Nightmare of Red Mansions

By Liu Wei (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-07-05 09:47
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Nightmare of Red Mansions
Qin Keqing played by Tang Yifei in the new TV adaptation of
 A Dream of Red Mansions. Provided to China Daily

A new TV series based on the classic A Dream of Red Mansions has received poor reviews, but the director stands by her treatment of the book, Liu Wei reports

Director Li Shaohong described her anxiety about adapting the classic novel A Dream of Red Mansions into a TV series as "walking on ice". She now faces even more pressure, since comments about the show's premiere last weekend on TV channels and websites were mostly negative.

"It is like a horror film. It's always so dark in the room every character seems to float rather than walk and the music is just frightening," says a 29-year-old woman surnamed Ma, who works for an accountancy firm in Beijing.

The original novel, written in the mid-18th century by Cao Xueqin, compares life to a dream, not a nightmare.

It depicts the ups and downs of four prestigious families, with a focus on the tragic love between Jia Baoyu and Lin Daiyu.

The main setting of Daguanyuan Garden, in the book's first half, is a wonderland of scenic beauty and refined lifestyle.

But in the TV series, the mood is depressing and melancholy. The background music is a Kunqu Opera actress' ghostly moaning.

"The tone and mood is not appropriate, at least not when the family is still in its heyday," writes Jiang Xiaoyi, a fan of the book, in the Beijing News.

Li's interpretation is that the book is about a dream, and dreams are surreal.

To Chen Sihe, professor of Fudan University, the show is too cautious.

To be faithful to the book, the show features a middle-aged man's voiceover throughout, reading verbatim excerpts from the novel. Sometime it is even louder than the dialogue.

"Too much voiceover kills the viewers' imagination," Chen was quoted as saying.

Li, however, insists the voiceover is necessary.

"Well-educated audiences do not need it but for those who have not read the book, it is quite necessary."

A netizen on responded: "Maybe actors believe they don't need to act, since what they think is spoken."

The actresses wearing similar makeup have also angered some fans of the book.

"One reason the Red Mansions is great is because every character has his or her own vivid personality," says Ginger Jiang, a fan of the novel. "Isn't the director's job to highlight that in the show? The make up should have been a helpful method of doing this, but now they look all the same."

The new version has been unfavorably compared to the beloved 1987 TV adaptation.

"In the old show you could see the cast and crew's devotion to the book in every detail, in terms of the production design, music, make up and especially acting," Jiang says. "I can't find this in the new version."

Supporters of Li, however, believe the show has given the old book a new look.

"At least we understand what the story is about, thanks to the voice over," the South Metropolis Daily quoted a young viewer as saying. "The visual effects and music are quite original, too."

Li cites senior director Wang Fulin, who made the 1987 version, to encourage herself. Wang told her that there was harsh criticism when his show was broadcast, too, but time has proved it a masterpiece.

"Wang moved me by encouraging me to do it my way," she says. "A Dream of Red Mansions is such an important book for Chinese, so everything about it raises controversy. I have made the show, and that is a breakthrough already."