On April 22, well-known Chinese director Mei Hu premiered her newest film, Enter the Forbidden City, at New York Film Academy (NYFA). The event was held at the theatre of NYFA’s New York campus, located near Battery Park in downtown Manhattan.
Enter the Forbidden City tells the story of an 18th century opera troupe from Southern China that visits the capital city of Beijing to celebrate the Emperor’s 80th birthday. The Emperor was so impressed that the troupe was invited to stay in the city, where they helped usher in the Chinese art form now known today as “Peking opera.”
The film took three years to complete and was written by Jingzhi Zou. It stars Dalong Fu, Yili Ma, and Ziwen Wang, among others.
The premiere played to a full theatre. NYFA’s Senior Executive Vice President, David Klein, introduced the film, and expounded on the strong relationship NYFA has with Chinese cinema and Chinese film schools. Several students from NYFA attended the premiere as well.
Before the screening, Hu spoke to the audience about the film, as well as about China’s role in global cinema today. She mentioned that the American film, Avengers: Endgame, will be released on April 24 but has already passed 500 million Chinese Yuan in pre-sale tickets, an incredible amount of money. This is the first time an American film of this size has been released in China before its domestic premiere, a historic moment in Hollywood-China cinema.
The Enter the Forbidden City screening went very well, with the film receiving a good reception overall from the packed house crowd at New York Film Academy.
When the Peking Opera-themed film Enter the Forbidden City was screened at the New York Film Academy in late April, director Hu Mei was anxious. So, a few hours ahead of the screening, she drove for miles to purchase 36 bottles of mineral water to save money.
"I was waiting for audience outside the entrance with the water. It was raining. And I was worried that the terrible weather may affect the turnout," she recalls during the film's premiere in Beijing on May 6. But surprisingly, the around 100-seat venue was full with some people even sitting on the ground.
Hu says the film reminded some old viewers of Mei Lanfang's 1930 tour to five cities across the United States to publicize the Peking Opera.
Enter the Forbidden City will hit Chinese mainland theaters on May 10.
Set during the reign of Qing court's emperor Qianlong (1711-99), the film unfolds with the interwoven fates of two Peking Opera artists, Wang Ruisheng and Yue Jiu.
As then government treated opera performers as low-status entertainers, they were forbidden to marry civilians, according to Hu.
"The opera performers have struggled and strived for generations to earn the respect and recognition. They deserve a film to tell their stories," says Hu.
The cast includes actress Ma Yili, actors Fu Dalong and Ma Jinghan.
Fu, who plays the devoted performer Yue, recalls that he insisted on living near the home of his opera teacher instead of staying in a luxury hotel with the other stars when the shoot was on.
Explaining why he did this, he says: "This was so I could practice the opera sequences every day with the teacher, who transformed me from a person who knew nothing about Peking Opera to a real performer. It was amazing."
After six years of research, script-writing and production, Chinese director Hu Mei has a movie that aims to transcend cultural boundaries and spark young audiences' interest in an ancient Chinese art.
Enter the Forbidden City, a movie that traces the birth of Peking Opera, will hit US theaters in early 2020, bringing an important fabric of Chinese culture to American audiences and the world.
"It's a reflection of our cultural confidence, because Peking Opera is such a broad and profound art-form," Hu said in a recent interview with China Daily.
The movie plot, set during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), follows the journey of two opera singers who risked their lives to perform for Emperor Qianlong's 80th birthday and redeem the reputation of their troupe.
It traces the history of how the eclectic ancient art came together after some members of opera troupes from Anhui province, who stayed in Beijing after a successful performance in the late 18th century, blended their styles with many other local operas.
The production process was not easy. According to Hu, at one point, the studio caught on fire, a disaster that destroyed all the costumes on set as the filming was set to wrap. But she was determined to see her project through.
Hu noted that next year marks the 230th birthday of Peking Opera, a Chinese music ensemble that combines singing, acting and martial arts. She wants to roll out the movie on the eve of the creation of this "national treasure".
"It is an expression of the wisdom of the Chinese people and condenses the best cultural tradition of the Chinese civilization," Hu said.
To grasp the history behind the movie, Hu and her team traveled to the mountainous areas of China's Anhui province, where opera played a key part in the education of children.
"The role that opera plays here is that it condenses China's thousands of years of music, drama, politics, culture, worldly wisdom and moral principles into various repertoires," Hu said.
"The about 1,000 popular opera songs in the area were passed down from parents to children, from generation to generation," she added.
In 2010, Peking Opera was named by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Considered "the national form of theater", the art form features artists with elaborate makeup, embroidered costumes and tells unique stories.
In the past, movies featuring Chinese opera, such as Farewell, My Concubine, have made their way to big screens in the West and been lauded by international audiences, but still only a few people are familiar with the mysterious drama, probably due to the language barrier and its esoteric nature.
Mei Lanfang, one of China's premier opera artists, is credited with popularizing the art form to Western audiences after his trip to the United States and Europe in the 1930s.
