In one of his most popular works, Tianlong Babu (Demi Gods and Semi Devils), renowned martial arts novelist Jin Yong (Louis Cha) has used a lot of ink to describe Dali, a splendid ancient kingdom in Southwest China's Yunnan Province.
Now a town that still houses tens of thousands of permanent residents, Dali has become a popular tourism destination in recent years.
Tourists from both home and abroad, attracted by an easy-going atmosphere which is rarely seen in other places in China, can be found everywhere in the town. Bars and cafes catering for travelers have mushroomed in recent years.
In late December, the town welcomed a batch of special guests -- the television crew of Tianlong Babu, a long-awaited TV serial that is scheduled to premiere on most provincial TV stations in China in about eight months.
Almost right before the eyes of the local residents, the crew members are trying to restage the story of Tianlong Babu, set hundreds of years ago in Dali as well as in several other places in ancient China.
It is one of Jin's most complicated works.
To put it in a simple way, the story is about three sworn brothers -- Qiao Feng, a beggar union leader and Han-raised Khitan who tries to search for his real identity and his parents' murderers; Duan Yu, an amorous prince of Dali who does not want to learn martial arts but becomes one of the strongest pugilists later by chance; and Xu Zhu, a naive monk.
Jin is arguably the most popular Chinese writer of kung fu epics. For that reason, the shooting of Tianlong Babu has generated a great deal of enthusiasm at home, though it is still under production.
According to Zhang Jizhong, chief producer of the series, broadcasting rights on the Chinese mainland have already been sold.
In East China's Zhejiang Province alone, the series has been sold for 2.8 million yuan (US$338,000).
Hong Kong and Taiwan broadcasting rights have been sold for US$1 million and US$400,000 respectively.
Despite the initial broadcast deals and the world popularity of kung fu themes nowadays, critics have pointed out the risks Zhang and his crew are taking to adapt Jin's martial arts novels.
Part of the reason is that the readership of the author's 15 novels is so huge. Jin has fans ranging from children to the elderly, farmers to intellectuals and workers to businessmen. Every reader has their own image of the characters. Films and TV dramas, however, leave little room for imagination.
Another challenge comes from the fact that almost all of Jin's works have been transplanted to the screen at least once. Some of the most popular ones have three or even more television and cinema versions. Some have been very good efforts.
This has made it extremely difficult for viewers to accept new versions. Xiao'ao Jianghu Smiling, Proud Wanderer, produced by China Central Television and screened two years ago, received ruthless criticism.
Zhou Xiaowen, the chief director of the latest work, admitted he sensed mounting pressure because everyone from taxi drivers to primary school students would be critiquing the TV series and looking to see if an old favorite was being respectfully retold.
But the director has also shown bold confidence in the series.
"We are determined to create a fine work," he said.
The cost of the 40-part production is estimated at about 28 million yuan (US$3.38 million) -- not a titanic sum by any means, but still exceptional compared with other TV series.
In search of the best scenery in China, the crew, led by Zhang Jizhong, chief producer, had traveled to many other places before arriving in Dali.
Most outside scenes were shot in the county of Xianju, as well as five other counties in East China's Zhejiang Province.
The local government has invested 60 million yuan (US$7.2 million) to build a series of pseudo-classic palaces and houses in distinguished Dali style, which not only provide on-site location for the crew but also will serve as tourist attraction.
Zhou and his colleagues have also decided to present the story with enough freshness to hold the audience's attention while not wandering too far from the original.
There are over 240 people in the novel, which is obviously too many for a TV series.
"We have given up about half of the figures. Now there remain only about 120 actors and actresses," Zhang said.
As a martial arts TV series, Tianlong Babu naturally puts much emphasis on action scenes.
World-class martial arts director Yuen Biao from Hong Kong has been invited to direct action scenes. Some of his works include Xiao'ao Jianghu, Xin Longmen Kezhan (Dragon Inn) and Huang Feihong -- Shiwang Zhengba (Once upon a Time in China III)."
Meanwhile, Zhang has also been very cautious with the cast.
Hu Jun, one of the rising stars on the Chinese mainland, heads the stellar cast as Qiao Feng.
Hu has made his name in Donggong Xigong (East Palace, West Palace), directed by Zhang Yuan, and Golden Horse Awards winner Lan Yu, directed by Stanley Kwan from Hong Kong.
(China Daily January 7, 2002)