Zhang Yimou (Director)


“I tend to believe that films are about emotions. An artist’s ideas should be understood naturally through emotions.”

“Among the Fifth Generation my style is the most changeable. My films are totally unrelated. They run in all directions.”

Born: 2 April 1950, Xi’an, China.

Directing Career: 1987 –

Movement: The Chinese ‘Fifth Generation’.

Traits: Lush and flamboyant visual aesthetic, eye-popping displays of colour. Expressionist set and costume design. Known for epic spectacles of the latter part of his career, whereas early career began with lavish melodramas of vicitimised heroines facing off against patriarchal oppression. Has transitioned into a more commercial establishment figure, after clashing with Chinese censorship in the 1990s.

Collaborators: Gong Li (Leading Actress), Du Yuan (Editor), Cao Juiping (Production Designer), Zhao Jiping (Composer), Zhao Xiaoding (Cinematographer), Lü Yue (Cinematographer), Huo Tingxiao (Production Designer), Zhang Ziyi (Leading Actress), Li Feng (Screenwriter), Wang Bin (Screenwriter), Chen Kaige (was cinematographer on two of Chen’s films).

Related Directors: Chen Kaige.

Films reviewed:
     Red Sorghum (1987)
     Ju Dou (1990)
     Raise the Red Lantern (1991)


Red Sorghum

After several years revolutionising Chinese cinema with his cinematography (on landmarks such as The One and the Eight and Yellow Earth), Zhang Yimou switched to the director’s seat for Red Sorghum. Like Yellow Earth (1984), it begins with panoramic long shots of a wedding procession. Sometime around 1930 in Shandong province, a beautiful bride-to-be (Gong Li in her star-making debut) is carried across the rocky dust in a red sedan, by a band of topless labourers. With heavy heart she sits inside, to be delivered to the man who has bought her — an old leper who owns a sorghum wine distillery. Presently, the camera lingers on the sweaty, stocky back of one of her transporters (Jiang Wen, then an up-and-comer thanks to Hibiscus Town), seen through the opening of the portable bridal chamber. Cut back to her face, consumed with tentative longing. A noteworthy use of the female gaze at the very start of Zhang Yimou’s directorial career, which at its best was defined by bold, passionate stories centred around women fighting oppression.

Here already, Gong Li has her hands full. She’s almost kidnapped during the procession, only to be rescued by Jiang Wen’s larger-than-life peasant. Later, in the film’s iconic scene, he forcefully carries her off (alone and without a sedan this time) into the sorghum field and consummates the sexual tension first instigated in that opening scene. As the camera sweeps through the wild sorghum reeds, and Gong Li is back-lit by the heat of a shimmering sun, the force of the scene slowly builds up into a ritualistic montage amplified by Zhao Jiping’s hypnotic score of drums and pipes. Its sexual politics anything but subtle (although Zhang’s heroines are never without agency, especially when played by Gong Li), it is nonetheless an unforgettable scene stylistically, as well as the first instance of such unabashed and elemental masculine potency in Chinese cinema.

Such coarse and lusty sensuousness came as a shock for Chinese audiences, used to didactic Socialist Realist films since 1949. But even in the context of the Fifth Generation, this was a major shift from Yellow Earth. Where Yellow Earth was dour, realist and questioning, concluding that heroes don’t exist, and that the Chinese people have gained as much progress from the Communists as by praying to rain-gods, Red Sorghum was an altogether more celebratory affair, a raucous, colourful romp and ode to the spirit of unrepressed Chinese peasantry. As Zhang himself noted: “My personality is quite the contrary to the mood of the film, I have long been repressed, restrained, enclosed and introspective. Once I had a chance to make a film on my own, I wanted to make it liberated, abandoned”. Wish fulfilment not just for Zhang himself but wider audiences — it was the biggest domestic box office hit the Fifth Generation had in the ‘80s.

Later, the leprous husband is murdered and Gong Li becomes mistress of the winery. Strong and self-confident, she leads the labourers into a proto-communist endeavour where all have equal rights, at least until the Japanese invade. At this point, the film meanders into something not even its buoyant framing, colour and energy can fully save it from. Not mere wish-fulfilment but the gratification of nationalist collective fantasy (again in contrast, Yellow Earth challenged accepted truths to come to deeper realisations), depicting the Japanese as violently sadistic and the Chinese common people as martyrs. Admittedly this reflects some of the historical reality, but Zhang’s narrative bluntness veers too facilely into pat audience manipulation. The story up to that point is jarringly jettisoned, and the film becomes an impassioned but clumsy national allegory about the Chinese spirit and resistance. Gong Li’s character can be read as China personified, having gone through the feudalism of her arranged husband, the egalitarian reforms of her new distillery, and the Japanese attacks, while retaining courage and vitality.

