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Animated Lovers

Bathed in mellow moon light, Zhu Yingtai casts a come-hither glance at Liang Shanbo by a crystal lake. The music rises -- but instead of the classical violin concerto that usually accompanies this touching scene from the traditional Chinese legend Butterfly Lovers, a pop love song rocks the duo.

It actually works, but maybe that's because this is a modern cartoon version of the romantic tragedy, which has been in cinemas since mid-January.

Like its Western counterpart, Romeo and Juliet, with which it is often compared, Liang Zhu, or Butterfly Lovers, has been adapted into many different genres over the years: movies, television serials, ballets, operas and plays. Now a group of filmmakers from Shanghai and Taiwan have spent three years and 10 million yuan (US$1.2 million) turning the tale into an updated yet faithful adaptation of the tragic romance, a 95-minute full-length animated movie, Butterfly Lovers: Leon and Jo.

As the only daughter with ambitions beyond domesticity in a well-to-do family, Jo (Zhu Yingtai) disguises herself as a man and travels to Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, to study at an old-style private school. There, she meets the handsome scholar Leon (Liang Shanbo). They become sworn brothers and soul mates, studying together for three years.

Jo falls more and more deeply in love with Leon, who has no clue as to her real identity. But when Jo reveals her secret, Leon promptly falls for her -- only to learn that her parents have betrothed her to the playboy Ma Wencai, scion of a rich and powerful family.

Aware that his beloved is unattainable, Leon begins to waste away, finally dying after a beating by Ma's goons. Distraught, Jo goes to Leon's tomb in her scarlet bridal gown, and magically, her beloved Leon appears. The duo transform into two beautiful butterflies together, forever.

"It's a traditional story with a lot of happenings on a psychological level, but very little in the way of action, which made it very hard to adapt into a cartoon," says Tsai Ming-chin, the movie's Taiwanese director. Tsai is no stranger to adapting Chinese classics into animated films: His direction of the animated version of The Three Kingdoms won the award for outstanding Mandarin animated film at the 17th Golden Horse Award, the Taiwanese version of the Oscars, in 1980.

Of his current movie, Tsai says, "it's been a challenge to adapt this classic story into a fast-paced cartoon. We've added a pair of funny birds, made Ma a clown-like character with a huge bottle nose, and added life to many of the slow-moving scenes."

Tsai confesses that he has been enamored of this legendary romance since he was a child. "I first knew the story from a 1963 Taiwan movie, Leon and Jo," he recalls. "I've watched the movie six times. Even now, the traditional huangmei xi (an opera popular in Anhui Province) and the poetic gestures of the butterfly lovers remain with me."

But not in the movie. Deng Youli, the movie's creator, says that the script has been revised to appeal to a young audience.

"I'm surprised -- Shanghai girls love Ma," he says. "They say he is both funny and rich, ideal boyfriend material. So we've added comic scenes for Ma, giving this classic tragedy a comic edge."

In addition to entertainment, filmmakers have also updated the character of Jo, usually depicted as shy and traditional.

"Here, she's more like a modern woman, assertive in her pursuit of the man she loves," says Tsai. "She even kisses Leon in public."

Jo is not the only figure in Chinese legend to have undergone a makeover at the hands of the cartoon world. In the 52-episode animated series Heroic Legends from the Tang Dynasty, a Japanese-style production, the renowned Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) Emperor Li Shimin -- usually depicted as a portly, middle-aged man -- sports chestnut-hued hair and looks rather like a handsome Japanese warrior.

It gets better: Li's lover Ge Shuyun, an ethnic minority, has curled, golden hair and dresses like Madonna.

"We can't always draw short guys with fat faces and small eyes," says Wang Genfa of the Shanghai Animation Film Studio, director of Heroic Legends. "We have to adapt to the tastes of today's children and young people, which run to good-looking girls and boys.

"We didn't always consider our audience, which is why the popularity of Chinese cartoons have been eclipsed by imported ones," adds Wang. "We've learnt from Japanese cartoonists how to tell our own stories, but in the end, I think, we will create our own unique style."

Unlike the foreign-looking Tang emperor, Jo's cartoon image is more Oriental, similar to the Disney version of Mulan: single-fold eyelids, almond-shaped eyes, a tiny seed-shaped face and long silky black hair. Her clothing is traditional, but a mix of the styles of several different Chinese dynasties.

The characters of Leon and Jo are, according to Tsai, based on the actors whose voices bring them to life: actress/pop singer Rene Liu (Jo), singer Elva Hsiao (Leon) and renowned TV host Jacky Wu (Ma), all from Taiwan.

Despite all the innovative elements, some critics proclaim themselves dissatisfied with the animation and the dubbing, and he has a point: The animation work in this movie is raw, with the movement of the characters a bit stiff. But, as Wang says, "it's a beginning."

What it lacks in skill, though, has been made up for in atmosphere. There is a lavish use of Chinese elements in all its forms -- calligraphy, traditional painting, poetry reading and night scenes with bamboo leaves shivering outside the window.

"We cannot compete with overseas animated movies in terms of production skills and funding -- overseas films usually cost more than US$50 million to make," says Tsai. "But we offer unique Oriental elements, like the use of light, color and a special mood."

It's particularly enjoyable for Chinese audiences to see their own reality reflected on the screen: Leon and Jo study on a grassy lawn as pink peach flower petals float down; the lovers seek shelter under a lotus leaf during a thunderstorm. The movie's most impressive scene is the finale, when the duo become butterflies as the tomb and its surroundings turn into a stunning sea of brightly colored flowers.

"This is a movie for romantic young girls," says Liu Lu, a magazine editor. "Both the appearance of the characters and the backdrop are a feast for the eyes, and the emotions it arouses can compete with any of the popular contemporary love stories."

The music for the movie is an adaptation of the world-famous Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto by Chinese composers Chen Gang and He Zhanhao. The flowing concerto and several pop songs and an R&B rhythm segment are each tailored to the emotions of the characters with dramatic effect.

The Chinese-style violin is the signature tune for the "falling in love" segment; the high, rapid tones come in when Jo refuses to marry Ma; and the powerful sounds of gongs turn up at the tragedy's climax, as the protagonists metamorphose into butterflies.

The movie has also been translated into English, as several American and European film companies have shown interest in acquiring the film.

"Many Westerners have heard the violin concerto but few known the story behind it," says Tsai. "An excellent cartoon knows no boundaries. It's my hope that with this cartoon, we can share this beautiful, everlasting love story from ancient China with the rest of the world."
(eastday.com January 30, 2004)

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