Berlin film festival: China's epic 'White Deer Plain' premieres
Epic Chinese drama “Bai lu yuan” (“White Deer Plain”) made its intense premiere Wednesday at the Berlinale. Wang Quan'an's film, which runs three hours, details the lives of two feuding families, Bai and Lu, over several decades of political and social turmoil, and is based on the controversial 1992 award-winning novel of the same name by Chen Zhongshi, which was blacklisted for its explicit sex scenes.
Many top Chinese directors, including Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige and Wu Tianming have tried to bring “White Deer Plain” to the screen but have been unsuccessful for various reasons. “In Chinese cinema, we've been thinking about this for 20 years, and for 20 years I've been wanting to make a film like this,” Wang said at the film's news conference. He said he'd been working on the historical saga himself since 2005.
Set in the wheat-filled plains of Shaanxi Province in the central part of mainland China, “White Deer Plain” delivers an unflinching look at peasant life in the early 20th century. A village evolves through the end of the empire, the abuse of rampaging gangs, drought, famine, plague, and the rise of communism. In the midst of all this changing history, Bai Jiaxuan, the region's moralistic clan head, played by Zhang Fengyi, tries to maintain order and uphold traditional ethics and values, helped by loyal servant Lu San (Liu Wei). He is challenged by corrupt Mayor Lu Zilin (Wu Gang). All three men find their status and beliefs challenged by their sons and a beautiful but dangerous woman (Zhang Yu Qi) whose presence upends their lives forever.
Wang Quan'an conceded that the five hours of footage he produced had gone through many changes — and not all in editing. "There was some intervention on the part of censorship, or let's call it 'corrections,' that were made," said Wang. “It is sometimes painful and sad — I can't really say it's the film I fully intended.” He went on to say that the final cut of the film constituted about 40% of what he wanted to show audiences.
Still, he said that the film was an important historical document of Chinese identity, and the fact that it had even been made was a sign of progress.
“It's a symbolic film, and it is also a symbol for what we can now achieve with film in China,” he said. “And so we also want to show that things are more relaxed now and that we now have a working environment where we can be critical."
Wang also took a moment at the news conference to thank his cast and crew for enduring a grueling shoot in rural Mongolia during the frigid fall and winter months.
The film was a last-minute addition to the Berlin International Film Festival's competition lineup; it reportedly had a long wait for official permission due to extended negotiations with the Chinese censors over content.
In advance of Wednesday's premiere, Hong Kong's Distrubution Workshop picked up international rights for the fillm (excluding China).
Wang Quan'an has a solid record of success at the Berlinale: His film “Tuya's Marriage” won a Golden Bear in Berlin in 2007, and he picked up a Silver Bear for best screenplay for “Apart Together” in 2010.
— Susan Stone in Berlin
Photo: A scene from "White Deer Plain." Photo credit: Berlin International Film Festival.