Made at Xi’an Studio, where under the management of Wu Tianming the boldest and most innovative Chinese cinema of the time (The Horse Thief, The Black Cannon Incident, King of the Children) was making waves on the festival circuit, Zhang Yimou’s debut was awarded the first major festival prize won by a Chinese film: the Golden Bear at Berlin. Its visual and stylistic beauty, and the charisma of its two leads, helped hail it as a discovery on the international scene. But Zhang would go on to make more refined exotic fables. (April 2018)


Ju Dou

If Zhang Yimou thought setting his film in the pre-Communist 1920s would keep the click of the censor’s scissors at bay, he was sadly mistaken. Ju Dou, a tragic melodrama of colour and passion, would turn out to be his first serious clash with the Beijing authorities, who were in authoritarian crackdown mode following the Tiananmen Massacre.

The story again features a forced marriage, patriarchal oppression and ill-fated attempts at emancipation. Ju Dou (Gong Li, by now Zhang’s muse) has been sold into marriage to Old Yang, the impotent, sadistic owner of a dye factory — a Bluebeard figure who, rumour has it, tortured his previous wives to death. Desperate for offspring, yet primitively oblivious of even the crudest sexual basics, he seems to be convinced the way to impregnate poor Ju Dou is by physically abusing her every night. Also living and working in the factory is Tianqing, Old Yang’s adopted nephew who hears Ju Dou’s cries at night, and spies on her undressing through a peephole. His voyeurism characterises the passive man of inaction that he is (stark contrast to Jiang Wen in Red Sorghum), too scared of upsetting the status quo to take a stand against the toxic reign of his uncle.

As incarnated by the vitality of Gong Li’s multifaceted performance (from defenceless ingenue, to coquettish vamp, to taunting avenger, to tragic victim — all captured by Zhang Yimou’s adoring camera), Ju Dou is more pro-active. Stuck in dire circumstances, she seeks whatever solace she can. Eventually, when Old Yang is away on business, she and Tianqing cave in to their biological desires, in a scene of enraptured, expressionistic colour — freshly dyed red cloths unspooling as they make love. When her pregnancy is confirmed, Old Yang does not for a second doubt the child is his. Until an accident leaves him a paralysed, trundling cripple, in front of whom Tianqing and Ju Dou no longer have fear: they taunt him with the truth. Only many years later will the resigned old man’s slyness be reinvigorated, when it turns out his ‘son’ acknowledges him as biological father and disavows Tianqing.

Zhang is rarely remembered now as a cinephile’s director, but he was seen as such in the early 1990s, and two ‘pure cinema’ strategies in Ju Dou particularly reveal why. Firstly the colour, the setting of the dye factory and its rituals playing host to a saturating cascade of primary colours shot in the old Technicolor method (itself a form of dyeing). The dye vat is the central site of all the major plot events, with the colour red emblematic of life-renewing passion and sexuality as well as blood (that spilt and that of bloodlines). That Zhang had an awareness of film history is confirmed by his decision to tint certain shots, the way old silent films used to depict differing times and settings: blue for the factory at night-time, and a golden yellow during the day. Besides Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Gabbeh, Ju Dou was the only film of the 1990s to be so thoroughly imbued with an exaltation of colour.

Secondly, the Hitchcockian play with gaze and POV shots. When Ju Dou, abused and lonely as she is, realises Tianqing is spying on her, she knowingly exposes herself to him in an unspoken plea for help. The one being watched knows she is being watched, and the watcher knows she knows, complicating the dynamics of this voyeurism process into a tango of looking and showing which sums up the illicit nature of their affair. Later, the oppressiveness of being watched, not by one peephole this time but by the whole town, manifests itself. Trapped within a structure of prying eyes and gossiping mouths, Ju Dou and Tianqing are forced to keep up appearances in front of the community outside the factory, in order to uphold the Confucianist order they’re incapable of unshackling themselves from. Even their son, taking over from Old Yang as their suppressor, has the blank, inhuman stare of a surveillance camera, keeping an eye on the two doomed lovers at all times.

