Zhang Yuqi will play the lead role of Tian Xiao'e in
the film adapted from Chen Zhongshi's White Deer
Plain. Photos provided to China Daily
When director Wang Quan'an chose the cast to adapt Chen Zhongshi's White Deer Plain for the big screen, nobody wanted the role of Tian Xiao'e.
It was rumored Zhang Ziyi, Fan Bingbing and Yao Chen were among those who turned down the role that finally went to rising actress Zhang Yuqi.
Even so, if a reader was to remember only one character from the novel, it would have to be Tian Xiao'e, a sensual, illiterate woman who follows her instincts. However, her involvement with several men and her horrible ending could pose a challenge to the bravest of actresses.
Tian, the concubine of an old miser, elopes with a young farmer, Lu Heiwa, to his home in Bailu village, but the couple is not accepted.
When Lu joins civil war guerillas in the midst of a famine, Tian is left with nothing. She becomes a tool in the hands of Lu Zilin, head of the Lu family, in his scheming against his old rival Bai Jiaxuan, head of the Bai family.
Lu Zilin coerces Tian to seduce Bai Xiaowen, eldest son of Bai Jiaxuan. Lu Heiwa's father, an upright old man, stabs Tian to death to end the shame.
But the tragedy does not end here. When a plague kills thousands of people and cattle, rumors spread that Tian's ghost is the culprit. Her remains are dug up and cremated, and a brick tower built atop her tomb, to keep the ghost under control.
Why does the author give this frail woman such a horrifying end?
"It's logical in the context of an agricultural society rooted in superstition," Chen says.
In one of his latest novellas, he recounts how his own village followed a feng shui master's advice to build a tower to control evil spirits, in the 1950s.
In stark contrast to Tian is Bai Ling, the daughter of Bai Jiaxuan. The author portrays her as an ideal woman, like the famed White Deer, which is believed to bring peace and bounty wherever it appears.
Unlike Tian who blindly takes a tragic course, Bai Ling fights for education, freedom and love. She joins the Communist Party, in secret, and marries Lu Zhaopeng, the older son of her father's old rival.
"She relentlessly fights old rules and realizes her political and romantic aspirations. In contrast, Tian Xiao'e is not enlightened and finds it impossible to attain happiness," Chen says.
Lu Heiwa and Bai Xiaowen provide the novel's other study in contrasts.
Lu joins the Party and leads farmers to rebel against increasing taxes, burn opium and free women from having their feet bound. But he degenerates into a bandit leader, before surrendering to the Kuomintang. Surprisingly, he becomes an avid student of Confucianism under Master Zhu.
Bai appears to be the ideal successor of his father, before he falls for Tian Xiao'e. The disgraced man sells his fields and houses, and almost dies a vagrant, before becoming a petty Kuomintang officer by sheer chance. The cunning opportunist then plots the death of his childhood friend Lu Heiwa and becomes the county magistrate.
"(Lu) Heiwa goes backward from joining the revolution to picking up feudal ethics," Chen says, "whereas Bai Xiaowen slides down a spiral toward total ruin."
The upright Bai Jiaxuan is based on the author's own grandfather.
While others are affected by the social upheavals, Bai Jiaxuan refuses to change and stays true to Confucian doctrines as represented by his brother-in-law Master Zhu. He is always busy with the ancestral hall: leading villagers to pay their respects to their ancestors, punishing those who disgrace the village, rebuilding the hall when it is destroyed, and reminding folks about what to do and what not to.
Chen explains that in feudal China there was no political organization at the village level. Despite numerous natural disasters and wars, moral codes were passed down thanks largely to the ancestral hall, which served as a vital spiritual link holding the nation together.
Veteran actor Zhang Fengyi will portray Bai Jiaxuan.
The film is expected to finish shooting in June 2011.