Finding occupants for the Red Mansions


A Beijing TV show has for the last few months been looking for fresh young actors to play leading roles in the new TV production of Dream of the Red Mansions. Now that field has been whittled down to the final few contestants for each of the three main characters – Jia Baoyu, Lin Daiyu, and Xue Baochai – talk has turned from an appraisal of the talent competition as a reality show to speculation on whether any of the contestants will actually be able to carry a full TV series.

He Dong, an entertainment journalist who hosts the new Phoenix TV Online program Extraordinary Words (凤凰非常道), published an interview with Hu Mei, the general director of the new series. Hu expressed her determination to find the best actors for the leading roles, whether or not they turned out to be the winners of the casting competition.

The interview was picked up by the mainstream media. Despite He Dong’s stature, because his interview originally appeared on his blog, he was accused of distortion and fabrication by a number of people involved with the show.

Translated below are his original interview with Hu Mei and an excerpt from his response to critics, in which he talks about the risks involved in speaking to entertainment reporters.

Director Hu Mei: I’m still waiting for Sister Lin and Brother Jia to fall from the heavens

Blog interview by He Dong

The long-running “Red Mansions casting contest” has lately been whipped up into a raging fire by the Internet and the media. Practically every week or every day there’s new industry gossip floating around.

Oddly, however, among the frenzied voices, each louder than the last, you can barely see any shadow of the master director of the series, Hu Mei, and you can hardly hear her express any opinions. Even when the media comes calling, they do not learn any definite goals. This arouses suspicion and curiosity.

Yesterday [17 May], after a lengthy process, this writer finally made direct contact with director Hu, who is currently off somewhere in Beijing on a shoot. Through the course of the film interview, I obtained several direct opinions from her in regards to the “Red Mansions casting contest.”

He Dong: Director Hu, at present, the “Red Mansions casting contest” is nearing the final, electric stages. But as the overall director, we have seldom heard your voice and opinions on these matters. Why? Are you avoiding it?

Hu Mei: I’m not avoiding it. There’s nothing to avoid. I currently am away shooting a TV series I really like. So I have absolutely no free time to take part in the overall development or specific details of the “Red Mansions casting contest.” So I’m not familiar with many particulars of the situation.

He: How can that be? As the overall director of the new series, how will you handle actors with whom you are unfamiliar who have been selected to play the leading roles?

Hu: Early this year I made a statement that the idea behind the Red Mansions casting contest did not come out of my own wishes as director. Perhaps from a commercial standpoint, this might be a very clever idea. But any artistic creation follows its own rules. For myself, I am not used to hyping up a project before it is complete. I also don’t like this commercialized form of media operation.

He: Then do you think that the sensationalism of “Red Mansions casting contest” will disrupt the next step of filming?

Hu: Hmmm…not disruption. But my greatest worry is that things might reach a point where they put pressure on me.

He: I think I understand little about where you are. Then are you satisfied with the selection results of the “Red Mansions casting contest”, the top-8 or top 5?

Hu: I most certainly cannot say that I’m satisfied, because I have no way of knowing anything about most of the people who have qualified. I’m unclear what sort of standard of judgment the the randomly-chosen judges have. So right now I can only stress that the talent competition is just a talent competition; shooting a TV series is a different thing. My principle is that you can select whoever you want, and I’ll continue to prepare for the next step of shooting the new series as seriously and conscientiously as I can.

One more thing: I think that the new Red Mansions will be quite different from the old Red Mansions. Creative ideas have kept pace with the times. If you must force me to use people or artistic standards that the I as general director – and the entire team of directors – believe are inappropriate for the role, then I can only say: sorry, I must refuse that result.

He: Do you think that among the new faces who’ve been selected through the talent competition – Jia Baoyu, Lin Daiyu, and Xue Baochai – there are some people with whom you’d be very satisfied?

Hu: You could say that they are all cute young kids, but between them and the men and women of the Grand View Garden ther is a definite distance – one that might be quite large indeed. I have been waiting for a “Sister Lin” and “Brother Bao” to fall from the heavens, but they still have not appeared.

To date, I still cannot make any casual evaluation of anyone. Previously I made some comments about a few actors whom I thought looked relatively good, and later the media hyped them up – it seemed as if a verdict was already in on those actors. Actually, throughout the course of the talent competition I will no longer make any public commentary or recommend any individual, in order to avoid disrupting the competition or generating other unwanted misunderstandings.

