Legends from beyond the bar
Release Date 2019-08-29
Resource China Daily
Author Xu Fan


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Spanning more than 20 years and centered on a tavern in Dalian, a new drama series recounts the clientele's tales of struggle through the colonial and wartime eras up to the creation of New China.


In Chinese social circles there is a well-known joke which says that an outsider should never boast that they can drink more than dongbeiren-somebody from one of the three northeastern Chinese provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin or Liaoning.


While it's hard to quantify this scientifically, the quip at least suggests that alcohol plays a significant role in the lifestyles of the locals in the region.


For screenwriter Gao Mantang, the drinking culture of Dalian became the inspiration that spawned his latest television drama, The Legendary Tavern.


Starring veteran television actor Chen Baoguo as the protagonist tavern owner, the 46-episode period drama began airing on Beijing Satellite TV and Guangdong Satellite Television on Monday.


Chen, who is known for playing emperors, reveals that the new drama marks his sixth venture with Gao, who has won dozens of awards including two best screenwriter awards at the Flying Apsaras-one of the TV industry's top honors in China.


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"It's the best timing for me to play this kind of character. I had to spend around four months preparing for the script, which is in line with my previous works, but found the role (which spans 21 years in the TV series) is a good fit for me now, as I have learned more about life in recent years," says Chen, 63.


"There were some things that I couldn't accurately interpret at a younger age. But this time I felt that the protagonist had actually taken over my body."


The veteran cast also includes actresses Qin Hailu, Yuan Shanshan, and actors Feng Lei, Liu Hua and Gong Hanlin.


Gao, also 63, reveals the story is a tribute to his late father, a Shandong immigrant who previously ran a tavern on a bustling street in downtown Dalian.


"My father was benevolent, generous and had a good sense of humor. His tavern treated a lot of customers from different walks of life, including businessmen, government officials, Japanese and Soviet soldiers, and even local bandits," recalls Gao.


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Many of the customers became friends with Gao's father, and they often recounted anecdotes and legendary tales to him as a young child when they visited the family home.


All these tales have been etched in his mind for over half a century, yet it wasn't until three years ago during a trip to visit his father's tomb that Gao decided to pen the script.


Over the decades from late 19th-century until the mid-20th century, Dalian was contested by conflicting foreign powers. The collapsing Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) was forced to lease the city to the Russian Empire in 1898. After Russia's defeat in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, Dalian was colonized by Japan between 1905 and 1945.


"I have a special affinity for Dalian. The city represents an important chapter in modern Chinese history," says Gao.


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Actor Chen Baoguo (left) and director Liu Jiang share behind-the-scenes stories of their new TV series The Legendary Tavern during a Beijing promotional event on Aug 21. 


"The stories in The Legendary Tavern are inspired from the older generations who had struggled for independence and freedom during the colonial era. I hope it will bring history to life for youngsters and help them learn more about their ancestry," he adds.


Set against the historical backdrop of the Japanese invasion and the Manchukuo puppet state, the TV drama spans the years between 1928 and 1949 and centers on the character of Chen Huaihai, an explorer and Shandong native who earned his fortune by gold prospecting in the forests of northeastern China.


Yearning for a more stable life, Chen Huaihai and several of his close friends used their savings to open a tavern in Dalian, where he makes friends with patriots, reunites with his long lost daughter, and meets the woman who he eventually falls in love with.


The storyline is complicated and unfolds a bit like "an umbrella", according to Liu Jiang, the director of the series.


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Actress Qin Hailu and Chen go up in a swing, recreating a romantic sequence in the drama at the same event.


Comparing the protagonist's life to "an umbrella handle", Liu explains that the other characters-mostly regulars at the tavern-all have their own legends, which combine to offer a panoramic snapshot of the locals' struggle to resist the Japanese invaders.


In a preview screening in Beijing last week, it was clear the cast had an impressive array of supporting characters, including a feudal father who threatens to commit suicide if his overseas-educated son refuses to divorce his foreign wife, and a policeman of the puppet state who ends up switching sides to join his anti-Japanese compatriots.


Shooting lasted for around four months, Liu recalls, with most of the scenes taking place in a set recreating a street in the style of old Dalian built on the outskirts of Tianjin. The more remote scenes were filmed in the forests of Mudanjiang in southeastern Heilongjiang province.


The forest sequences revolve around the protagonists' search to avenge the death of his only son, which took more than 20 days to shoot and recounted in one episode.


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"We all lived on a local farm. Every morning we took a one-hour ride to the edge of the forest, and then we had to trek for around 30 minutes to arrive at the place used for filming," recalls Liu.


The forest was so dense that it was difficult for sunlight to penetrate the thick foliage after 4 pm, so the crew had to work hard to ensure they captured the best shots of their natural surroundings.


Liu also reveals that the costume designers sought inspiration from Leonardo DiCaprio's Oscar-winning movie The Revenant for the clothes they used in the scenes set in the frozen wilderness.


"It's an epic story. You will see the noble Chinese spirit and values that have been passed down through the generations. As well as fans of Gao's works, we hope that The Legendary Tavern-with all its innovation in terms of design and narrative-will also appeal to young audiences," concludes Liu.