Zhang Yimou is the best known contemporary Chinese film-maker both inside and outside China. He is at once the personification of Chinese national cinema, an important figure and frequent award winner in the international film-festival circuits, a director of cutting-edge art-house film, a commercial genius, a political spokesperson through film, an artist and a performer. The way in which he has come to embody these many roles echoes the trajectory of Chinese cinema itself from the mid-1980s to the present day, partly as a result of the international response to the generation of Chinese film artists represented by figures like Zhang.
Zhang emerged on the Chinese and the international film scene as a key member of the so-called "Fifth Generation" and more broadly of the New Cinema or New Wave. A graduated of the class of 1982 from the Beijing Film Academy, he and his classmates have forever changed the course of Chinese film history. In the international arena, no other film-maker has won and been nominated for so many prizes, at numerous international film festivals in such a short period of time, including the Berlin Film Festival, the Venice Film Festival, the Tokyo Film Festival, the Cannes Film Festival, and the Academy Awards. In China he has been nick-named the 'award-winning specialist.'
Zhang's Visual Language
Zhang first worked as a cinematographer in he early stage of his career. He was the cinematographer of the Fifth Generation film One and Eight; of Yellow Earth, directed by his class mate Chen Kaige, a landmark film that established the reputation of Fifth Generation; and of other classics of the New cinema such as The Big Parade and Old Well. If a distinctive visual style has defined much of the essence of the New cinema from the early phase to the present, Zhang Yimou is undoubtedly a key figure from the beginning. His extraordinary camera work in Yellow Earth -- long shots of the Northern Chinese landscape, the grafting of traditional Chinese landscape painting onto modern film technology, and the evocation of Taoist aesthetics in the service of a contemporary cultural critique -- amounted to a revolution in Chinese film language.
Striking visual images are also a recurrent feature of his work as a director. The symmetries, close-ups, long shots and perfectly framed images, buildings, faces and figures in 'Raise The Red Lantern' are textbook examples of the art of cinematography. The exuberant colors in Red Sorghum and Ju Dou evoke either a sense of exhilaration and liberation, or a mood of confinement and imprisonment.
An Adroit Story-teller of Modern China
Zhang is also a gifted storyteller in otherwise a convoluted melodramas of modern Chinese history, for example 'To Live.' Further, he is able to create dramatic tension in otherwise simple tales of contemporary peasant life, for example in 'The Story of Qiu Ju', 'The Road Home' and 'Not One Less.'
His first film 'Red Sorghum', narrates the legend of peasants in Northern Chinese brewery in the 1930s. The exuberance, excesses, raw energy and physical and sexual liberation as exhibited by the peasants and the narrator's 'grandpa' and 'grandma' in the film caught the attention of both domestic and international audiences. It was a winner of Golden Bear Award at the Berlin Film Festival in 1988. Since then, Zhang has become the most popular Chinese film-maker. Because of the commercial success of the film, Zhang was obliged to make a popular entertainment film for the Film Studio. Code Name Cougar, a detective thriller set in contemporary urban China, was well received by Chinese audiences, but critics and Zhang himself regarded it as a temporary aberration in his career.
Art-House Chinese Cinemas
Zhang's next three films, Ju Dou, Raise The Red Lantern and To Live, firmly secured his reputation as a master film-maker. These films also set the paradigms and expectations for what art-house Chinese cinema is supposed to be for a vast number of viewers in the West. These movies represent what might be called the classical stage of Zhang's film art. Both are allegories of physical confinement, sexual oppression and physical oppression of individuals in China's past (set in the 1920s and 1930s). They are powerful critiques of China's patriarchal social order which silences and suppresses the desire of women and youth.
The films enact an all too familiar drama about what is known as China, but in more vivid details -- how the Chinese were imprisoned within an inescapable walled space. Although both films were nominated for Academy Awards and won major international prizes, they were banned in China for some time. The compelling visual images, the consummate narration and the superb acting by the lead actors and actresses in Zhang's films place him at the forefront of international art cinema. The exotic spectacles and rituals staged in Ju Dou and Raise The Red Lantern satiate the curiosity of the international audience and its desire to know the 'Other' -- the 'Orient' in the case of China.