He: Then in the unlikely event that differences of opinion cannot be resolved, how will you as the overall director make the final choice?

Hu: I can only say that I’ll reserve all judgment.

He: Can you be more specific?

Hu: Right now I have to stop there.

He: But the “Red Mansions casting contest” activities have already benefited many areas. I’ll ask you an abrupt question: if everything continues as it has been, and there is no way to completely satisfy you, will you acquiesce and compromise?

Hu: Shooting a new, 50-episode Dream of the Red Mansions is not a game, and it isn’t something where the best outcome can be achieved by me casually making compromises. I have directed several series in the past, and they were well-received by the majority of audiences because I have always respected the rules of art, and have upheld certain principles. So should I just throw that all away for this major television show?

He: In my understanding, after “Red Mansions casting contest” entered its final round, some of the kids in competition were engaging in commercial promotion apart from the shooting of the show. What’s your take on this?

Hu: Really? I never heard that. If it is indeed true, then it’s probably an excessive desire for profit.

To sum up, I thank all of you who are concerned about the new version of Red Mansions. What I am focused on now is the script. The recreation of the script for the new Red Mansions is mostly done. Forces have yet to mobilize, so I currently cannot make any guarantees about the outcome of the picture or who will play who. I can only say that I am working my hardest to achieve the finest results.

* * *

On the “Red Mansions Casting contest” – am I talking nonsense?

by He Dong

Several days ago I posted an exclusive interview on my blog: “Director Hu Mei: I’m still waiting for Sister Lin to fall from the heavens.”

Why didn’t I find a newspaper to publish Hu Mei’s words?

Because I’m scared. For lots of information, should entertainment journalists make the slightest twist, what you clearly said was “east” gets warped by the paparazzi into “west” or even “Eastsouthwestnorth” when it is published. This is why when Faye Wong had just given birth to Li Yan, the media, rubbing their hands in anticipation of a heinous surge of gossip, but were immediately pacified by a single blog post by Li Yapeng, like a cup of cold water tossed into a boiling pot of dumplings.

So blogs have their advantages. At the critical moment they can truly set up an independent platform for individual declarations. Gossip in newspaper supplements can do their utmost to twist and invent, but they can’t manipulate a blog from behind the scenes, can they? Ha ha! They don’t know the password!

To tell the truth, before I published the interview “Director Hu Mei: I’m still waiting for Sister Lin and Brother Lin to fall from the heavens,” I anticipated that there might be voices from all sides jumping up like they had a fire under their ass. So, crafty old devil that I am, I personally verified the interview three times by email with director Hu before I posted the exclusive interview on my blog.

But even so, the waves got whipped up. When the waves rise, no one can hold them back!

First it was the money that spoke up right away –

My blog post was circulated in the media; at 11:48 on 22 May, I saw this piece of news: “Investors deny that Hu Mei opposes the Red Mansions casting contest, denounce reporter for talking nonsense.” The article was written indistinctly: “Recently, some media outlets published the news that Hu Mei is still waiting for Sister Lin. In the interview, Hu Mei said that the would not accept the forced outcome of the ‘Red Mansions casting contest’. This news item caused a huge furor in the industry. The reporter talked to an individual connected with the investors in the Red Mansion Characters show [红楼梦中人 – aka ‘The Characters in Dream of the Red Chamber’], who said To this day, ‘Hu Mei has supported the Red Mansion casting contest. I believe that these are not Hu Mei’s true words; instead, a reporter twisted her words and is talking nonsense.'”

The news item also brought out the following proof:

[Hu Mei’s appearances on the show redacted]

(Note to readers: Hu Mei’s statements on the “casting contest” end on 25 March, so while the “connected individual” said “To this day, ‘Hu Mei has supported the Red Mansion casting contest,” I humbly request the “connected individual” to list one or two more recent instances, particularly during the final stage of the casting contest, of Hu Mei’s words on the Red Mansion casting contest.)

Then there was Zhang Qiang, vice-president in charge of Beijing TV’s casting contest, who said in an interview: “The report definitely is in error; Hu Mei has seen and talked to all of the competitors. And this matter cannot be circulated using the opinion of a single person.”

Beijing Evening News finally confirmed the interview on the 22nd with an SMS to Hu Mei; offended parties turned their indignation on He Dong’s motives, accusing him of using the interview to hype his new online program.

