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).
Suffered from Suspect Family Background
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 so-called Fifth Generation of the school's trainees; his classmates included several other young directors who had lived through the Cultural Revolution and were skeptical of the unchecked power of China's totalitarian state. He graduated from the academy in 1982.
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."
Directed First Film
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.
Filmed Martial Arts Epic
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.
International Directory of Films and Filmmakers, Volume 2: Directors, 4th ed., St. James, 2000.
Economist, February 11, 1989.
Financial Times, January 31, 1998.
Entertainment Weekly, December 17, 2004.
Guardian (London, England), June 16, 2000; August 1, 2002.
Newsweek, October 9, 1995.
New York Times, February 6, 2000.
Opera News, January 2007.
Philadelphia Inquirer, December 28, 2006.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 8, 2002.
Time, March 18, 1991.
Time International (Asia edition), August 9, 2004.
Time International (South Pacific edition), November 15, 2004.
Variety, November 20, 2006.
Washington Times, December 26, 2006.
Xinhua News Agency, August 18, 2005; February 22, 2006; December 20, 2006.
"Zhang Yimou," All Movie Guide, http://www.allmovie.com (January 6, 2007).
Nationality: Chinese. Born: Xi'an, Shaanxi, China, 14 November 1950. Education: High School in Xi'an until interrupted by the Cultural Revolution, 1966; Beijing Film Academy, 1978–1982. Family: Married Xiao Hua (divorced), relationship with actress Gong Li, 1987 to 1995. Awards: Best Actor, Tokyo International Film Festival, for The Old Well, 1987, Golden Bear Award, Berlin Film Festival, and New York Film Festival Best Film Award, for Red Sorghum, 1988; Best Film Not in the English Language, BAFTA, Best Foreign Language Film, New York Film Critics, Best Foreign-Language Film, National Society of Film Critics, and Silver Lion, Venice Film Festival, all for Raise the Red Lantern, 1992; Best Foreign-Language Film, National Society of Film Critics, and Golden Lion, Venice Film Festival, both for The Story of Qiu Ju, 1993; Best Film Not in the English Language, BAFTA, and Grand Prize, Cannes Film Festival, both for To Live, 1995; Technical Grand Prize, Cannes Film Festival, 1995, and Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, 1996, for Shanghai Triad.
Films as Director:
Hong gao liang (Red Sorghum ) (+ ro)
Daihao meizhoubao (Operation Cougar; The Puma Action)
Da hong deng long gao gao gua (Raise the Red Lantern)
Qiu Ju da guan si (The Story of Qiu Ju)
Huozhe (To Live)
Yao a yao yao dao waipo qiao (Shanghai Triad); episode in Lumière et compagnie (Lumière and Company)
You hua hao hao shuo (Keep Cool) (+ ro)
Yi ge dou bu neng shao (Not One Less); Wo de fu qin mu qin (The Road Home); Turandot—At the Forbidden City ofBejing (for TV)
Films as Cinematographer:
Yi ge he ba ge (One and Eight) (Zhang Junzhao)
Huang tu di (Yellow Earth) (Chen Kaige)
Da yue bing (The Big Parade) (Wu Tianming)
Lao jing (The Old Well) (Wu Tianming) (+ ro)
Qin yong (A Terracotta Warrior) (Siu-Tung Ching) (ro)
Hua hun (Soul of a Painter) (sc)
Lung sing jing yuet (Dragon Town Story) (pr)
By ZHANG YIMOU: article—
Ye, Tan, "From the Fifth to the Sixth Generation" interview in FilmQuarterly, Winter 1999.
On ZHANG YIMOU: book—
Wang, Pin, Chang I-mou che ko jen, Beijing, 1998.
On ZHANG YIMOU: articles—
Chute, David, "Golden Hours (on the Set of Raise the Red Lantern)," in Film Comment, March-April 1991.
Chua, Lawrence, "Making Movies (or Trying To) in China," in Premiere, March 1992.
Pan, Lynn, "A Chinese Master," in The New York Times Magazine, 1 March 1992.
"Zhang Yimou," in Current Biography, August 1992.
Hoberman, J., "China's Revolutionary Director," in Vogue, April 1993.
Sutton, D.S., "Ritual, History, and the Films of Zhang Yimou," in East-West (Honolulu), no. 1295, 14 June 1995.
