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Open-air Blockbusters: The Future of Chinese Theater?
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Mega outdoor productions are drawing audiences to China's fabulous scenery such as Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in Yunnan Province and the Shaolin Temple area in Henan Province.   


Mother Nature: That's the ticket   


No theater stage is more compelling than one in natural surroundings. Perhaps that's why big-budget outdoor productions are being shown in some of China's most famous sceneries.   


The first outdoor production, Chinese director Zhang Yimou's "Impression Liu Sanjie",  proved to be a hit in the mountain and river scenery of Yangshuo, a famous scenic resort in southern China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, in 2003. In May, Zhang continued his "Impression series" by launching the "Impression Lijiang" in the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in Lijiang, a world heritage scenic spot in southern China's Yunnan Province.  


The show at a budget of US$31 million is divided into two parts -- "Snow Mountain Impression" and "Ancient City Impression" -- with the latter in progress.   


The latest big name in outdoor production is Oscar-winning composer Tan Dun. In a canyon deep in the Songshan Mountain in central China's Henan Province, Tan recently premiered his "Zen Shaolin, Music Ritual," which cost 100 million yuan (US$12.50 million), last month.   


Whether or not they have the artistic value proclaimed by their high-profile creators, both "Impression Lijiang" and "Zen Shaolin" will at least promote local tourism and explore the cultural essence behind the popular scenery.   


For Tan's "Zen Shaolin," it was strange to see handsome monks with megaphones patrolling the site, asking the audience to sit down, be quiet and not use cameras with flashes. But maybe they were elements of the show.   


First of all, the set was awesome set in a canyon deep in the heart of the Songshan Mountain very close to the Shaolin Temple. The set features the real mountains, huge rocks, foggy springs, trees swaying in the wind and even a wooden bridge.   


A bright replica of Shaolin Temple could be seen at a distance, with monks in orange robes sweeping the floors. The audience's seats were yellow with Buddhist cattail hassocks were scattered in a grand ancient-style pavilion given a naturally aged appearance.   


The show was breathtaking. Tan composed five chapters matching the themes of water, wood, wind, light and stone for the "ritual." The music played mostly by monks did sound like water tumbling over rocks and winds sighing through the trees.  


There was even thunder, lightning, exciting drums and numerous lanterns during the show. Finally, a huge manmade moon rose to the top of the mountains.   


Composer Tan, staying in a nearby villa with vegetable gardens and a fish pond for a month before the show, says he had written back-to-nature music for the performance.  


"It is not only entertaining. I think I have destroyed all the former musical styles to create the music, which is popular but not vulgar, both pleasant and serious," says Tan, who won an Oscar for his score for Hollywood-based Taiwanese director Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."   


Naturally, Tan did want to experiment with something new. Monks recited Zen chapters, performed with stone instruments and demonstrated Shaolin kung fu while a rainbow of lighting created marvelous scenes.  


The composer tried to emphasize the Zen atmosphere by arranging five monks sitting still on the rocks -- meditating without moving -- from beginning to  end.   


But the audience found it difficult to reach Tan's realm of Zen, which Shaolin Temple's current abbot Shi Yongxin said was the essence and the source of ultimate wisdom of this 1,500-year-old temple.   


With no orientation, with children running around, women chatting and monks patrolling, the audience always applauded breathtaking visual effects -- such as shining monks flying in the sky or the giant moon rising -- not the quiet, profoundly Zen moments.


"The movie 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' implied that kung fu is a kind of calligraphy while sword art is actually philosophy and beauty," says Tan. "Now I continue this spirit for the Shaolin project."   


The show reached a climax with hundreds of monks in bright yellow robes chanting Buddhist scriptures at the same time.


Director Zhang's "Impression Lijiang" tells another story.   


“The giant posters advertising this outdoor production, showing cool director Zhang Yimou and his team looking on from a snowy mountain, attracted me to the performance set at the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in Lijiang this summer.”  


“But it's not easy to get to the "theater." You need to hire a taxi to drive for half an hour from Lijiang's Ancient Town, then buy an extra ticket at the half-way point to enter the Snow Mountain area, and finally buy a 190-yuan show ticket to get in.”   


“And it's very cold and windy in the amphitheater at 3,100 meters. Every visitor gets a bright yellow raincoat and a blue waterproof cushion in case of rain. Organizers said the show would go on. It didn't rain but almost everyone wore the raincoats for warmth.”   


Perhaps the cold and why the show began at 11am in early October explain these statements, and why there were only about 30 in the audience. In comparison, another show in a heated downtown theater was sold out almost every night. "Lishui Jinsha" ("Mountains and Rivers") had dazzling lighting and impressively made-up actors and actresses.   


But out in the cold, a bunch of strong men in white lambskins rushed in front of the audience at the beginning of "Impression Lijiang." They sang, they danced and they shouted to the sky. Their faces were naturally tanned, their hair was tangled.  


"I'm a farmer." "I am a horse keeper." "I'm a Mosuo native (member of a matriarchal society) and I have 11 women."


Through touching songs and passionate dances, about 400 local folks from 10 ethnic groups -- plus 100 horses -- provided a glimpse into the lives of the region's ethnic groups.   


And the newly designed theater, which looked like a mini-Colosseum, created a special mood and acoustics so that the songs from the hearts of the performers were everywhere, even above audiences' heads.   


Moreover, lucky audience members could see the most stunning backdrop of the performance -- the peak of "saint" Snow Jade Mountain standing just beyond the stage. I only saw a huge vague shape shrouded in mist.   


At last, the performers asked the audience to pray to the snow mountain with them in the compelling music.   


I closed my eyes, stretched my hands up and prayed to the vague image of the saint mountain. I felt my heart sort of washed clean. It was so chilly that my toes went a bit numb, but my spirit had never been cleaner and clearer.   


From the day I watched Zhang Yimou's "Impression: Lijiang," Lijiang changed its impression in my mind. It is much more than a fanciful, unreal ancient town. It has concealed so much behind the endless souvenir shops, beyond the sight of tourists like me.  


Back to Tan Dun's Shaolin production, despite the hard-into-Zen-realm part and a bunch of unnecessary female roles, the performance was overwhelming and worth spending a Shaolin Temple night. But, maybe it's just too hard to reach a Zen mood when we intend to.  


Impression: Lijiang





Zen Shaolin, Music Ritual






( November 8, 2006)


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