Ju Dou is melodrama combined with the tautness of a pulpy folk tale (the pace really skips along, it’s a lean film), and Zhang Yimou’s flamboyant aesthetic sensibilities. The film’s implicit meaning can be interpreted in several ways. As Oedipal story of a son who kills both his ‘fathers’. Or allegorically, with Old Yang as the feudal tyranny most Chinese suffered over the centuries, while his intrinsically evil ‘son’ stands as the more modern dictatorship of Mao and his youthful, ideologically fervent Red Guards, many of whom denounced their own parents in the Cultural Revolution. Like them, this boy has been brought into a world of deception where truth is censored by fear, and where conformity rules even over biology.

Ultimately, Ju Dou can only hope of freedom through destruction, and this downbeat outlook, along with the subversive sense of passion fighting to be unrestrained, was why the PRC banned the film for a year. The Chinese authorities tried to get its Oscar nomination revoked on a technicality, but to no avail, and anyway Zhang Yimou had already shown his true colours. Other films and directors fell by the wayside due to Beijing’s meddling (Zhou Xiaowen’s Black Mountain made the same year springs to mind) but Zhang now had the reputation of an international auteur, who could attract foreign investment, and whose next three films would be his finest. (April 2018)


Raise the Red Lantern

For anyone getting into world cinema in the 1990s, it was almost impossible to avoid being mesmerised by the visual feast served up by the tragically self-enclosed world of Raise the Red Lantern. Was it self-exoticisation as some nativist Chinese scholars argued, pointing to the way the lantern-lighting rituals were ahistorical and invented for the film? Was its popularity abroad to do with the bleak political allegory it presented critiquing a maligned Chinese state (and further fuelled by Beijing once again banning a Zhang Yimou film)? Or was it Zhang’s attempt at auto-ethnography, using fantasy and melodrama to see how the Chinese see themselves, as Rey Chow has suggested? All these arguments have some validity, and the debate could go (and has gone) on an on, but whichever way you look at it this was the apotheosis of Zhang’s loose trilogy of melodramas about victimised heroines in patriarchal rural China.

Raise the Red Lantern was clearly an even darker political allegory than Ju Dou, but, more impressively, it was more stylistically stunning too: with its geometric framing, its vivid colour coordination matching the film’s cyclical structure around the passing of the seasons, its sound design (the snuffing out of the lanterns a memorable symbolic thud of broken hopes) and editing rhythms, and with another dramatic Zhao Jiping soundtrack that got under the skin.

Gong Li consolidated her status as poster girl for the Chinese Fifth Generation films with her role as Songlian, an independent-minded young woman eager to attend university. Her life takes on a drastically different turn when her father dies and her mother, in economic dire straits, instead sells her off to become the fourth wife of a wealthy nobleman. She is swept into a mansion of rules, conventions and rituals: each of the wives has their own quarters, and the husband (never clearly shown in the frame, a significant mise-en-scène decision) announces his choice of partner every night by lighting a red lantern in her courtyard. Whether she likes it or not, Songlian is sucked into this world of cruel power-games and jealousy, where the wives’ existences are so empty and trapped that they have nothing else to do but contest each other for their master’s attention.

The house itself is a masterpiece of prop selection and set design (much credit for this must go to Zhang’s regular art director Cai Juiping), with each of the wives’ houses revealing something unique of their individual characters. The overall manor itself, shot as a labyrinth of doorways and courtyards leading into nothing but more courtyards, is an internal prison which the film never leaves, albeit gorgeously shot in meticulous symmetrical compositions and high-angle wide shots (something Zhang had already experimented with on Ju Dou by using similar recurring shots of the town surrounding the dye factory). The mansion is also imbued with its own sense of gothic, a mysterious locked room on the roof suggesting the ghosts of its haunted past. While there’s something quasi-existential about the huis clos of the situation, it’s not hard to see why the manor was read as a symbol for China itself, ruled by aloof old men, and the wives its many constituents trapped within its web, constricted both personally and politically, and yet forced to play by the rules of its games. Songlian’s only escape is to fall into the abyss. Zhang Yimou’s escape from his self-generated censorship impasse would be to switch style and mode for his next film. (April 2018)

7 thoughts on “Zhang Yimou (Director)

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