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The Painted Veil

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The movies we feature in Been-Seen's Movie Atlas are usually filmed on location and strictly in the real time period. However we occasionally feature movies (filmed on location but out of time) that are just too stunning to leave out. Take The Talented Mr Ripley, which shows the island of Ischia in Italy in decadent splendor. Another such movie is The Painted Veil, set in 1920s China but filmed in the 21st century.

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It tells the tale of Kitty Fane (Naomi Watts), who marries her husband Walter (Edward Norton) for all the wrong reasons, and ends up in a cholera-stricken Chinese village. The film, based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham, is at times painful but utterly poignant. The scenery, however, is endlessly breathtaking. It's the kind of landscape that really stops you in your tracks.

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It's also the landscape in which the rather narrow-minded and vain Kitty learns to live her life with greater meaning (and, rather curiously, actress Naomi Watts converted to Buddhism after filming here).

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In choosing the setting for the movie, director John Curran was looking for somewhere 'both beautiful and gothic'. Location scouts covered about 5,000 of mainland China in ten days looking for the right setting – an ancient town, close to a river and mountains. It also had to be relatively close to modern amenities for production purposes. They settled on Guangxi province in southern China.

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Production centered around the city of Gui Lin on the Li River – which is surrounded in lush greenery and unfeasibly dramatic mountains, perhaps the 'gothic' element in the movie. It's hard to believe mountains can actually take shapes like these naturally. The crew considered building the village of Mei-tan-fu but luckily scouted out an unspoiled town called Huang Yao that saved them the effort. 'It's an 800-year-old city, which essentially exists the way it did 800 years ago,' says Curran. 

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This was the first Western film to be filmed in China in a long, long time, and even London scenes were shot in Shanghai. 'We've been able to shoot in places and with people that America hasn't seen before,' said the movie's star Edward Norton, a student of Chinese history who poured his heart and soul into the production.

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As they made the movie in collaboration with Chinese filmmakers, it's interesting to hear about the cultural issues which the crew had to overcome (watch this video). Thanks to censorship, geographical limitations and language/cultural barriers, it wasn't an easy shoot by any means but, from the look of this movie, it seems it was well worth the effort. RM

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  • Jan

    June 8, 2015

    I was talking to Terry about the amazing scenery in this film.It seems to be around the river Li in Southern China.I got the dvd of The Painted Veil from Amazon £4 I believe.Well worth watching for the beautiful & magical sights.

    Xx

  • susan georgette

    January 4, 2015

    I was in Huang Yao May 2014 ….the movie really did it’s damage. It went from a 1,000 year old beautiful, ancient
    Chinese village – unspoiled as well as it’s people – to a tourist driven, commercial driven area. Old buildings were torn down that needn’t have been – replaced with new brick buildings – really weird and sad that a Chinese Historical agency didn’t step in to stop it – but there is no such thing in China. Most citizens in China until recently have been poor, they don’t understand the value of ‘ancient’ they only see old and are hell bent on replacing it with ‘new’ usually in bad taste. When the tourists stared coming in droves – because of the movie – and not just Western tourists but, because of the rising middle class in China – Chinese tourists, the locals went crazy with their pent-up desire for ‘new’ helped along by a greedy government who didn’t give a damn. I am a photographer and I documented everything. What a shame and loss! Ed Norton and the movie people were the last to see it as it was, and must have known the drastic changes this movie would cause.

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