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.
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.