Perhaps the most critically acclaimed filmmaker to emerge from mainland China in modern times, Zhang Yimou (born 1950) came to critical attention in the 1990s for his tense films that seemed indirectly to subvert the centralized power of China's Communist government.
Several of Zhang's early films were banned in his homeland but gained strong viewership in the West as a result. Zhang grew cannier about dealing with Chinese censors as he grew older, and to some critics, both within and outside China, his later films seemed to have less of an edge. His technical prowess only grew, however, and the film through which many international moviegoers encountered his work was the visually stunning historical martial arts epic Hero (2002).
Zhang Yimou (who has always used the traditional Chinese ordering that places the family name first, then the given name) was born in Xi'an, in China's Shaanxi province, on November 14, 1950, shortly after the defeat of China's Nationalist government by the Communist armies of Mao Tse-tung. Zhang's father was a dermatologist who served as an officer in the Nationalist Kuomintang army, and one of his brothers fled mainland China for the Nationalist-ruled island of Taiwan. These facts made life difficult for Zhang from the start, and things became worse during the repressive Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. After finishing high school, he was sent to work in farm fields with Chinese peasants. Later he was transferred to Textile Factory No. 8 in the city of Xianyang.
Fascinated by film and visual imagery even in the government propaganda films that were the sole approved source of entertainment, Zhang managed to acquire a camera by selling his own blood. The restrictions of the Cultural Revolution lessened after Mao's death in 1976, and Zhang applied to the Beijing Film Academy. At 27, he was over the regulation age for admission, but he was able to persuade officials to make an exception after showing them some of his photographs. At the academy, Zhang became part of the
Zhang began his career as a cinematographer. Among other films, he worked on Chen Kaige's Yellow Earth (1984), the film that introduced contemporary Chinese cinema to Western audiences. For much of his career Zhang's films would be hailed above all for their visual appearance, often based on a specific color scheme that pervaded the entire work. As a director he would tour countryside locations tirelessly, searching for the backdrop he wanted for a specific scene.
Zhang served as both cinematographer and actor on the 1987 film Old Well , a rural tale that returned him to his hometown of Xi'an. In one of his rare interviews (often, when asked about a film's prospects, he would quietly respond that it was the audience's decision), Zhang told James Harding of the Financial Times that "basically, I'm a northerner—a little wild and unconstrained. I like things that are strong and rich, like … lamb with wheatcakes. I'm not keen on things that are light and delicate. Like films, images, stories, they've got to have something rich and powerful about them."
Onto this provincial background, however, Zhang transferred wide cinematic education. He was familiar with American film traditions such as the Western, and he sometimes used non-Chinese personnel, such Chinese-speaking Australian cinematographer Chris Doyle, on his films. Zhang was a voracious reader. "I do read, to get cultivated," he told Harding. "I can't read during the daytime, but I have to read for hours in the evening."
In the late 1980s Zhang discovered actress Gong Li when she was a 21-year-old drama student, and he elevated her to national and international stardom. She appeared in the first film he directed, 1987's Red Sorghum , and for much of the first part of his career he would shape his films around her talents. In Red Sorghum she played a young woman sold into marriage, and she was often cast by Zhang as a woman oppressed by the rules of the feudal societies in which most of Zhang's historical dramas were set. In Ju Dou (1990) she once again played a woman forced into marriage by poverty, this time beginning an affair with tragic consequences, and in Raise the Red Lantern (1991) she portrayed a new concubine introduced into the household of an aristocrat in the traditional Chinese society of the 1920s. The lighter but still edgy The Story of Qiu Ju featured Gong Li as a peasant woman whose husband is insulted, and who climbs the ladder of authority in demanding justice for him.
