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  • Notes about Directing Married to a Heavenly Immortal
  • Shi Hui (bio)

Recently the problem of how to shoot stage operas as movies has attracted the attention of quite a few people. Does it become very difficult to give full play to the characteristics of film if one stays too loyal to the arts of the theater? Or do we necessarily inflict damage on the arts of the theater if we go too far in "moviefication"? Is it best to shoot the opera without making any changes at all? Or is it right to go for "moviefication" without caring for the rest? Everybody has his own approach, and the opinions are not very unified. What I know in this respect is very limited, and I can't come up with any big theory, but let me just provide some simple experiences and suggestions based on my work in directing Married to a Heavenly Immortal.

My Earliest Creative Ideas

I first have to acknowledge that I am an outsider when it comes to our national traditional theatrical arts. I am only an enthusiastic member of the audience, filled with a strong and passionate love. Wherever we go to shoot on location with our production team, I grab the opportunity to go and watch the traditional opera of that locality, and I always greatly enjoy these performances. This applies even more to Peking opera, which I've been listening to from my earliest youth—I am really addicted to it, I'm a true opera fanatic! I have also studied it for a while and learned to sing a few lines. I've performed onstage too, and performed quite a range of characters, trying out every role type. I've even sung military plays, but I didn't fight anyone, and no one fought me. According to what friends who watched my performances have told me, my performance belonged to the "self-indulgent style."

Love does not equal understanding. Love does not mean getting it right when it becomes your turn to be responsible, and people who criticize others for messing up won't necessarily do things in proper style when they are in charge.

Before I undertook the task of directing Married to a Heavenly Immortal, I had never watched Huangmei opera. What I saw first of all was the adapted literary script (in its first draft). That draft had thrown off the shackles of the set conventions of the traditional theater and had given full expression to the nature and [End Page 435] capacities of film; the fairy-tale1 features were very much emphasized. Because the scriptwriter had also worked as a director, his script was very rich in "camera feeling." At the same time it aroused in me some preliminary ideas for how to handle this future film.

I conceived of the idea of a new kind of cinematic style: a fairy-tale movie. The contents and incidents of the first draft of the literary script of Married to a Heavenly Immortal allowed for this possibility. It also inspired a creative impulse in me—in order to shoot it in complete conformity with cinematic demands, I wanted to compose a new score for which the original Huangmei opera would only provide the materials. I wanted to create an original fairy-tale film using full-fledged cinematic techniques.

"An immortal maiden descends to earth and marries a peasant who has sold himself as a slave"—this was such a daring and intelligent image! In my mind all kinds of pictures emerged: heavenly palaces floating in emptiness, immortal maidens riding clouds, scenes of the human world, a scholar tree opening its mouth, a god of the soil serving as go-between, immortal maidens weaving silk, celestial soldiers and celestial officers from the Southern Gate of Heaven.…2 This really fascinated me. Because we had done away with the set forms of the stage, the original music would also not be suitable, so the music for the whole play would have to be created anew, and dance movements too could be assigned to an extremely secondary position. Truly, this was a movie—a fairy-tale movie, preferably in full color! If...


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