Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor recounts the life of the Qing Dynasty’s final potentate, Emperor Puyi, from his accession to the throne as a boy, to the end of his life working as a gardener outside the compound that was once his home.
Released in 1987, it was the first Western film to be granted access to the Forbidden City in Beijing. Much of the movie was taken up with fawning shots of the splendid surroundings. But nowadays, most film crews that want to shoot imperial scenes head to Hengdian studios south of Beijing, where there is replica of the palace.
Recently a three-part TV series returned to the original site, with far more intimate access than that given to Bertolucci in the 1980s. Masters in the Forbidden City is a documentary showcasing the role of the task force responsible for restoring many of its ancient artefacts. (A more literal translation of the Chinese title of the series would be “I repair cultural relics in the Imperial Palace”). Originally aired on state broadcaster CCTV, the mini-series didn’t garner much attention until it was released online. But it now enjoys a 9.5 rating on China’s definitive media review site Douban.com, and claims over 5 million followers on its weibo page.
Director Ye Jun says that the documentary appeals to a younger audience: “We [1980s and 1990s kids] grew up learning Tang and Song Dynasty poetry, but we use mobile phones and ride the subway. In shooting this documentary, we hoped to use a modern eye to view the traditional; a modern person’s perspective to see the Imperial Palace.”
It’s easy to see how the style appeals to the ‘social media generation’, whose attention span rarely endures beyond the next WeChat message. The series creates the illusion of pace by cutting between scenes and camera angles, and the show’s production seems to have been influenced by another popular CCTV documentary, A Bite of China, which uses the same tricks of punchy narration and sumptuous close-ups to delve into China’s cuisine.
As the show’s Chinese title suggests, the cultural relics aren’t the stars of the newer show. More it’s the people that are fixing the Forbidden City’s treasures that are the point of interest. One man in particular, Wang Jin, has become an online favourite for his calm, down-to-earth demeanour. For instance, one netizen marvelled that Wang tours the Palace of Longevity and Health “as though he was just going to a neighbour’s house to pay a visit” (millions of Chinese have never been to Beijing, let alone the Forbidden City, which may explain why such visits are regarded as remarkable.)
Xiao Han, a second director of Masters, says the show’s online distribution rights were sold cheaply but he is hoping to charge more for abroad. Overseas, the audience may focus more on the artefacts than the people. But perhaps the fact that many Chinese viewers have chosen to concentrate on a calm and patient artisan – rather than the treasures he restores – reflects the exhausting pace of change in China, and an admiration for anyone capable of such equanimity.
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