Commentary in print and on the web in the following two days focused on the potential for commercial motives behind the talent show to steamroll artistic integrity. Here’s a bit that appeared on People Online:

How to make the selection is up to the two companies [China Film Group and HLBN, which signed a contract to use the winner of the competition]. But whatever happens, they must give to the audience an artistic work that exceeds those of the past; otherwise, the audience will vote with their remote control, and the ultimate loser will be the film makers. Right now there are a good number of people who say that the old version of Dream of the Red Mansions is hard to surpass artistically, and some people have even called for a boycott of the new version. Against this backdrop, perhaps the director ought to have more say in casting; there needs to be more thought on this front.

Perhaps in today’s commercialized age, this type of commercial project to cast actors is unimpeachable. Even before shooting has started, the casting process has entertained the audiences. The artistic skill of those young candidates have won the high acclaim of the audience, and for this reason, this kind of business model may not necessarily fail to select talented, suitable actors who will create a genuinely outstanding work of art. However, perhaps because of an overemphasized pursuit of entertainment, watchability, and ratings, the selection standards may merely random and amusing, without any of art’s own strictness. As the general director, Hu Mei has the biggest say, but she seems never to be in the list of judges. Like Hu Mei said of the standard, “I’m unclear what sort of standard of judgment the the randomly-chosen judges have.” This is what makes so many people confused and sympathetic.

On the 24th, various media outlets reported that the casting contest producers stated unequivocally that the winners in each category were the ones who would act in the TV series. However, Zhang Qiang emphasized that Hu Mei would be on hand for the final selection process – she’d oversee the contest from the final four contestants. Here’s Zhang Qiang in today’s Beijing Times (“Hu Mei compromises with to Dream of the Red Mansions producers”):

Zhang Qiang said that for the new version of Dream of the Red Mansions, Hu Mei would use the contestants selected in the Red Mansions Characters contest unconditionally: “CFH, HLBN and all the investors in the new version are unanimous in their high opinion of the casting contest. There are no differences of opinion. Today I spoke to director Hu Jia who is in Jiangxi shooting a TV series concerning revolutionary history, and she once again expressed her attitude to the investors that her opinions are in complete agreement with theirs.”

As for the idea that Hu Mei is dissatisfied with the quality of the contestants in the Red Mansions Characters show, Zhang Qiang said that this event is not just for show; rather, it is a real casting process for actors. In this light, Hu Mei’s opinions of individual roles are completely normal. Zhang Qiang said, “The large controversy over casting actors for the new version of Red Mansions is entirely normal. One thousand people will have one thousand images of Sister Lin. The casting of actors to play Jia Baoyu and Lin Daiyu in the 1987 version also sparked massive debate; the argument over Jia Baoyu’s character even erupted into a fight between the producers that did not die down until after shooting started.”

Indeed, there are fights even within the casting contest itself. He Dong fired back today with quotes from two celebrity judges complaining about the way the talent search was conducted. Li Lingyu reported on her blog about the paparazzi-like nature of some of the questions and wondered whether people still remembered that the ultimate goal was to select the most appropriate actors to play three characters from Cao Xueqin’s novel, rather than merely putting on an exciting elimination-based reality show. Ying Da discussed with YWeekend about the problems with putting things to a public vote:

YWeekend: I get the feeling that you judges are more and more critical of the contestants. You say they don’t look like Daiyu. We really want to know about this group of contestants who’ve made it to the finals…

Ying Da (cutting off): They aren’t the ones we wanted to select.

YW: So will they still play Daiyu?

Ying: Yes.

YW: Even if they aren’t the most appropriate?

Ying: Yes. This is the choice of the whole audience. Do you have a better method? (However, director Hu Mei said in a media interview recently that she would not accept a forced selection result.)

YW: But the voter base is relatively small. It’s not the entire populace.

Ying: Who kept the public from participating? Weren’t they all called to participate? There’s nothing we can do. This is the best strategy. I’ll tell you the truth – the ones we liked the best were knocked out really early, so it became a ridiculous situation in which whoever we judges picked did not make the cut. It was wholly out of our control.

YW: Maybe that way was a bit more entertaining.

Ying: You know all about that.

Semifinals and finals will be held on 2 and 3 June, and then we can all start complaining about the results.

UPDATE (2007.05.26): See this post for updates on director Hu’s resolve.

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