Mission impossible

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 November, 2007, 12:00am

For a country so obsessed with pageantry and mass rituals, there couldn't be a better occasion to display national pride than an Olympic opening ceremony.

With 80 per cent of the planet expected to tune in for the razzle-dazzle at the Bird's Nest stadium on the auspicious 08-08-08, most, if not all, in the mainland - be it the communist aristocrats, underprivileged peasants or middle-class urbanities - are looking forward to a spell-binding, breathtaking and inspirational curtain-raiser for what is billed as the coming out party for their reinvigorated Middle Kingdom.

Saving face commands paramount significance in the mindset, so the opening ceremony is the ultimate test to determine if China blushes like a rose in a sauna - or smiles wide and smugly like a Cheshire cat that's just finished the cream.

Putting together a pleasing face-saver, however, has set China on a hiding to nothing because, according to some, a perfect show of such magnitude and importance is an improbable mission.

This month, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) approved the plan for the 31/2-hour opening bash - including a one-hour gala performance - dreamed up by a creative team led by Zhang Yimou, the award-winning cinematographer-turned movie director best known for his obsession with stunning visuals.

Just after the Beijing Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (Bocog) gave its nod to the ceremony, Zhang told Phoenix TV it was just the end of a gruelling beginning.

'The most crucial period will be the window between next May and July, over which the rehearsals are scheduled,' said Zhang, 57.

'You don't get a second chance in front of a world audience. And in the case of China, where expectation piles up to an awesome level, you have to make sure nothing goes wrong in your production. It's not like film-making where I can make up for a flop with a hit next time. For this job, people won't accept anything less than success.'

Zhang was appointed for his efficiency in communicating all-important Chinese values to the global audience, a knack manifested in almost every piece of his work, from his Golden Bear-winning debut film, Red Sorghum (1987), and Hero (2002), the most profitable Chinese overseas release.

Bocog has allocated US$100 million from the games' overall US$2.4 billion budget to back his production of both the opening and closing ceremonies, according to PriceWaterhouse Coopers, the games' official auditing firm.

The sum is more than double for the Sydney opening ceremony, says Sandy Holloway, the chief 2000 official.

No wonder. A panel of international advisers has also been hired, including Steven Spielberg, to assist in the epic Beijing endeavour.

What this illustrious team is up to is a closely guarded secret.

'It's getting harder and harder for artists to create an Olympics show these days because the bar keeps being raised,' says Don Mischer, who produced the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and 2002 Salt Lake Winter Games.

'The Winter Games, Summer Games, Pan-America Games, Asian Games ... the growth of the intensity of ceremonies for games makes it increasingly difficult for what you do artistically and creatively.'

Mischer, who lost out to Zhang in his bid for the Beijing Olympics contract, has managed to add China to his CV by directing the critically acclaimed opening ceremony of the 2007 Special Olympics Summer Games in Shanghai last month.

'The key is trying to hit on the Chinese icons and the recognisable culture for a global audience, but avoiding stereotypes,' says Mischer.

He admitted his proposal of using the Great Wall, lanterns and Chinese gates at the Shanghai gala met with strong resistance from Chinese colleagues on the Special Olympics ceremony team.

And he believes such a challenge is causing a lot of head-scratching among Zhang's team.

'Though we eventually put those ideas into practice, I understand Chinese people are sick of their culture being represented by the same things,' says Mischer. 'In Atlanta, Americans complained about anything southern; in Sydney, Aussies were furious about the sight of kangaroos. The hosts always ask, 'Aren't we more than that?' But if we present something [too abstract] in the ceremonies, the rest of the world would ask, 'What's that'?'

To cater to a full spectrum of audiences, Zhang has no choice but to think out of the box and into another universe on how to present the old icons in a maverick, new way.

With work under wraps, it has been the subject of intensive speculation by Chinese media.

The proposed opening ceremony tricks 'revealed' so far include the images of tens of thousands of toddlers, for which Bocog has started a global collection campaign. More remarkably, a potentially mind-boggling airborne cauldron - a traditional rice bowl depicting prosperity - is to sweep around the Bird's Nest, according to reports.

'The cauldron could rise from an underground pit at the centre of the stadium and 'float' around for a while,' says a source within the national stadium.

Zhang has also secured the services of a few top-notch lieutenants as well as Hollywood's finest.

Cai Guoqiang, a New York-based award-winning contemporary fireworks artist, promises to deliver a pyrotechnic wonder.

Tan Dun, the conceptual Europe-based conductor-composer whose repertoire spans the boundaries of eastern and western musical traditions, is busy conceiving scores for the show.

Among all the helping hands, however, the name of Yu Jianping raises the most eyebrows. Yu, a veteran PLA engineer, was a key technology designer in China's first two manned space missions.

Now, he is taking care of the gimmicks and gadgets for the opening ceremony and is assigned to ensuring their smooth running.

Yet no matter how considerate, careful, innovative, hi-tech and well-drilled Zhang and his colleagues are, observers say they are unlikely to emerge on the morning after from the wrath of critics.

'No doubt it's going to be a smooth project,' says Zhang Yiwu, a Chinese culture history professor at the Peking University, who was summoned earlier this year among dozens of experts to advise Zhang on the design work of the ceremony.

'But I can easily foresee the criticism after August 8, 2008. There is a disparity in the taste between the Chinese and western audiences.

'It would be extremely difficult to please both simultaneously. I sympathise deeply with Zhang's job. It's one of the most difficult in the world.'

No expense spared

Acclaimed film director Zhang Yimou has been tasked with putting on a spectacular show

This is how much, in US$, Beijing is spending on the 2008 opening and closing ceremonies: 100m