"Our film depicts the spirit of opera performers' endless pursuit of arts. It's precisely due to the hard work and efforts of generations of artists that Peking Opera was able to spread beyond China," Hu said.
She hopes that the movie creates a bridge for Western audiences.
Peking opera is similar in many ways to Western opera, Hu said.
"Chinese opera, from singing and playing, to the vocalization production method, to the structure of lines and story, is similar to Western operas. It's also a comprehensive performance system," Hu said.
She said the film also brings viewers into the lives of Peking Opera artists, who didn't enjoy a high status in society as entertainers during the Qing Dynasty.
"In Chinese history, Chinese operas, including Peking Opera, play an important role in passing down the heritage of China from generations to generations," Hu said.
"Peking Opera is not as popular as before, especially to the younger audiences, but its artistic value is very high. We hope that we can bring Peking Opera into thousands of households through our film creation, and bring it to the people around the world," Hu added.
The movie was written by playwright Zou Jingzhi, and stars Fu Dalong, Ma Jinghan, as well as actresses Wang Ziwen and Ma Yili. It will be distributed by Cinema Libre Studio, based in Burbank, California.
It opened to Chinese mainland audiences on May 10. Its premiered in the US at the Chinese American Film Festival (CAFF) in Alhambra, California (Nov 17, 20 and 21). Hu brought home the best director award and the top 10"Golden Angel Award at the 15th annual CAFF opening ceremony on Nov 5.
Hu, who graduated from Beijing Film Academy in 1982, is among the pioneering members of the fifth generation of Chinese cinema along with fellow graduates Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige.
She is well-known in China for a number of acclaimed television and film works. Her previous film Confucius, which stars Chow Yun Fat, was released in the US in 2010.
Cinema Libre Studio has acquired Chinese drama “Enter the Forbidden City” and will release it in the U.S. in early 2020.
Directed by female filmmaker Hu Mei and written by Zou Jingzhi (Zhang Yimou’s “Coming Home,” Wong Kar Wai’s “The Grandmaster”), the historical epic won the Chinese American Film Festival’s top prizes for best director and best feature film Tuesday night at an awards ceremony in Los Angeles. Hu is one of China’s so-called Fifth Generation directors.
It will have its U.S. premiere at the festival later this month, with screenings on Nov. 17, 20 and 21. Set in the Qing dynasty 230 years ago, the film brings to life the historical origins of Peking opera through the tale of two young opera singers who risk their lives to perform for the emperor at a special celebration for his 80th birthday.
Made with a budget of about $14.3 million (RMB100 million), it was distributed in China by state-owned Huaxia but made just $2 million at mainland theaters in April. “Young people don’t necessarily understand the topic of Chinese opera,” Hu told Variety on the sidelines of the American Film Market in L.A.
The film stars Ma Yili (“My People, My Country,” Lok Man Leung’s “Cold War”) and TV actors Fu Dalong and Ma Jinghan. It was shot on location in Anhui province over the course of six years. Production was stalled when the studio they were shooting in was totally destroyed in a fire in late 2015. It took them a year to rebuild and begin shooting again.
“By the time we finished shooting, we had no money for promotion or distribution. The producer sold his house and land to finish this project,” Hu said.
Her film was jointly backed by newcomer Beijing Lianmeng Pictures and the government-run broadcast and TV media industry groups of Anhui province and Yangzhou city in Jiangsu province, among other players. While the team is in talks with iQiyi and Tencent, Chinese streaming rights have yet to be determined.
“We wanted to tell this story for years, but the history is very complicated, so it seemed no one could do it until luckily we found our screenwriter, who managed it,” Hu said.
Hu was a Beijing Film Academy classmate of filmmakers such as Chen Kaige and Tian Zhuangzhuang. Her 2010 film “Confucius” starred Chow Yun-fat as the titular character and was backed by Dadi Entertainment. It grossed $14.2 million (RMB99.4 million) in the mainland, according to the Maoyan ticketing app, but was made with a budget of $22 million, according to IMDb.
Hu’s next work will be a new movie adaptation of the classic Chinese novel “Dream of the Red Chamber,” a project she admits will be a challenge, considering the dozens of well-known TV adaptations and nearly 40 film versions of the work, including a TV take Hu was once attached to more than a decade ago that eventually went to fellow Fifth Generation female helmer Li Shaohong. This project will have a budget of around $29 million to $43 million (RMB200-300 million), and is backed by companies Shanghai Jinde and Fujian Longtai.
“While there have been TV versions, the last film adaptation was 40 years ago,” Hu said. Her team cast the leads after a global search and spent a year training their young actors in traditional arts like calligraphy, embroidery and tea ceremonies. Artemple Hollywood is doing Visual Effects.
Founded in 2003, the Burbank, California-based Cinema Libre Studio has released more than 200 titles and, despite the acquisition of this Chinese government-backed title, typically focuses on indies. It acquired Stephane Brize’s “At War” at Cannes in 2018. It offers production, post-production and domestic distribution services (theatrical, DVD, VOD, and educational), and is involved in broadcast and international sales. “Enter the Forbidden City” is the second Chinese title the company has worked with.