Q & A With Richard

Q: Cinderella Moon is based on the first, ancient Chinese version of the Cinderella story, from 768 AD. How did you find out about it, and how did it reach the world?

RB:   The story from which Cinderella Moon was adapted was written in southern China, about seven centuries before the story first appeared in Europe. After hearing of its existence, I hired a researcher and scoured the antiquities libraries in Beijing. We found it in the ancient text, had it translated, and sure enough, it was the Cinderella story we’re all familiar with, but with very interesting, very Chinese twists and turns.

Academics figure it likely traveled to Europe over the Tea Horse Trail (the horse-caravan trade route between southern China and Tibet, the equivalent of the Silk Road that originated in northern China). In fact, the area of Yunnan Province where we shot is dotted with towns and villages that are along the this ancient trail.

Q:   Why do you think the original Chinese Cinderella story is of interest to a contemporary audience?

RB:   Cinderella is one of the world’s favorite fairy tales, and Cinderella Moon presents its original telling for the first time ever on film. Many of us in the west find ourselves fascinated with China and things Chinese, so I think it’s illuminating to see how a story we had thought of as western, is so eastern at heart.

Also, in Cinderella Moon, the stakes are much higher for Mei Mei, the Cinderella figure, than whether or not she’ll find Prince Charming. The film turns out to be more contemporary and relevant to the lives of girls today than the Cinderella we grew up thinking was the real thing. Rather than simply being “saved” by a man, the Chinese Cinderella saves herself, and in the process, saves the man and her world.

Fairy tales have morals, and the moral of this story is that girls are as good as boys.  It may sound obvious to us, but this belief is, sadly, still not shared by the whole world.  Thankfully, it’s on the rise in all but the most backward of societies.

Q:   Why did you, as an American director, want to make this film? 

 

RB:   My commitment to making this film grew directly out of my personal life and a social issue I’m deeply involved in. I have two adopted Chinese daughters and I’ve worked extensively with Half the Sky Foundation, an NGO Jenny started in 1998 that helps orphans in China.

When I learned that the world’s first telling of the Cinderella story was from China, I knew this was a film I could and in fact had to make. I felt that if I could film a fairy tale with this social issue at its core, I could bring a wonderful story to the world and maybe have some kind of impact on a social problem dear to my heart.

Q:   What is the creative connection between Cinderella Moon and Half the Sky?

RB:   The most valuable thing I’ve learned from Half the Sky is that the weakest among us have the most to teach. In my work with our foundation, I’m always struck by how brave and resilient these little girls are, despite their understandable fear. What they’re dealing with at their ages is hard to imagine, but do deal with it, some better than others, but all in a way that’s illuminating. I’ve been deeply inspired watching the children of Half the Sky, how the human spirit endures and persists no matter how bleak its circumstances. That observation has informed every part of this film.

Q:   Where are the various locations and why did you choose them?

RB:  While Cinderella is a magical fable, I worked hard for Cinderella Moon to have a very rigorous photo-real feel in order to accentuate the “magic realism” at the heart of the original Chinese version of the story. All my Chinese film-making friends advised me not to attempt this shoot in an actual rural location. They said it’d be too tough. Most period films in China are shot on back lots with a few second-unit landscapes. But I’m too drawn to realism for that, and besides, as a westerner, I couldn’t imagine making a film on the other side of the world on a back lot.

I found the perfect location — very magical, very realistic — in the northern reaches of the most south-western province in China, called Yunnan. This is the Tibetan plateau (most of the film was shot within a few hundred miles of Tibet) and the setting for James Hilton’s Lost Horizon. The area is known within China as “Shangri-La” and its mountainous landscape is epic and breathtaking.

Aside from northern Yunnan’s beauty, it’s also an area of China that has largely escaped the ravages of modern development, so it was possible to stitch together a believable world from long ago using a number of locations in that area. Of course, we were a couple thousand miles inland, so the seashore and King’s island had to be created in the computer from architectural elements shot in Yunnan and combined with coastal elements from Hong Kong, northern China and even California.

Q:   Have you screened Cinderella Moon to Chinese audiences? If so, what did they think?

RB: I worked hard to maintain the original Chinese-ness of this Cinderella while keeping it accessible to a non-Chinese audience. It’s no surprise to me that Chinese viewers know immediately that Cinderella Moon was not made by a Chinese director. The feedback so far is that Chinese audiences feel it’s an accurate and sympathetic take on their culture as seen from the outside.

Q:   Tell us about the casting.

RB:  More time was spent on the Cinderella search than any other pre-production activity; I cast all over China for about two years, and I saw easily more than a 1000 girls. I knew that without a great Cinderella the film would fail. We found Xiao Min in Chengu (southern China) just about ready to graduate from a performing arts school. I couldn’t believe how great her audition tape was and immediately flew her up to Beijing. We hit it off and I was certain she could do it.

I wanted the archetypal characters in this fairytale to be sharply drawn and somewhat extreme. Clear character types are appropriate to fairy tales and transcend cultures, so again, this was another way Cinderella Moon could be global. I purposely cast actors whose characters would be immediately recognizable types worldwide. The story deals with some pretty serious issues, and I also felt that watching fun characters would be critical to the lightness I wanted to work into the film.

The cast of 16 main roles comes from four different areas in China. Some are seasoned character actors, a few had studied acting but never had been in a film.  I also cast several non-pros… a waitress, a truck driver, a couple of farmers.

Q:  Why did you choose to have Cinderella Moon look the way it does, and how did you establish the look?

I made Cinderella Moon in the style of magic realism, which I tried to infuse into every part of the film, especially the way the film looks. Wild and unbelievable things happen throughout the film; magic is at the story’s core. However, I felt that since the story was set in ancient China, the magic shouldn’t feel like an unusual occurrence, but natural. In an ancient Chinese fairytale world, magic should be a natural part of everyday life, experienced as an ancient mind believing in magic might experience it.

Also, my visual bias and the needs of the story both required that the film look deeply realistic: real looking characters, sets, landscapes, and wardrobe. But, being a fairytale, the film’s world needed to look unique, self-contained, make-believe, and magical.

Every visual element was real, but the way its all put together is total fantasy.

The Kingdom of Shangri-La

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.

Shangri-La is a natural setting for the film’s fairytale world, and it also happens to be where the original Cinderella story is said to have been written in 768 AD.

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.

SHANGRI-LA’S MYTHMAKER: JAMES HILTON

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.

RETURN TO SHANGRI-LA: CINDERELLA MOON

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?