At the beginning of Cinderella Moon, its orphaned heroine Mei Mei asks why it’s not possible for heaven to be on earth as it was when she was a child and her mother was still alive. Taking a look at her childhood home in northern Yunnan province, more mythically known as “Shangri-La,” or paradise on earth, it’s understandable that childhood seemed that much like heaven to her.
THE TEA HORSE TRAIL
There’s speculation that the original Chinese Cinderella story may have gotten its start migrating to Europe and morphing into its more familiar European Cinderellas via the famous Tea Horse Trail, the ancient southern route — its counterpart was the Silk Road route in the north — where China and Tibet exchanged tea and horses. Time, the elements, and Chinese efforts to pave over the Tea Horse Trail have eroded it, but its legend lives on.
Cinderella Moon’s Full Moon Dance was shot on location in an ancient town in Yunnan called Shaxi. An UNESCO-protected historical site, Shaxi is an old tea-horse town with a Wild West feel. If speculation about the original Cinderella story heading west along the Tea Horse Trail is true, it probably made a stop in Shaxi along the way. Until modern times, horses were the only way to cross the rugged mountains, and some of their descendents live on in Shangri-La and are still used to this day for local portage. Descendents of Tea Horse Trail horses even helped transport some of the film equipment to rugged locations for Cinderella Moon!
Shangri-La has always been a real place, but its rugged remoteness and cultural independence from China proper — the locals even had their own pictographic language — have always cloaked it in the mystery of a “lost kingdom.”
SHANGRI-LA’S EXPLORER: JOSEPH ROCK
Shangri-La remained largely hidden from outsiders until it was “discovered” by the west in the 1930s by intrepid self-taught botanist, cartographer, linguist and explorer Joseph Rock (1884 – 1962). His writings for National Geographic and Harvard intrigued westerners who knew little about southwest China or the borderlands of Tibet. His photographs of Yunnan ethnic tribes, scenic splendor and hidden monasteries even inspired literature.
In Lost Horizon, (1933), James Hilton tells the story of Hugh Conway and a fictional monastery he’s taken to after his plane crashes in Tibet. Called “Shangri-La
in the novel, the hidden monastery is a utopian place cut off from the rest of the world that’s so beautiful it seems to describe paradise on earth. There, its inhabitants live peaceful, seemingly eternal lives. To people who were repudiating the ugliness of the 20th century, the idea of an earthly paradise high in the mountains where people live peacefully proved to be irresistible.
By filming Cinderella Moon in Yunnan province, Richard Bowen returned to Shangri-La both geographically and culturally to explore the birthplace of the Cinderella fairytale and to see what it still has to teach us. It was in Yunnan that he found the perfect location for the magic realism style he was going for.
“Aside from northern Yunnan’s beauty,” says director Richard Bowen, “it’s also an area of China that has largely escaped the ravages of modern development, so that it was possible, using a number of locations in that area, to stitch together a believable world from long ago.” In Shangri-La, there’s a sense of magic in the air everywhere you go…what better place for a fairy tale?