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Zhang Yimou: "Don't Think of the Bad Signs"

2012-12-13 16:07:55        Chinese Films

Zhang Yimou [Courtesy of the Huffington Post]

Source: The Huffington Post

Last week, the Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou was in Morocco to receive a special tribute at the 2012 Marrakech International Film Festival, an honor that would celebrate his oeuvre of nearly two dozen films. For our interview, I was ushered into the library of La Mamounia Resort, a leather-bound and gilt-edged wall-to-wall of art books and compendiums. The time was half past punctual, so I began to survey my surroundings: a mother-of-pearl backgammon set; a sepia portrait of the Moroccan writer Mohamed Choukri; mint tea on a silver tray. And a single garnet pressed-glass lantern that hung above the table, fitting for the Ochre City, but also uncannily so for this meeting with Zhang: It was a reminder of his magnum opus Raise the Red Lantern (1991), the second Chinese film to be nominated for an Academy Award. (Ju Dou, which he released one year earlier, was the first.)

Though Zhang, 61, has strung a prolific career spanning the past quarter of a century, it was these earlier works that gained him critical acclaim in the West and where his legacy now rests. Made outside of China's censorship system, these films were lauded as dreamy and raw; his vision focused, almost unwittingly, on the country's tumultuous past and the plight of individual folk, often seen through the eyes of a strong female lead. Friend Steven Spielberg has credited him for bringing the actress Gong Li, who has starred in six of his features, into global prominence, as well as "introducing sensuality and eroticism to Chinese cinema." And while Zhang's work has remained cinematically arresting (no one can deny the sheer majesty of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which he served as artistic director), there has been a marked -- somewhat contentious -- change. Where once he met Chinese authorities with dissension, he now seems to have shortened his own chain, bowing out of addressing hard societal questions in favor of turning his lens to more commercially-appealing wuxia films like Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004), and his most recent Hollywood collaboration with actor Christian Bale, The Flowers of War, the highest-earning Chinese film of 2011.

"I made my first feature film as late as when I was 37, so I have no time to duplicate," Zhang once said. Nor do his fans desire duplication, but there is a heretical yearning for his work to return to a place where he dares to subvert and inspire. To this end, the red lantern was a silent reminder.

Herewith, the film director talks about being born into a bad sign, feeling the pressure of commercial cinema, and pursuing inner peace.

How does it feel to have reached a point in your career where you can look back in retrospect?

Actually, I'm still quite incredulous as to how I got so far along in my career. My family, especially my mother, still asks, "How did you get to this point of becoming a film director?" What I know is that I'm very grateful for my work, as it has allowed me to narrow the focus on different aspects of human life. And it's only because of my work that I have had an opportunity to understand society and the nuances of culture. I suppose the whole thing must be fate.

Your films often focus on overcoming difficulty with great courage, usually through the vessel of a strong female character. Are women better at dealing with difficulty than men?

I think so, at least I have this ideology about women because of the role my mother had in my life. As we say in China, I was born into a "bad [Zodiac] sign," largely because of the tumultuous political atmosphere. I experienced a difficult upbringing, but it was my mother who had the courage to try and overcome this, and bring happiness and joy into my childhood. I think when I'm making movies and addressing the pressures that women cope with, it's as if I'm paying tribute to her.

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