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Zhang Yimou's Long Road Home

2011-12-21 15:06:41        Chinese Films

Zhang Yimou [Photo: mtime.com]

The retrospective consideration of a filmmaker's work seems to demand a psychobiographical interpretation, even from those of us who have sworn off that practice. Such interpretation is particularly apt in the case of Chinese director Zhang Yimou, whose turbulent life has often matched the melodrama of his films. Political stigmatization, the triumph of his talents, a very public extramarital affair, personal and professional adversity, a struggle to find a new direction, and finally in his most recent film, "The Road Home", a suggestion of artistic renewal. It takes a certain brashness to claim you have found the filmmaker in his films but to deny he is there at all is nonsense. Everyone who has written seriously about Zhang Yimou thinks he has found the man, and many believe Zhang's inspiration is principally political. I belong to a smaller school, we think Zhang Yimou is both an artist and a survivor, vacillating between those two sometimes conflicting projects.

His repeated successes at European Film Festivals made Zhang Yimou the best known of China's so-called "Fifth Generation" of filmmakers. His early films were breathtakingly beautiful. Zhang began as a cinematographer, and seemed to paint with his camera. Something about his colors and composition suggested the palette of ancient China in the form of modern, even abstract, art. Reds illuminate his screen and suffuse every scene of Raise the Red Lantern—a fiery sun setting over barren hills, the traditional red of the Chinese bride's silk wedding gown and draped sedan chair as her marital procession treks across the fields. He set his film Ju Dou in a cloth-dying factory (where he worked as a young man) and at a dramatic moment the bolts of cloth unfurl across the screen like strokes of paint across a canvas. It is a stunning and unforgettable moment, when the film medium achieves its original ambition as a visual art form.

But Zhang Yimou's early films were not intended to be mere painterly exercises. Instead he used his visual artistry to drive and heighten the narrative. His stories were enigmatic fables set in the past, and could be understood as veiled political criticism. And they were so understood both at home, where they caused trouble, and abroad, where they added to his cachet. Certainly those films were made in a period (1987 to 1995) of strict and sometimes arbitrary censorship and Zhang Yimou faced constant difficulties with the Chinese authorities. He has always been a marked man. Born into a family affiliated with the KMT (the—ultimately Taiwanese—National People's Party), he had been sent from secondary school out to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. Legend has it that he sold his own blood to purchase a camera and thus started his career as a photographer during ten years of hard labor.

After Mao's death, the new regime reopened the Beijing Film Academy in 1978 and Zhang was admitted as part of the first class. Three members of that class would put China back on the map of filmmaking. Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige ("Yellow Earth", "Farewell My Concubine") and Zhang Junzhao ("One and Eight") were assigned to the distant and moribund Guanxi Studios to assist non-existent directors. They quickly constituted themselves as the "Youth Production Unit" and collectively directed their first film, "One and Eight" (1983)—later attributed to Zhang Junzhao alone. One year later, Zhang Yimou filmed Chen Kaige's "Yellow Earth", the unexpected hit of the 1984 Hong Kong Film Festival, and the best thing about it was the cinematography. In 1987, Red Sorghum, the first film Zhang Yimou directed, was a critical and commercial success both in China and abroad. Zhang and his contemporaries were soon dubbed the "Fifth Generation," to single them out from the rest of China's filmmakers, who thereafter were unceremoniously lumped into four generations: the film pioneers, the realist tradition, the revolutionary film workers from Mao's army, and the first film-school-trained directors whose careers were interrupted by the Cultural Revolution.

At the Beijing Film Academy the Fifth Generation had been fed a steady diet of avant-garde European films: Fellini, Tarkovsky, the Nouvelle Vague. No surprise, then, that their films had a Western flavor and Western enthusiasts. By 1995 Martin Scorcese was calling the Fifth Generation directors "the best in the world."

Zhang is the Renaissance man of that remarkable group. He began his career as a cinematographer and actor, and in one film ("The Old Well"), was able to do both and earn a prize for his acting. At the height of his European acclaim in 1997, someone had the idea of inviting him to Florence to direct a production of Puccini's Turandot, an opera set in the Forbidden City of Beijing. Zhang collaborated with Zubin Mehta in a successful production and then convinced the Chinese authorities to allow a new version to be staged in the real Forbidden City. (The production process has been captured on film in a Canadian documentary, the Turandot Project.) It was an extraordinary spectacle with hundreds of soldiers and scores of dancers decked out in Ming Dynasty costumes, and all of it conceived by Zhang Yimou. Foreign visitors paid $1,500 a ticket to attend, and the event was the launching pad for the subsequent Three Tenors concert and China's successful efforts to prove it could host the Olympics. More recently Zhang Yimou has, with critical success, created a ballet based on his film Raise the Red Lantern.

Zhang Yimou's rise to fame as a filmmaker was fuelled by his discovery of the student actress Gong Li, a woman of extraordinary beauty. With distinctive high cheekbones and stature associated with Northern Mongolia, Gong Li was a far cry from the classic doll-like beauty traditionally prized in China. She was, however, an instant success, embodying the new woman, stronger and more independent. Gong Li would be the "star" of all of Zhang's most notable films: "Red Sorghum", "Ju Dou", "Raise the Red Lantern", "The Story of Qiu Ju", "To Live", and "Shanghai Triad". Zhang Yimou's camera lingered over her face; her body was discretely covered but nothing could obscure her radiant sexuality. The director filmed her reacting to tragic events with a luminescent flow of feelings. Her face could register the gamut of human emotions without ever fully revealing her inner nature. She has been aptly described as the Chinese Greta Garbo. Even when she played a rich man's unwilling concubine in "Raise the Red Lantern", Gong Li drew the camera's attention to her face, not her body. And in her proud resistance to male oppression, Western audiences and Chinese authorities sensed an undercurrent of political opposition.

Zhang Yimou was a married man when he met Gong Li at the Beijing Acting School but they were soon living and working together. She became his muse and his mistress. They had both found, I believe, the great love of their lives. In his most compelling films, Zhang seeks to capture the full range of Gong Li's human possibilities. Sartre famously asked what one can know about another person and his long biography of Gustave Flaubert was a literary answer to that question. Zhang Yimou is preoccupied with the same question and his answer is elaborated through close-ups of Gong Li.

Source: Boston Review


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