CriticismFor the same reason, Zhang has been severely criticized by many indigenous Chinese critics as a classic example of 'Orientalism' fabricated by the 'Orientals' themselves. They conclude that Zhang makes films primarily for the gaze of the western audience in order to gain recognition and to win prizes at international film festivals. The argument is that, here, the Third-World artist willingly succumbs to the power structure of the global film circuits dominated by the taste and standards of the First world. It should be noted at this juncture that Zhang has also taken in the lead in setting in motion a new mechanism of film production, exhibition and consumption. Since Ju Dou, many of his films have been joint productions, funded by foreign capital where the target audience was not Chinese.
The emergent category of transnational Chinese Cinema exemplified by Zhang's film problematizes the traditional paradigm of national cinema in the condition of global capitalism. Such films force us to rethink issues pertaining to film markets, audiences and film production at both the national and transnational levels.
New Styles and Broadened Subject Matter
After 'Raise the Red Lantern', Zhang's work branched out in new directions. He began to take on contemporary subjects, setting his films in the 1990s and 2000s rather than the mythical past. The Story of Qiu Ju and Not One Less are both tales of a stubborn, single-minded peasant woman who is determined to pursue her goal against overwhelming odds. Whether criticizing the inefficient,bureaucratic judicial system or the primitive, inexcusable condition of the country's primary education, the films offer a glimmer of triumph and hope for China's women and children. Departing from sensational legends about a remote past, these stories capture the sight, sound, scene and mood of contemporary China. In fact, Zhang intended to achieve the effects of documentary realism in these fictional films.
Zhang is an master narrator of China's mythical past, however an unturned stone in his films was Chinese urban life. To this end, Zhang wanted to prove that he could also be a skilful ethnographer of Urban China in his films Shanghai Triad (1995) and Happy Times (2000). A gangster film, Shanghai Triad describes the underworld of mobsters, the triad, in 1930's Shanghai, while 'Happy Times' is a comedy about a guy in his early fifties who's out of work but still wants to marry his girlfriend.
In 'Road Home', Zhang captured the simple magical tale, where a son recalls the story of how his father and mother first met and got together. In this movie, Zhang opens up the heart of the film to us and makes us feel, finding more in the eyes of his characters and in their expressions than words could ever convey. In the 2002's "Hero", a high-flying Martial arts movie, Zhang weaves a complex and interesting story about three assassins who sought to murder the most powerful warlord in pre-unified China. 'Hero' explodes with luscious color and stunning visual effects. Though a martial arts movie the ultimate strength of this movie is its poetic beauty. Hero also turned to be a block-buster grossing more than $53 million.
With the 2004, 'House of Flying Daggers', Zhang once again makes a elegant period peace, set in 859 A.D. Here, Zhang fuses martial-arts drama with a tragic romance. House of Flying Daggers was a another Chinese period piece resplendent with a dazzling palette and soaring, ambitious fight sequences. "Curse of the Golden Flower" in 2006 was, yet again, a period film, which deals with a dying love in Tang Dynasty, 10th A.D. Zhang's artistry and spectacular vision decorates the movie excellent set-pieces and melodrama resembles a Shakespeare tragedy. "A Woman, A Gun and a Noodle Shop" in 2009 was a remake of Coen brothers' "Blood Simple" This movie was both a critical and commercial failure. Zhang's latest ambitious project "Flowers of War", with Christian Bale, about the rape of Nanking, was a beautifully shot and superbly acted drama. It is impossible not to be moved, though the movie deserved a more subtle handling in direction part.
Zhang's name has been intimately tied to an actress discovered and championed by him -- Gong Li. She had been his lead actress from his first film Red Sorghum to Shanghai Triad. Because of her memorable performances in various roles in Zhang's films, she has come to signify the image of the Chinese woman internationally. Their collaboration onscreen and love affair off-screen ended after the shooting of Shanghai Triad, and Zhang has not as yet found a new female star who can replace the presence, prestige and box-office value of Gong Li for audiences around the world.
Zhang raised the level of film as an art form. Domestically, his films came out at a time when Chinese audiences, having lived through the Mao era and been flooded with the trite formula of socialist-realism, desperately wanted to see scathing works of art that would cross-examine the entrenched patterns of Chinese culture and society and probe the depths of the Chinese psyche. Internationally, his engaging narratives and powerful images allow viewers to witness at close range the rituals, mysteries, dramas, politics, tragedies, struggles and passions of the Chinese people in the twentieth century. As Zhang Yimou's experimentation with new themes and new ways of film-making continues, we can only hope that even more outstanding films are yet to come.
Zhang Yimou's Interview
Zhang Yimou - Wikipedia
Zhang Yimou - Senses of Cinema