"In the Censors' Toils," in The Economist, 12 November 1994.
Zha, J., "Killing Chickens to Show the Monkey," in Sight and Sound (London), vol. 5, January 1995.
Klawans, Stuart, "Zhang Yimou: Local Hero," in Film Comment, September-October 1995.
"Special Section," in Cinemaya (New Delhi), no. 30, Autumn 1995.
Article in Transnational Chinese Cinemas: Identity, Nationhood,Gender, edited by Sheldon Hsiao-Peng Lu, Honolulu, 1997.
Wei, Y., "Music and Femininity in Zhang Yimou's Family Melodrama," in CineAction (Toronto), no. 42, 1997.
* * *
Born in the thick of revolution, prolific Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou learned early about cataclysmic social change and deep personal secrets. The son of an officer of the Kuomintang, Zhang was born a suspicious character to his new government. Like many other children of privileged families swept up in the Cultural Revolution, his higher education was factory labor, and his entertainment consisted of government sponsored films and theatrical productions, usually simplistic, moralistic, and patriotic. Though Zhang was fascinated by film, and managed to buy his first camera while working in a textile factory, he would be forever influenced by his disgust with the overtly propagandistic films of his youth. Later he would recall, "When we were in film school, we swore to each other we would never make films like that."
By 1982, the Beijing Film Academy, which had been closed during the Cultural Revolution, was reopened, and Zhang was part of the first post-Mao graduating class. It was the fifth class to ever graduate the Academy, giving Zhang and his classmates their sobriquet, the "fifth generation" of Chinese filmmakers. The fifth generation were not establishment filmmakers, but they gained international notice because of the moral complexity and gritty realism of their films.
Though he was designated a cinematographer, Zhang soon began directing his own films, which would be characterized by their stark humanity and stunning visual imagery. Through 1995, they would also be characterized by the powerful performances of Gong Li, one of China's most famous actors and Zhang's longtime lover.
Zhang's first film was Red Sorghum, a lyrical folk tale of a film that presented viewers with a strong, even ruthless, heroine to challenge the traditional Chinese subjugation of women. Mostly set in the 1920s in the harsh countryside of rural China, Red Sorghum was at the forefront of a new breed of Chinese film that was beginning to express moral ambiguity and chafing under authority.
Zhang's next film, Codename Cougar, was fairly noncontroversial, a political action/thriller about an airplane hijacking, but he soon returned to the themes of societal repression and rebellion that would cause many of his films to be banned by the Chinese government. In Ju Dou, Zhang revisits his rural roots for a story of brutality and starvation, both literal and figurative, about the passion between a poor mill worker and the abused wife of the mill owner. Ju Dou was the first of Zhang's films to be banned.
Zhang's next films, Raise the Red Lantern, The Story of Qiu Ju, and To Live, were all banned by the government of his homeland, and were all visually remarkable films of the passion and drama in simple country life and the struggle of the common people (often women) against a brutal power system. Raise the Red Lantern illustrates the position of concubines as property, The Story of Qiu Ju follows a young woman's struggle to gain justice from an unfeeling bureaucracy, and To Life documents the turbulent times of the Cultural Revolution. Audiences around the world flocked to peek through this keyhole into the emerging Chinese sensibility.
Zhang stayed on safer ground in his next film. Shanghai Triad is a lush gangster movie set in 1930s Shanghai that was widely admired, even by the Chinese government. Shanghai Triad was selected for the honor of opening the New York Film Festival, but politics prevailed. Even though Chinese authorities approved of Zhang's film, they did not approve of another documentary about China slated for the festival, and Zhang was virtually forbidden to attend his film's triumph.
Following his split with Gong Li, Zhang's films became less star-driven. Not One Less is the story of a substitute teacher in a remote village who becomes obsessed with preventing one of her students from dropping out of school. Zhang filmed the movie on location in a tiny rural village, using villagers as his cast. The result here, and in his subsequent films such as The Road Home, is a direct film that expresses, without grandiosity, the endless contradictions that comprise human life.
While many of Zhang's films offer a bleak picture of Chinese life, but they are never hopeless. Rather they reveal a sensual zest for life that survives the harshest conditions, and an underlying humor that sweetens despair. Audiences in China were hungry for the triumphant spirit of rebellion that pervades Zhang's films, and audiences around the world soon found that China was not so far removed from them after all.