Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Farewell to a Friend

On a recent visit to Epcot’s World Showcase, I discovered in a remote corner of the China retail shops a sentimental reminder of that pavilion’s original CircleVision 360 movie Wonders of China.

Browsing through a selection of small oriental fans, one design in particular caught my eye. It featured the Chinese script and corresponding English translation of the poem Farewell to a Friend, attributed to 8th century poet Li Pai.

First things first. Let's take a look at the description provided by the 1989 Birnbaum Disney World guidebook of the attraction Wonders of China: Land of Beauty, Land of Time. Here is its very detailed synopsis of the film and some background on how it was made:

This 19-minute presentation shows the beauties of a land that few Epcot Center visitors will ever see first hand—and does it so vividly that it's possible to see the film over and over and still not fully absorb all the wonderful sights. The Disney crew was the first Western film group to film certain sites, and their remarkable effort includes such marvels as Beijing's Forbidden City; vast, wide-open Mongolia and its stern-faced tribesmen; the 2,400-year-old Great Wall; the Great Buddha of Leshan, 8 centuries old and dramatically imposing; the muddy Yangtze River and the 3,000-year-old city of Suzhou, whose location on the Grand Canal, which is generally believed to be the largest man-made waterway in the world, encouraged Marco Polo to call it the Venice of the East. There are shots of Shanghai, as well as Hangzhou, where a handful of Chinese are shown doing their morning exercises along the river's edge. Also shown are Huangshan Mountain, wreathed in fog; the Shilin Stone Forest of jagged rock outcroppings in Yunnan Province; Urumqi, whose distance from the sea in Xinjiang Province earned it the title of the most inland city on earth; Lahsa, in Tibet, and its Potala Palace, boasting a thousand rooms and ten times that many altars. Just as fantastic are the Reed Flute Cave and the bizarrely shaped hills of Kweilin above, to say nothing of the very European-looking city of Shanghai. To complete the picture, there are fields of snow and of wheat, high meadows and beaches dotted with tropical palms, harbors and rice terraces, calligraphers, checkers and Ping-Pong players, lightning-fast acrobats, championship horseback riders, camels and a panda bear, glittering ice sculptures, and millions of bicycles.

Almost every step of the way, the film crews were besieged by curious Chinese, even in empty Mongolia. For the Huangshan Mountain sequence, which lasts only seconds, the crew and about three dozen hired laborers had to carry the 600-pound camera uphill for nearly a mile. The Chinese government would not permit Disney cameramen to shoot aerial footage in some areas, so Chinese crews were sent aloft to record the required scenes, first on videotape and later—after approval from the Disney director in charge of the project—on film. You can see for yourself just how well this collaboration worked.

As thorough and extensive as this entry was, I was surprised that it made no mention of what to me was the film’s most charming and entertaining component--that being the character of Li Pai, the well known Chinese poet who alternately hosted and narrated the movie.

Depending on language and translation, this famous poet of the Tang Dynasty is known by numerous names--Li Bai, Li Po, Li Bo and our souvenir fan-inscribed Li Pai. Called the Poet Immortal, Pai is considered one of China’s greatest poets. A Wikipedia entry states he is “best known for the extravagant imagination and striking Taoist imagery in his poetry, as well as for his great love for liquor. He spent much of his life travelling, although in his case it was because his wealth allowed him to, rather than because his poverty forced him. He is said to have drowned in the Yangtze River, having fallen from his boat while drunkenly trying to embrace the reflection of the moon.” The website China Culture.org notes that “Li Bai had also an air of a swordsman, hermit, Taoist, and adviser. Notions of Confucianism, Taoism, and chivalry were all embodied in his character.”

In Pai’s compelling and colorful life, Disney filmmakers found a way to take Wonders of China beyond the novelty CircleVision travelogues represented by the various America-themed Tomorrowland 360 films and even to some extent by Epcot’s other CircleVision attraction O Canada. The character’s presence unified the film’s otherwise disjointed sequences, and in essence provided the audience with a wise and knowledgeable traveling companion for a journey into the vast landscape of modern China, heretofore largely unknown to most Walt Disney World guests.

Much of Pai’s charm and appeal in Wonders of China can be attributed to the veteran Hollywood actor who portrayed him--Keye Luke. Luke’s film career began in the mid-1930s and continued up until his death in 1991. He is likely best known for his portrayal of “Number One Son” in numerous Charlie Chan adventures, and later in life as the mysterious Chinatown shopkeeper in both Gremlins movies. When Wonders of China was updated and reintroduced as Reflections of China in 2003, the character of Li Pai remained, with a different actor replacing Luke in a number of newly filmed sequences. Some footage of Luke however did remain in the new film, but his original dialogue was dubbed over by his replacement. The mixture of the two actors makes for an odd disconnect in an otherwise excellent presentation, especially for those of us who hold such fond memories of Luke’s original performance.

So appealing in Wonders of China was this character, that, by the time he recited Farewell to a Friend at the film’s conclusion, you did feel you were parting ways with a longtime companion and not a mere acquaintance of nineteen minutes.

This is the place where we must sever . . .
You go thousands of miles my friend once forever . . .
Like the floating clouds we drift apart . . .
The sunset lingers like the feelings of my heart



MouseExtraDave said...

That was a great character, but I am certainly glad the film was updated. Canada's is in need of an update as well

Anonymous said...

I just pulled out that poem a few moments ago for rememberences and research. I bought it in 1983 while at Epcot on my senior trip in H.S.-- what a beautiful background you provide. I love that poem. Many thanks.

Kim Carmichael-Cox

Anonymous said...

Keye Luke indeed was the voice of Li Pai, but I don't consider him the person who played the poet on screen.

I'd not that the person mouthing the dialog was doing so phonetically -- my money is that it was a local Chinese actor and Keye was just dubbed in later.

Anonymous said...

Keye Luke's greatest on-screen character was Master Po from the early 1970s TV series Kung Fu.

Po was blind but that didn't stop him from doing such things as defeating armed guards and spouting Eastern wisdom at will.