Filming is officially underway for Haoran’s new project, mystery/suspense film Moses on the Plains, and while casting has not been officially announced, it’s pretty much as good as official at this point. Filming is currently taking place in Jilin City and will probably go through June, so it will be a while before we see Haoran! This is the first new movie to start filming in 2020 for China’s film industry (was originally scheduled to start filming at the end of January).
There’s been a lot of excitement over this film among both netizens and media, because two of the most prominent names among the new generation of film actors are finally collaborating, and also because the original short story is quite beloved among literary circles. For those who are unfamiliar, Zhou Dongyu is the princess of the Chinese film industry right now, with back to back to back critically acclaimed and commercial hits.
Haoran has worked with Zhou Dongyu in pretty much every capacity, minus an actual filming project. They’re also often mentioned together by media due to how similar their paths have been (both were open casted for movies as high school students and did not have prior plans on going into acting/becoming a celebrity, went on to major in acting at two of the Big 3 performing arts schools, have each worked with one of the Top 2 mainland directors – Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige – 2 or more times, etc.).
Moses on the Plains, the original short story, was told through the perspective of several characters , with a large focus on the story of the older generation (including the parents of the two lead characters). It was speculated that this will probably be cut down because 1) casting Zhou Dongyu and Liu Haoran at this stage in their careers probably means you want to give them a larger focus, and 2) the older generation’s story circled around two very sensitive topics censorship-wise: the Cultural Revolution and Christianity.
Along with the recent leaked pics of Haoran and Dongyu’s bike scene (would normally not share leaked pics but this one is being used like they’re stills even by official media, so assuming the production team gave the okay), 1905 the Movie Network (which is the online platform for CCTV6, the official state-backed Movie Channel) just published an article on the film. Though it doesn’t contain any new information, it does do a good job of summarizing the background of both the film and the short story, specifically its roots in Northeast China, which has its own culture, history, and identity.
NOTE: There are some light spoilers from the short story in here, so wanted to give a head’s up to those who want to avoid them.
Recently, photos of Zhou Dongyu and Liu Haoran filming in Jilin City were revealed. This news is exciting for two reasons: 1) it indicated that the film industry is getting back to work, which is a good sign, and 2) seeing that there were finally developments on the film adaptation for this novel. So naturally, we are anticipating it highly.
Because of this, we quickly reached out to Moses on the Plains’ producer Dun He*. He expressed that the movie just started filming and that there aren’t more details they can share at this time. But looking at Shuang Xuetao’s original story, as well as the news that’s come out thus far, there is quite a bit to talk about regarding the background of the film.
*T/N: Dun He owns the company that’s producing the film as well – they’re relatively new but were the team behind Yao Chen’s Send Me to the Clouds last year, as well as several wenyi (art/drama) films that haven’t premiered yet.
In 2019, the term “the revival of Northeast China’s literature & the arts” was quite popular on the Internet. Some have said, this concept was first brought up through singer Uncle Gem, at an event specifically for the development of Northeast China’s Literature and Arts. His super popular Douyin song “Wild Wolf Disco” was the prelude of that revival.
Although this term has an entertainment aspect to it and can be seen as mocking sometimes, you can’t deny that the sincere and highly infectious culture of Northeast China, like their dialect, has subtly attracted and influenced many.
With the “revival of Northeast China ‘s literature and arts”, netizens started to voice their opinions on the the leader of the movement. Author Shuang Xuetao was one of the names brought up. The Shuang Xuetao who was born in the 80s in Shenyang excels in using words to describe the old industrial age of Northeast China and its associated sharpness and coldness.
Since 2011, he’s written more than 10 novels and short story collections. Before Moses on the Plains officially began its film adaptation, another novel of his, Assassinating the Novelist, has been adapted into a film by director Lu Yang (the movie Assassin In Red, starring Lei Jiayin, Yang Mi, Dong Zijian, and more – has not premiered yet).
Contrary from Assassin in Red, which is fantasy, Moses on the Plains is rooted in the realistic soil of Northeast China. Though it’s not long, the language is straightforward, the pace is fast, and the logic and composition flows well. These three characteristics have given the film adaptation of Moses on the Plains a lot of room to work with.
The current synopsis of the film is: the story follows the re-investigation of an old case, the murder of a taxi driver. The youth of Yanfen Street (an old shantytown in Shenyang that housed the laborers of the Tie Xi district and their families) is now a detective, and is in charge of looking into the old case from 12 years ago. As suspicion slowly points towards the father and daughter who lived next door to him in his childhood, he sinks deeper into the case, and finds that he himself might very well have been an unknown participant in the case.
T/N: Should note that last week, the movie’s submission for filming approval was released and a new synopsis was revealed: “12 years ago, a strange combination of circumstances and a missed promise between a pair of young people changes everyone’s fates. Twelve years later, the boy has become a cop, and the girl is burdened with a secret, and the two meet again under completely different circumstances.” – this indicates that the story is going to focus significantly more on the two younger characters
In the book, the focus on “the old days” and the deep investigation that takes place afterwards, is broken into 14 different timelines, through the perspectives of 7 characters who independently share their perspectives. Among the characters, there is the old detective who was initially responsible for the taxi driver’s case, the youth, the youth’s mother, and the father and daughter who lived next door in his childhood.
If you look at just the novel, Moses on the Plains starts in the 80s, 90s, and goes through the early 21st century. It covers 20 years in Northeast China, a reflection of a corner of life and society in Shenyang.
