Zhang Yimou is China’s best known and arguably most talented film director. His fondness for exploring Chinese history and its affect on its people have made him a darling of international film critics but often gotten him into trouble at home. His films have won many awards.
Zhang has been nominated for best foreign film Oscars three times (for “Ju Dou’ in 1990, “Raise the Red Lantern” in 1991 and “Hero” in 2003) and won a Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1994 for “To Live.” The film critic Kathy Schultz Huffhines wrote: “No other current director is capable of the bold, robust, intoxicating, frightening personal stamp Zhang Yimou puts on every frame. Give him the weeds that would be anyone else’s sow’s ear and he’ll turn them into a silk purse.” His films feature “brilliant colors, deeply felt vision of the shifting forces or life and death.”
Director Steven Spielberg wrote in Time, “For the past two decades he has inspired the world’s fascination with China through his cinematic vision. Not since the great British director Michael Powell has a director used color so effectively.” At the heart of his work “was the idea that the conflict of man foretells the desire for inner peace? whether the films were “about the lives of humble peasants or exalted royalty.” On his Olympics extravaganza Spielberg said, “In one evening of visual and emotional splendor, he educated, enlightened and entertained us all. In doing so, Zhang secured himself a place in world history.”
Zhang was once considered the bad boy of Chinese film but now often works with the blessing of the government. He and Gong Li collaborated on a number of films and were lovers until she left him for a Singapore businessman. See Gong Li.
Good Websites and Sources: Wikipedia List of Chinese Filmmakers Wikipedia ; Zhang Yimou at IMDB imdb.com ; People Behind the Opening Ceremonies en.beijing2008.cn/culture/ceremonies ; Roger Ebert on Zhang Yimou and the Opening Ceremonies blogs.suntimes.com ; Zhang Yimou and the Opening Ceremonies en.beijing2008.cn/live/interview
Good Websites and Sources: dGenerate Films dGenerate Films is a New York-based distribution company that collects post-Sixth Generation independent Chinese cinema. The site Chinese Films http://www.chinesefilms.cn features news, film release dates, cast and crew details and plot outlines. There are also links to Chinese studios and the websites of film-makers, as well as independent English language reviews of movies. Chinese Movie Database dianying.com ; Internet Movie Database http://www.imdb.com/ ; Shelly Kraicer’s Chinese Cinema site chinesecinemas.org ; Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (MCLC) Resource List mclc.osu.edu ; iFilm Connections---Asia and Pacific asianfilms.org ; Love Asia Film loveasianfilm.com ; Journal of Chinese Cinemas intellectbooks.co.uk ; Wikipedia article on Chinese Cinema Wikipedia ; Senses of Cinema sensesofcinema.com ; Film in China (Chinese Government site) china.org.cn ; Directory of Interent Sources newton.uor.edu ; Chinese, Japanese, and Korean CDs and DVDs at Yes Asia yesasia.com and Zoom Movie zoommovie.com ; Wikipedia List of Chinese Filmmakers Wikipedia ; Expert on Chinese film: Stanley Rosen, a professor at the University of Southern California.
Links in this Website: CHINESE FILM INDUSTRY Factsanddetails.com/China ; HONG KONG MOVIE INDUSTRY Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHINESE FILM MAKERS AND THEIR FILMS Factsanddetails.com/China ; ZHANG YIMOU AND ANG LEE Factsanddetails.com/China ; HONG KONG FILM MAKERS AND THEIR FILMS Factsanddetails.com/China ; FOREIGN FILMS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHINESE FILM ACTORS Factsanddetails.com/China ; JACKIE CHAN Factsanddetails.com/China ; BRUCE LEE AND JET LI Factsanddetails.com/China ;
Book: “Speaking in Images: Interviews With Contemporary Chinese Filmmakers” by Berry, associate professor of Contemporary Chinese Cultural Studies at UC Santa Barbara
Zhang Yimou’s Life
Zhang Yimou in Hawaii Zhang was born in Beijing in 1950 and grew up in Shaanxi Province. His family was poor. They had been persecuted because of their association with the Kuomintang. Zhang’s father was an accountant who served as an officer in the Nationalist army that fought the Communist in China’s civil war. His uncle fled with the Nationalists to Taiwan. Zhang's mother told interviews that the clothes he wore as a youngster were torn and patched.
