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Water Margin on Netflix: Chinese classic with Hollywood flavor?

By Meng Bin  (People's Daily Online)    13:15, November 20, 2020

A board for a Sichuan board game, based on The Water Margin.

Netflix Film announced last Friday that it will make an action-adventure film based on The Water Margin, one of the Four Great Classical Novels of ancient Chinese literature. In a tweet, the streaming service provider envisaged the new film (also named "The Water Margin") getting "a futuristic twist". Shinsuke Sato, a Japanese filmmaker, has been slated to direct the movie.

This announcement has received a mixed reception from readers and movie fans on the other side of the Pacific.

According to a survey conducted by Life Week, an influential magazine in China, around 78% of those questioned hold an unfavorable view of the adaptation.

"Please, leave those classics alone! Our previous adaptation (a TV series based on the original) is perfect enough," said one netizen on Chinese social media platform Weibo. "I hope they won't distort the essence of the novel," read another comment.

But not all Chinese netizens rejected the idea. Some believed that by giving the ancient novel a Hollywood flavor, foreign audiences would be able to experience the novel's heroic and epic storytelling. "It is a good opportunity to spread Chinese culture, as our country is a cultural powerhouse," one said in the comment section.

Whether the Chinese classics can acclimatize to a poles apart discourse system has once again become a hot topic. 

Adaptable yet vulnerable

Producing a movie is hard enough in itself, let alone encapsulate a rich and complex novel into a single film using a totally different language. 

The Water Margin, also known as Outlaws of the Marsh or All Men Are Brothers, details the trials and tribulations of 108 outlaws during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 A.D.). Based on the historical bandit Song Jiang and his 36 companions, the million-word masterpiece contains more than a hundred chapters. With fascinating writing and breathtaking plots, each chapter alone offers enough action to be put onto the big screen. 

Li Kui, nicknamed "Black Whirlwind", a fictional character in Water Margin.

But adapting a classical work like The Water Margin is like cooking a delicate dish. With all the great ingredients, and you can still cobble together a terrible mixture. That was the case with a previous adaptation of Journey to the West (also one of the Four Great Classical Novels) by Netflix, and is also true of Hollywood's 2019 adaptation of "Cats", the 1981 Tony Award-winning stage musical.

By saying that, however, it doesn't mean Chinese stories cannot be adapted. The Good Earth, a 1937 Academy award-winning film about the struggles faced by Chinese farmers, is a showcase that a Chinese story can still have its audiences and market in Hollywood. "Mulan (1998)", the beloved animated musical film, is also based on the story of Hua Mulan, a Chinese folk heroine. Unlike "Mulan" the movie (2020), the animation film had a more complete storyline and richer characters, drawing praise from both the US and China.

The same story can be told in a thousand different ways, from a thousand different perspectives. But clichéd storytelling and stereotyped characters are doomed to meet with the cold shoulder. It takes effort, creativity, patience, knowledge, and sometimes a bit of luck to retell the story well.

More than pandas and kung fu

For a long time, Hollywood’s adaptation of Chinese works has been confined to pandas or kung fu, or a combination of both: a panda practicing kung fu. 

Bruce Lee, the most influential kung fu artist in Hollywood and a pop culture icon of the 20th century. (Photo/CGTN)

"More often than not, the Chinese elements in Hollywood films are still clichés," said Dai Jinhua, a professor at Peking University, "The main characters, even with 'Chinese looks', are still 'American heroes'."

But Professor Dai was also convinced that Chinese stories offer tremendous potential.

"About 25 years ago, a famous Hollywood producer who came to China said to me directly that Hollywood had few stories left.

"The producer believed that with its rich and splendid history, China had tons of stories to dig into," said Dai.   

(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)
(Web editor: Meng Bin, Hongyu)

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