Among Zhang's early films, only To Live (1994) dealt directly with contemporary China. Authorities, however, were quick to grasp the anti-authoritarian overtones of Zhang's feminist themes, and Raise the Red Lantern, The Story of Qiu Ju , and To Live were all banned in China. ( Red Sorghum was restricted to certain locales as well.) The combination of implied dissent and cinematic skill—the dark interiors of Raise the Red Lantern were perhaps particularly notable for their overwhelming feeling of claustrophobia—was irresistible to Western film connoisseurs; the Golden Bear Award that Red Sorghum received at the 1987 Berlin Film Festival in Germany was the first in a long sequence of awards and nominations honoring Zhang at international events.
During the filming of Zhang's next movie, the gangster-themed drama Shanghai Triad , Gong Li reportedly dissolved her relationship with the director; she later married a Singaporean business executive. The pace of Zhang's career slowed for several years, although he participated in 1996 in a unique operatic experiment: the transfer of the Giacomo Puccini opera Turandot to its actual Chinese setting for a massive outdoor performance. After the little-seen 1997 comedy Keep Cool , Zhang returned to international screens in 1999 with Not One Less , the story of a young schoolteacher in a rural Chinese village who pursues one of her students when he runs away to a large city. In contrast to the star-driven vehicles of his earlier career, Zhang cast nonprofessional actors as the villagers in the film.
The runaway child's hunger as he tries to make his way in the city is vividly shown, but the deeper horrors that might have awaited him in real life are avoided. Not One Less clearly addressed the divide between China's growing cities and the still-medieval living conditions of much of its countryside, but this time Zhang opted for a happy ending. "You always have to take censors into account in China," he explained to Howard Feinstein of the London Guardian . "I wouldn't have been able to make a story in which the child wasn't found." Not One Less won the Golden Lion Award at the 1999 Venice Film Festival, and his romance The Road Home (2000) and comedy Happy Times (2001) cemented his position as a major director in China. The Road Home also introduced actress Zhang Ziyi, who would later achieve stardom in the martial arts extravaganza Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon , directed by Taiwanese-American filmmaker Ang Lee.
In 2002 Zhang made a martial arts epic of his own; Zhang Ziyi appeared along with Jet Li and a host of other internationally known Hong Kong film stars in Hero , set in China's early Qin dynasty. The film deployed martial arts in a sumptuous pageant drawn from Chinese history. Riding a wave of popularity for martial arts films set in motion by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and other more popularly oriented action films, Hero became the highest-grossing film in Chinese history and handsomely recouped its original $30 million cost. The film was successful in the United States even though its release was delayed for nearly two years by its American distributor, Miramax, and it earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film. Some critics, however, argued that the film, in contrast to Zhang's earlier films, had a message that legitimized China's authoritarian government.
Zhang had several opportunities to direct films outside of China but turned them down, preferring not to leave his home country for long. He became involved with several small projects that involved Chinese national pride, directing a small video that was part of China's successful application to host the Summer Olympic games in 2008. He also created a live performance for tourists in the Chinese resort of Guilin, in which, according to the Xinhua News Agency, "hundreds of bamboo-made boats float on the clear water, candle light sparkles with the moon and stars, [and] thousands of people dressed in Chinese minority ethnic costumes hum a folk song." Zhang also returned to opera, serving as producer of The First Emperor , slated for presentation at New York's Metropolitan Opera in 2007 with music by Chinese American composer Tan Dun.
By that time Zhang had released several more films. House of Flying Daggers (2004) was another martial arts historical epic, while Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles , from the following year, featured Japanese actor Ken Takakura as the father of an ailing documentary filmmaker. The two are alienated, but the father travels throughout rural China, trying to finish a documentary about Chinese opera that his son has begun. Zhang was back in blockbuster territory in 2006 with Curse of the Golden Flower , which Steven Rea of the Philadelphia Inquirer called "a dazzling costume epic, a spectacle for the eyes and for the soul," although the Washington Times warned that "the director occasionally gets dazed by the beauty of his own work." That film reunited Zhang with Gong Li for the first time in more than a decade, and it helped cement Zhang's reputation as China's most ambitious filmmaker.
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