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In 1997 the acclaimed opera conductor and musical director Zubin Mehta asked Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou to direct a new production of Turandot. With no prior experience in western opera, Zhang accepts Mehta's request and sets about bringing his vision to Puccini's classic set in ancient China. After a season in Venice it is announced that Chinese authorities have given permission for Turandot to be staged in the Forbidden City. Yimou, Mehta and their international cast and crew arrive in Beijing where formidable technical and artistic challenges must be overcome to ensure a successful season.

Review by Richard Kuipers:
At a time when we're used to witnessing spectacular behind-the-scenes disaster documentaries like Lost In La Mancha and The Venus Factory, it's refreshing to watch the triumph chronicled in The Turandot Project. Not that this monumental artistic project sailed through without a hitch, but the overall feeling Allan Miller's film imparts is an uplifting one of cross-cultural co-operation and at its best. A feast for eyes and ears, the doco wisely opens with a plot description of Turandot for those unfamiliar with opera and a quick run-down of Zhang Yimou's sometimes controversial position as China's leading contemporary filmmaker.

With those entry points established, Miller's cameras capture the scale of this undertaking and the personalities of its main players. We're not disappointed on either front. We gasp in awe at the 900 hand-stitched, elaborately detailed costumes made for the Beijing season (that's after Zhang rejects the Venice costumes as not being Ming Dynasty-authentic) and marvel at Zhang's ability to secure 300 soldiers from a Chinese battalion to act as extras. "Do not look at the ballet girls" barks their commander during rehearsals. "Those who do will be severely punished".

For human drama there's the wonderful, generous collaboration between Zhang and maestro Zubin Mehta, who's wise enough to stand back and let Zhang shape the first authentically Chinese staging of Puccini's work. For an exercise of this magnitude its remarkable how few conflicts arise - though who knows what may have been left in the cutting room. The biggest disagreement we're allowed to see is between Zhang and renowned Italian lighting designer Guido Levi, whose subtle European taste is at odds with Zhang's desire to splash the stage with light "so the audience can see all the costumes". While Levi calls Zhang's ideas "a monstrosity", it's Mehta's high spirits that keep the show together and Miller's clever editing that fashions these conflicts into a humorous depiction of deep cultural gulfs between the stakeholders. Although opera critics did not rave about this production (a fact overlooked here), documentary lovers will surely rave about this behind-the-scenes story. Even if you're not an opera buff you'll probably leave the cinema wishing you'd seen the live performance of this awesome spectacle.

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CAST: Documentary. Carlo Allemano, Lando Bartolini, Giovanna Casolla, Barbara Frittoli, Barbara Hendricks, Sergej Larin, Zubin Mehta, Audrey Stottler, Sharon Sweet, Yimou Zhang

PRODUCER: Margaret Smilov

DIRECTOR: Allan Miller

SCRIPT: not credited


EDITOR: Donald Klocek, Allan Miller

MUSIC: (non original) Giacomo Puccini


RUNNING TIME: 84 minutes


AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: Sydney: August 21, 2003; Adelaide/Brisbane/ACT: September 4, 2003; Melbourne: September 11, 2003

Urban Cinefile 1997 - 2020