When Richard Bowen was scouting locations for his fairytale Cinderella Moon, he wanted to make sure that it fulfilled two requirements for the magic realism style he was going after. It needed to look like a place where magical things could happen, but it also needed to look and feel real, as if it were a documentary he’d just shot yesterday.
Northern Yunnan Province where he ended up shooting Cinderella Moon delivered in both respects. In addition to its fairytale-like beauty, the area that was the inspiration for author James Hilton’s “Shangri-La” in Lost Horizon appears almost untouched by time and has a rough-around-the edges feel.
“In remote pockets of Yunnan today,” says Bowen, “there are still small towns, villages and landscapes that (with a little help) photograph convincingly as 800 AD. And there are still people who are virtually unaffected by modern life. Hollywood polish can’t make this world or its people any more visually beautiful — only less real.”
Yes, there are some special effects in the film, but one of the most important special effects is Yunnan and its natural beauty. As a result, this “Shangri-La” is practically one of the most important characters in Cinderella Moon. “The tension between a kind of documentary realism, made possible by actual ‘800 AD’ locations and people,” says Bowen, “and magic, made possible by a restrained use of visual effects, is at the very heart of this film.”
All of Bowen’s Chinese filmmaker friends advised him not to shoot in an actual rural location. They said it would be too tough. Most period films in China are shot on back lots with a few second-unit landscapes, but the director’s eye was too drawn to realism for that. “As a westerner, he says, “I couldn’t imagine making a film on the other side of the world on a back lot!”
As a result of this dedication to realism, Cinderella Moon was shot in four locations in northern Yunnan: Shaxi (which was once part of the Tea Horse trail and where the Full Moon Dance scene was filmed); Wei Bao Shan, (a Taoist temple which served as the King’s Island Palace); Nuo Deng (Mei Mei’s village); and Bao Shan (the landscape surrounding the village).
Bao Shan sits above the headwaters of China’s famous Yangtze River, which originates in Tibet and joins the sea at Shanghai. Bao Shan has the distinction of being the only village along the upper Yangtze that, in ancient times, the fearsome Tibetan warriors could not conquer. Bao Shan was so remote that the crew of Cinderella Moon had to get there on horseback and camp on its river in tents!
Wei Bao Shan is the site of an ancient Taoist temple that had just the right balance of majesty and “shabby chic” to be the King’s court in Cinderella Moon. The monks in this working monastery agreed to let Bowen and his crew film here as long as the faces of the temple’s deities were not filmed. Through the magic of special effects, Wei Bao Shan was turned into a coastal island.
Shaxi is an UNESCO-protected site due to its link as the stop-off point for weary travelers on the Tea Horse Trail, the road used by China to conduct its horses-for-tea trade. There’s conjecture that the Cinderella story started its journey toward the west via this ancient trading route and may have actually passed through Shaxi.
Nuo Deng is a beautifully-preserved 2000-year old village in a part of Yunnan that was once the site of the only salt mine in the region. It is in this area where the Burma Road of WW II was built and the “Flying Tigers” gained fame. As an interesting twist of fate, it’s also where the director’s father fought during the war.