During the Cultural Revolution Zhang’s home was ransacked and his father was labeled a “double counter-revolutionary.” Zhang’s parents were sent to a reeducation camp while he toiled in the fields as a farm hand and later as laborer in a cotton mill.
At the age of 18 Zhang was sent to the countryside to work in the fields with peasants. He told Michael Berry, who teaches contemporary Chinese culture at the University of California at Santa Barbara, “Most enemies of the people during that time fell into the category of the “five bad elements.” Well people like me were called the “the worst element.” In those 10 years, from 1966 until 1976, we lived under the shadow of tragedy and hopelessness.”
In 1971, Zhang was assigned to work as machine technician at the No. 8 Cotton Mill in Xianyang in Shaanxi. While working there he developed an interesting in photography and art. A coworker there said, “He showed no interest in politics. But he once said people are shackled by politics.”
Zhang Yimou’s Film Making Career
After Mao’s death Zhang earned admission to the Beijing Film Academy, China’s only film school. Zhang said he know nothing about film when he entered the academy in 1978. He was 27, already considered to old to be a filmmaker. He didn't even want to be a film maker and had applied to the Xian Physical Education Institute to get out of it. His view of film changed after he saw Kurosawa's “Rashomon”.
Zhang graduated from the Beijing Film Academy in 1982 and reportedly sold his blood over a period of months to earn enough money to buy his first camera. He won an award at the Tokyo Film Festival as an actor in Wu Tianming's “The Old Well”.
Zhang initially made a name for himself as a cinematographer, working on the film “Yellow Earth”, with his film school classmate Chen Kaige. But not longer after he began making his own films, critically-praised dramas like “Red Sorghum”, “Ju Dou” and "Raise the Red Lantern”---films that explored China’s feudal past, the abuse of women and conflicts in the lives of Chinese people.
Zhang’s films mostly were set before the Communist era. Even so his films were not liked by the censors, probably because they portrayed the Chinese as backwards. His masterpieces, “Red Sorghum” and “Raise the Red Lantern”, have been released in China. “To Live”, set during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, has never been released in China. Most Chinese have never seen Zhang’s early films.
Gong Li was cast in starring roles in six Zhang films . Spielberg wrote, she and Zhang “are credited with introducing sensuality and erotism to Chinese cinema.” One the different between working with Zhang in the 1990s and 2000s Gong Li said in 2006, “He is more deferential now. He’s deferential to every actor. He’s very polite, I tell him you don’t have time to be this deferential, this polite. We don’t have time.”
Zhang Yimou and the Chinese Government
The government didn’t like Zhang’s depiction of the dark side of Chinese culture in his early films. Some labeled his works as poison and even accused him of making veiled attacks of the Chinese leadership.
Zhang was in Beijing at the time of the Tiananmen Square protest. After the massacre he and some of his co-workers ventured out into the streets. Wang Bin, a longtime adviser, told the New York Times, “We saw burned vehicles, bloody students...We spent the whole night sleepless. Because of that event, I trusted Zhang Yimou. I felt he cared for the nation.”
To get “To Live” made Zhang submitted a fake script to the censors that said the film was about China’s bright future and then made their film under a veil of secrecy, The censors were infuriated and banned Zhang from making films with foreign funds for five years. Worried that he would never be able to make film again, he never seriously challenged the censors after that.
Yu Hua, author of “To Live” told the New York Times, “Zhang cannily altered the story of To Live in order to make the film version palatable to Chinese authorities: among other things, Zhang made the son’s death seem like a tragic accident. As he made the changes I became very impressed by how well Zhang Yimou seemed to understand the Chinese Communist Party. But the film still got banned. “
In 1997, Chinese authorities prevented Zhang Yimou from attending the Cannes Film Festival. Zhang's comedy, “Keep Cool”, was kept out the Cannes competition because Chinese authorities said the film was not ready, which was not the case according to Zhang's agent.
