A documentary that reveals the evolution of philosophy, governance and culture through the ages in China has won public praise with its dramatic reconstruction of historical stories, spectacular photography, sensuous musical scores and an emotional, epideictic voice-over.
The 36-episode, three-season documentary, China, was rated 8.6 points out of 10 on the review site Douban. Its first season was aired on Hunan Satellite TV and the livestreaming platform Mango TV in December. It chronicles the dynasties from the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC), which saw the rise of different schools of thought, to the Tang Dynasty (618-907) heyday.
"Babies grow into adults with different personalities and interests because of their varied experiences and upbringing. Then, how did the country develop into today's China over the long course of history? That's what we want to find out in the documentary," says director Li Dongkun.
The first 50-minute episode mainly tells two stories－the ancient philosopher Confucius visiting Laozi, the founder of Taoism, and traveling through various states to spread his ideas, which, in the director's view, can provide a general picture of the origin of the philosophies that have a far-reaching influence on the today's Chinese society.
"All the stories we selected to present in the documentary can contribute to making clear the logic of how China was developing into a large, inclusive, united multiethnic country today," Li says.
Zhang Huali, president of Hunan Satellite TV station, says China is experiencing an extensive and profound social transformation.
"Facing the growing uncertainties and complexities at this moment, it's of great importance for Chinese people to trace the history and sort out our traditional cultural resources," he says, adding that this is the reason for producing the documentary.
What's special about the documentary is its dreamlike re-creation of old scenes, where only essential details are presented, almost like an artist's sketch.
While the narrator tells the story, the characters go about their activities in a way that keeps the viewers' focus on what is important about the tale or the characters themselves.
The production team didn't set up any complete structure such as a house or a yard. Only such necessary props as desks, chairs and beds were prepared for the actors and actresses to act.
The director says this kind of reconstruction that blurs conversations and specific settings might help to minimize historical inaccuracies.
"It's like we are taking cameras back to more than 1,000 years ago," explains Li.
"We can film the scenes where these ancient people portrayed by the cast members drink water, eat food, gaze at the starry sky, chat with each other, stare blankly or engage in other common things involved in people's daily routine. That may strengthen the documentary's veracity."
With no conversation, the actors and actresses have to try to think of themselves in the roles and reproduce the scenes of ancient people's reading, writing, arguing or gathering in a place.
"That requires the cast to step out of their comfort zone in acting," Li says, adding that veteran actors and actresses from Beijing People's Art Theater and the National Theater of China were invited to portray the people from earlier times.
Zhao Rui, a teacher with the school of journalism and communication at Minzu University of China, says the re-enactment of historical scenes in the documentary gives characters enough space to express their feelings, which helps to promote development of the plot and tugs at the heartstrings of the audience.
The documentary was shot in ultra high-definition 8k format, with most scenes filmed in slow motion. Japanese musician Shigeru Umebayashi composed the documentary's euphonious background music and Chinese photographer Luo Pan also took part in the production to ensure its visual aesthetic standard.
Former CCTV host Zhou Tao provides a female voice-over in measured tones for the documentary.