Princess on peace path
A series set in ancient China is getting more attention from audiences overseas than at home, Xu Fan reports.
As one of the most recognized Chinese stars in the West, Zhang Ziyi has appeared in many critically acclaimed films, from the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) to Memoirs of a Geisha (2005). Zhang is now on television, the first such foray in her acting career of more than two decades.
The Rebel Princess, a 68-episode costume drama with her in the fictional title role, debuted in China on Jan 9. The show was simultaneously released on overseas sites YouTube, Facebook and Rakuten Viki, as well as on a Vietnamese broadcaster with subtitles in the local language.
The series is expected to be broadcast on TV in Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, South Korea and Cambodia, among other foreign countries, in the near future, according to China International Television Corp.
Adapted from the popular novel Emperor’s Conquest, The Rebel Princess tells the story of the title character Wang Xuan. Growing up as the emperor’s most spoiled niece, Wang, once a carefree royal, is forced to change due to a string of political schemes and palace coups. After being married to a general, the protagonist uses her wits and courage to support her husband, fighting alongside him to restore stability in the midst of turmoil.
Despite opening to mixed reviews, the show has seen a rebound in scores on several major domestic sites. Compared to the initially lukewarm response at home, however, the drama has earned more points overseas: 9.5 out of 10 on Rakuten Viki and 8.9 on IMDb. Foreign viewers seem to like the cast, sets and costumes.
Actor Zhou Yiwei plays the general who rises from humble beginnings to become the kingdom’s most powerful military leader. Veteran actor Yu Hewei and Hong Kong actress Angie Chiu, respectively, play the father, a high-ranking official, and the mother, also a princess, of Zhang’s character.
Responding to the mixed reviews in China, Mu Xiaosui, the chief producer, says the series’ creators are “open to hearing different voices from the market”.
“Our employees are collecting reviews from the audience and internet users,” he says.
“We hope the show will slowly and stably draw more viewers.”
Depicting the protagonist, princess Wang, as a “rebellious” figure in her era, Mu says the role has a modern spirit despite being set in ancient China. In the series, the character refuses to marry the crown prince in early episodes as she wants to pursue true love, a bold move when women were considered “virtuous” if they entered arranged marriages.
Hou Yong, the chief director, says that, once he got the chance to helm the project in 2017, he wanted to raise the bar for period dramas. He is also the dean of the film department at Shanghai Theater Academy.
With a growing female audience for Chinese TV and online shows, the genre－tales of women, set in ancient China－has become popular in recent years.
But such stories often only depict major female characters as either contending for supreme power in a royal harem or fighting for peace alongside a male lead.
Other than the royal theme, Hou says he decided The Rebel Princess would also shine a light on the complexities of humanity. “The leading characters are pulled into a string of conflicts. They are made heroes by the situation.”
Han Zhong, the art director, says the drama took around 273 days to shoot in China’s two largest film and television bases, Hengdian World Studios in Zhejiang province and Tangcheng in Xiangyang, Hubei province. He says the art department was inspired by the architecture of the time period between the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) and the Tang Dynasty (618-907).
Most of the scenes set in the royal palace and officials’ residences were shot on six soundstages, each covering an area of more than 8,000 square meters.
The crew also constructed a “military base” and a “fortress” in a locale covering nearly 20,000 square meters in Tianmo Desert, located around 90 kilometers from Beijing.
Han says the scenes of rivers and ponds in the series were inspired by literary works such as Tang Dynasty poet Du Mu’s depiction of the rainy season in Jiangsu province’s Nanjing, which served as a capital for many rulers during the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-581).
Li Jingsheng, deputy head of China Federation of Radio and Television Associations, says the TV series, with its well-designed costumes and props, shows the progress of domestic dramas, despite some online criticism.