A Not So Ordinary Night at the Beijing Opera

In the winter of 2011 I followed director Chen Shi-Zheng as he created a new take on a classic Beijing opera, Farewell My Concubine.

Trying to do new takes on traditional art forms in China can be a bit risky. A decade earlier, Chen made a modern production of an opera that was so wildly different than the norm, the government actually shut down the production.

Initially these videos were going to be part of the Times’ Culture and Control series, as a positive example of change. The Times’ Culture and Control series explore the struggle to shape the culture of authoritarian China.

However, after finishing the videos, the article actually held for about 1.5 years. And when the time came to finally publish it, the content had actually become less relevant to the point, both of these videos were killed. An abbreviated, frankenstein-ed version did publish with Ed Wong’s story “A Western Detour for a Chinese Tale.” Ed’s article previews Chen’s next project “Monkey: Journey to the West,” which will be performed at The Lincoln Center Festival in New York. The festival opens Saturday and “offers New York’s cultural cognoscenti the opportunity to show off their global bona fides.” More on that here.

On a personal note, I really admire what Chen is doing with the traditional art form. He’s breathed new life into an art form people don’t really follow much anymore. The opera I saw reminded me of a Frank Miller style graphic novel, but on stage with traditional opera singing and some Wong Kar-wai fight scenes.

While these two videos didn’t have much relevancy to Chen’s Monkey project, I wanted to let them live on Vimeo, as they do show a rare example of what Chen says, could be a growing tolerance for experimental art in China.

However, after spending so much time documenting the government’s attempts to control culture via literature, television, film and now stage I think its more likely that guanxi and money have made this possible, opposed to liberal minded party officials. The financier behind this production was Yan Bin, the Thai-Chinese founder of Reignwood and the fourth richest man in China. I think anyone with that much money can make any type of opera they please (especially when its performed privately on their own property).

But still, better than a kick in the face for the art world.

On the production side, one of the remarkable things about this experience is to have to look at something you did years earlier and still be satisfied with it. When watching these films, I see so many problems, its amazing to think I made them just a year ago. In between the time I made these videos and today, I’ve produced about 50 more videos. And one of my primary goals of this period has been to simply constantly improve on every single one.

So looking back its a bit hard to be satisfied with the product, though their content is still rich.

If anything, I think its useful to watch videos you made years ago to help understand where you came from, where you’re going and how you’ve improved. In trying to continuel get better at anything one does, this is a helpful process.

To see the abbreviated, frankenstein-ed version of these videos click here.

To see more from the Culture and Control series click here or here.

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