Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Jennifer Cody Epstein's "The Painter from Shanghai"

Jennifer Cody Epstein's acclaimed novel The Painter from Shanghai is a re-imagining of the actual life of Pan Yuliang and her transformation from prostitute to post-Impressionist painter.

Here Epstein shares her thinking on the cast and director of a big screen adaptation of her novel:
I’m told that my novel could be a great movie, and I must say I agree. Its settings (1920’s Shanghai and Paris) characters (cruel madams, tortured artists, dashing revolutionaries) and Pan’s own, lush artwork would, if properly handled, make for a visual feast. Possibly a musical one too; or so the Taiwan Philharmonic seemed to think when it inquired about obtaining the opera rights.... Renée Fleming as Chinese prostitute-turned-post-Impressionist, anyone?

But that’s for another blog. This one’s about movies; the rights of which (to date) remain free in Painter’s case. Which isn’t so surprising: as Memoirs of a Geisha demonstrated “exotic” period films are both pricey and risky. Rob Marshall’s glittering bellyflop also neatly illustrated the pitfalls of poor casting and vision (Chinese actresses, playing Japanese geisha, speaking-- English?) Though it did mark progress from 1937’s The Good Earth, in which Paul Muni (in yellowface) plays a Chinese farmer, and Luise Rainer his heavily-made-up wife. To his credit, Irving Thalberg did want Chinese actors in these roles. But the era’s race biases (and in particular the Hays Code, which banned depictions of interethnic marriage) led MGM to refuse.

Happily, a filmic Painter wouldn’t face such hurdles, and could learn from Memoirs’ mistakes. Lesson #1: that there’s no shortage of talented Chinese actors. Lesson #2: they shouldn’t speak their lines in English--particularly if they don’t speak it in the first place. Lesson #3: Gong Li should not be cast, since she already appears in almost every Asian film ever screened for a Western audience, barring (of course) The Good Earth. In any event, she’s played Pan Yuliang already in the little-known 1992 film Hua hun.

I’d want to check with my director (ideally, Ang Lee) but I’d be inclined to cast Hao Lei. Though a lesser-known actress, she has both the sex-appeal and the broodiness to play Yuliang, as she demonstrated in Lou Ye’s (sexy, broody) Summer Palace. For Yuliang’s husband, I go straight to drop-dead hunk Chow Yun Fat (Hard Boiled, Curse of the Golden Flower), though Andy Lau (House of Flying Daggers) may be more the long-suffering-husband type. Still, I’d rather watch Chow Yun Fat for two hours. (Or, say, forever.)

I’ve written Xing Xudon—the young Communist who tempts Yuliang in Paris--as tall, artsy and heartbreakingly idealistic. My first thought was hoops star Yao Ming; but at 7’6 he might just be too tall, and probably lacks the necessary dramatic range. I’d go with Guo Xiaodong instead; he played Hao’s bad-boy lover in Summer Palace. Aaron Kwok—who played a complex and deeply-flawed gambler in After This Our Exile--would be pitch-perfect as Yuliang’s opium-addicted, treasonous uncle. And Jingling, the effervescent, doomed courtesan who mentors Yuliang in the brothel, could be played by martial-arts-and-beauty-queen Michelle Yeoh. (Who knows; after suffering through Memoirs she might even appreciate the opportunity. )

Oddly enough, the role for which I have the most trouble casting is Lucien Simon, Yuliang’s French painting mentor in Paris. Gérard Depardieu? Nicolas Sarkozy? But—wait. Maybe we could bring Andy Lau back--and make him French! No, really; if they did it for Muni in 1937, they certainly can do it backwards now. It’d be oddly appropriate, actually. A kind of ironic payback for the Hays Code’s past injustices…

…which just leaves Godmother, the murderous madam from Yuliang’s teenaged days in the brothel. That actress should be older, slightly matronly in figure. Capable of playing courtesans and concubines alike. Plus, she should look good in heavy makeup. And in red….Oh, all right. I give up: Gong Li.

Sigh….Some cinematic laws will just have to be left for the next generation to break.
Learn more about The Painter from Shanghai and its author at Jennifer Cody Epstein's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Painter from Shanghai.

--Marshal Zeringue