“Yanfen Street’s youth” is the character Liu Haoran plays – Zhuang Shu. He and the neighbor’s daughter Li Fei (played by Zhou Dongyu) have no interaction as youths. As kids, the two have opposite personalities. Zhuang Shu is smart but cynical, and the introverted Li Fei is the “other people’s child” (T/N: a child who is seen as perfect by other children’s parents) in the eyes of Zhuang Shu’s mother.
The few descriptions given in the short story tell us that Li Fei has always had an unrequited crush on Zhuang Fei. These feelings are the fuse of the case that goes unresolved for 12 years, and can only be pieced together from the details after reading all the chapters.
In literature, first person narrative can carry a lot of fragmented information, but when the story becomes visual art told through the lens, the story’s length will naturally need to be combed through thoroughly with decisive judgements. Moses on the Plains has seven characters that tell the story, and among them, Li Fei and Zhuang Shu appear the most, and are the central characters to all the relationships.
Such a story can be seen as falling under the themes of suspense and crime, wrapped in the “memories” of a young girl, so telling the story from Li Fei’s perspective is more than appropriate. Combined with the brief introduction of the plot, having Zhuang Shu take over the story afterwards, as the detective looking into the case 10 years later, also makes a lot of sense.
From the leaked pictures of Zhuang Shu riding his bike with Li Fei as a passenger, the lack of interactions between the two characters in their youths will most likely be filled in with more content. The story, which featured an ensemble cast in the novel, will possibly be more centered on these two characters as well.
For the movie adaptation of Moses on the Plains, picking out the most important characters and using them to connect the story is the choice that makes the most sense. Although this will definitely weaken the background story of Shuang Xuetao’s original work to an extent, he is serving as the artistic director for the film, so we believe the author will also be a decision maker in the genre and theme of the final product.
Aside from the original short story, the team behind the film will also be very influential on how the Moses on the Plains movie adaption turns out. Based on the information released publicly thus far, the movie will be directed by Zhang Ji, with Diao Yinan serving as executive director. Zhang Ji has no prior directing experience. Looking through his history, he was the cinematographer for North by Northeast, and was nominated for his work. Considering Moses on the Plains will be a similar genre, and also a suspense film set in Northeast China, it’s unknown how much experience his prior work will help for his directing debut.
At the mention of Diao Yinan, many film enthusiasts probably still have a fresh memory of his The Wild Goose Lake, which screened before New Year and entered the 2019 Cannes Film Festival in the main competition section. His Black Coal, Thin Ice, which won the Golden Bear for Best Film at the 2014 Berlin International Film Festival (the “Big 3” film festivals are Cannes, Berlin, and Venice), is also an important work that has to be mentioned.
In 2016, author Shuang Xuetao once mentioned that one of the inspirations for Moses on the Plains was because he had seen a crime film that took place in Northeast China in theaters. Moses on the Plains was published in November 2014 – Black Coal , Thin Ice won the Golden Bear award earlier that year in February and was screened nationwide in March. Whether it was truly one of the inspirations of Moses, Shuang Xuetao and Diao Yinan’s collaboration this time is also their acknowledgement of each other’s works.
Though the era and emotions portrayed are different, Black Coal, Thin Ice was also a suspense film, and in it, Diao Yinan used the camera lens to express the unique charm of Northeastern cities. Within it, he blended in the plot of the case, and dramatized the fates of the characters within the space. That is also what Moses on the Plains will be after.
Whether it was Black Coal, Thin Ice, or the later The Wild Goose Lake, “nightime” became a vehicle for much of the information and content. In the Moses on the Plains novel, the incident that changed Li Fei’s fate and ignited the 12 year old case also took place at night. It’s not an exaggeration to say that for this new director’s work, the role of the executive producer will be crucial.*
*T/N: Adding a couple of notes – the model of having a rookie director paired up with an executive producer who is a well known name has been quite common in the Chinese film industry lately, with Dying to Survive (executive producers: Ning Hao and Xu Zheng), A Sheep Without A Shepherd (executive producer: Chen Sicheng), and SoulMate (executive producer: Peter Chan) being notable successes.
Also, accounts from residents of Jilin City who have been trying to catch a glimpse of the cast of Moses on the Plains have noted much of the filming has taken place at night, which matches well with what the author of the article mentioned here on Diao Yinan’s style.
After discussing the behind the scenes, let’s wrap up by talking about the two actors. After the cast of Moses on the Plains was revealed, many fans of the original story expressed that when they first read the original novel, the Li Fei in their minds was Zhou Dongyu. In recent years, “Little Yellow Duck” (her nickname) has portrayed different types of roles through many film works.
Based on the pictures that have come out so far, Li Fei’s character will most likely be portrayed solely by Zhou Dongyu (not using a child actress). This also means the age range that she will play is very large, but after seeing Better Days, On the Balcony, and other films, audiences are probably quite confident in her ability to pull off a youth role.
Same applies to Zhuang Shu. For the 22 year old Liu Haoran, putting on a tracksuit and playing a high school student is be very convincing. For him, what is more highly anticipated is what happens in adulthood. Before Moses on the Plains, most of Liu Haoran’s roles have been limited to characters close to his age. But Zhuang Shu is like police academy student Qin Feng being directly promoted to police detective. The story spans at least 12 years, so for this post-95er actor, it will be an important breakthrough in his acting career.
Hope to see Moses on the Plains on the big screen soon.