The young American, who has little professional experience in performing, was highly praised for his shaping of Snow by the crew members.
"In some circumstances, I find it hard to imagine what and how a reporter would do and the director gave me many suggestions," said Gardner, who seems satisfied with his performance.
"I am planning to bring this film to American audiences," he said. "Young Americans should watch the film and learn more about Snow and his friendship with Mao and China."
Wang Ying, who plays a younger Mao Zedong in the 1930s, delivers a better performance than Gu Yue, a long-time Mao double in Chinese films, who acts as older Mao in the 1960s and 1970s with a rigid, stereotyped approach.
In this film, all dialogue between Chinese and foreigners are in English.
Many clips from original documentaries are used in the film, so that the audience can get a glimpse of the confidential talks in Zhongnanhai in the 60s between Mao and Snow, and of Mao's historic greeting of Snow on the Tian'anmen Rostrum in the 1970s.
With an investment of about 5 million yuan (US$625,000), the three-hour film was produced by Changchun Film Studio, Jiangxi Film Studio and Jiujiang Yangtze Film Studio.
The film was awarded a special prize by the jury in the Fifth China Changchun Film Festival late last year, and was well received by audiences attending the Eighth Beijing Film Festival of University Students in April.
(China Daily 05/14/2001)