Redrawing Tang Dynasty Stars
When Gao Shi and Li Bai, both eminent poets of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), met for the first time in their youth, they engaged in a fierce fight. A traditional Chinese saying goes, “A fight can end up making a true friend,” and a long-lasting friendship between Gao and Li sprouted after they fought each other with a spear and a sword.
This plot is from the animated movie Chang’an, which is scheduled to hit theaters on July 8 this year. The film follows the adventurous lives and enduring friendship of the two great poets as well as many other famous poets, artists, and patriotic generals, culminating in an epic portrait of the great figures of their times. From the prosperous scenery of the capital city Chang’an to the poetic and picturesque night views south of the Yangtze River and then to fierce battlefields in border towns, the multifaceted landscapes of the Tang Dynasty leap to life.
This film is the inaugural release of the “New Culture” series produced by Light Chaser Animation Studios. In an exclusive interview with China Pictorial (CP), the film’s directors Xie Junwei and Zou Jing said that viewers would learn about the extraordinary talent, grand visions, and patriotic feelings of the figures in the movie. “Even though more than a thousand years have passed, their spirit remains alive and deeply touches today’s youth.”
CP: What is the main storyline of Chang’an? How did you hone the script?
Zou Jing: The film is set in a few years after the An-Shi Rebellion (755-763), a war of betrayal launched by Tang Dynasty generals An Lushan and Shi Siming. As military secretary Gao Shi defends Chang’an from the attack of the Tubo army in a southwestern town, he recounts his life-long friendship with Li Bai to a chief eunuch in the military. The film also depicts many other well-known poets of the Tang Dynasty with focus on their pursuit of their dreams. Viewers may have some knowledge of the stories but not that much, so we hope to generate mixed feelings of strangeness and familiarity, and reinterpret the historical stories with animation.
Xie Junwei: In general, the film stays loyal to the historical facts and follows historical trends. The life experiences of Gao Shi, Li Bai, and other Tang Dynasty poets, who strived to pursue their ideals and realize their dreams, provide very good story materials, and we referred to the historical records of these figures when creating the script. However, there are also voids in these records so we filled the voids while ensuring the plot remains consistent with history and the figures’ personalities.
CP: The historical context and poems from the Tang Dynasty might seem bizarre to foreign viewers. Do you think they will appreciate this film just as much as Chinese viewers?
Zou Jing: The human spirit of pursuing ideals is common in both the East and the West, and the plot of this film is presented in a way that overseas audiences can relate. This story is told from the perspective of the protagonist Gao Shi, a character imbued with traditional Eastern flavor. We hope overseas audiences, through Gao’s eyes, can see the spirit of perseverance in Li Bai and other Tang Dynasty poets through their stories of chasing dreams.
CP: Light Chaser Animation Studios is already a mature animation house. Did you run into any new challenges when making this film?
Xie Junwei: The biggest challenge we faced was determining how to present the impressive prosperity of the Tang Dynasty. Before production began, our team studied historical materials, read extensively about Tang Dynasty culture and the poets’ lives, and researched the customs and rituals of that time. We invited experts from various fields to guide us to make sure the content was accurate and credible, and we also learned thoroughly about the poems in this film. Our team adopted an audio-visual language and performance design typical of animation, hoping to make the best of animation-based imagination and show poetic scenes with the greatest Eastern features.
CP: Compared to other art forms such as live-action movies, TV, and theater, what unique strengths does animation have when telling Chinese stories?
Zou Jing: Making animation is like painting a brand-new imaginary world on a blank piece of paper, which demands strong imaginative power from the creators but also gives them plenty of space for creation. The production of animated movies follows a unique industrialized process so the procedures are more controllable, which is the biggest difference from other art forms. In this film, animation empowered us with a strong expressive means to present Chinese poetry culture in a more impressive way so that the audience could better resonate with the poetic mood and artistic concepts of the poets.
CP: Over the past decade, Light Chaser Animation Studios has been dedicated to creating animations featuring traditional Chinese stories, such as Little Door Gods (2016), White Snake (2019) and Green Snake (2021) in the “New Legends” series, New Gods: Nezha Reborn (2021) and New Gods: Yang Jian (2022) in the “New Gods” series, and the upcoming Chang’an in the “New Culture” series. What has been learned from this work disseminating Chinese culture across the world?
Xie Junwei: We have always adhered to the principle of “telling Chinese stories from a Chinese perspective.” The studio has based these films on traditional Chinese stories and made tenacious efforts to explore traditional Chinese culture. It is crucial for us to align with the mentality of the Chinese audience, feel the pulse of our times, work according to the national conditions of China, and thoroughly consider the emotional needs of young people and family audiences. We want to do as much as possible with the imaginative power of animation and optimize our strengths in telling Chinese stories.