In recent years, Zhang has been accused of selling out to the Chinese government. Some have even accused him of being a kind Chinese Leni Riefenstahl, the German director who made propaganda films under Hitler. Michael Berry, who teaches contemporary Chinese culture at the University of California at Santa Barbara told the New York Times, “He went from being the renegade making films that were banned and an eyesore for the Chinese government to kind of being the pet of the government in some people’s eyes.”
Zhang has served as an artistic advisor to the Communist leadership, promoted China abroad and produced a short film that helped China win the right to host the Olympics. He now is a member of he Chinese People’s Political Consultive Conference, China’s top political advisory body.
Zhang was named artistic advisor to the Beijing Olympics. Chinese authorities have given his film favorable release dates and lobbied Hollywood executives for Oscars for his last three film. One of films opened at the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square. Zhang also directed the military parade marking China's 60th anniversary on October 1 2009. This move seemed to further confirm that he had become the “artist in residence” to China's authoritarian government. [Source: National Public Radio, January 4, 2010]
Chen Xihe, a professor of film at Shanghai University, told the New York Times, “The government made him a cultural hero of China. Why would he continue to make movies that challenge the political system.” Filmmaker Jia Zhangke is one of the most vocal critics in China of Zhang’s later films and his cozy relationship with the government. Jia told The New Yorker, ‘since “Hero” I have not liked his films. Not because they are kung-fu movies---I like kung fu movies---but because the film underscores power, that we should “bow down” before power. For a “harmonious world,” we should give up individual fights and efforts...The “authority of power,” the focus of his films, makes me extremely uncomfortable.”
Despite his state-sponsored assignments, Zhang denies losing his independence. He argues that censorship limits all Chinese directors equally, and he denies being burdened by the expectation of his new stature as a national icon. “I can't think about the pressure,” he told NPR. “If you thought about it, you wouldn't able to do anything. You have to have your feet on the ground.”
Outrage Over Zhang Yimou’s Extra Children
In May 2013, the New York Times reported, Zhang Yimou, the celebrated film director and arranger of the 2008 Summer Olympics’ opening ceremony in Beijing, was accused of being the latest high-profile violator of China’s one-child policy. The People’s Daily, the Communist Party mouthpiece, alleged that Mr. Zhang had fathered seven children with four different women. The news has ignited an angry online debate, with Internet users condemning the unequal application of the one child policy. The truth is: for the rich, the law is a paper tiger, easily circumvented by paying a “social compensation fee” — a fine of 3 to 10 times a household’s annual income, set by each province’s family planning bureau, or by traveling to Hong Kong, Singapore or even America to give birth. [Source: Ma Jian, New York Times, May 21, 2013]
In December 2013, Zhang admitted having three children with his current wife, according to a studio media posting. AFP reported: “Zhang Yimou, the maker of "Raise the Red Lantern" and "Red Sorghum", has two sons and a daughter with his current wife, the Yimou Studio said in its verified account on Sina Weibo. That would mean Zhang, 62, has a total of four children including a daughter with his ex-wife. Zhang "would like to make a sincere apology to the public for the negative ramifications caused", said the posting by Yimou Studio, which says it is affiliated to the director. The disclosure comes after months of speculation that he has seven or eight children by three or four women. Yimou Studio dismissed those allegations as "untrue" and threatened to hold the rumour-mongers legally responsible. "The false allegations have seriously affected the normal life of Zhang Yimou's family and led to an egregious impact on society," said the statement. "We are collecting and sorting out relevant evidence against the rumour-mongers and preserve the right to pursue their legal liability." “Wealthy Chinese are able to have extra children by paying fines, in which case their offspring will have full legal rights, but women who cannot afford to do so have reportedly been forced to have abortions, provoking outrage over the privileges the rich enjoy. Government employees also face the risk of losing their jobs if they do not adhere to the policy. [Source: AFP, December 2, 2013]
“Reaction to the Yimou Studio statement was mixed. "He obviously violated the law, yet he shamelessly claims their life was seriously affected," said a comment posted on on Sina Weibo. But some argued having children was a human right and that it was time for the family planning policy to be shelved. "What is wrong with giving birth to children? Is it right to force pregnant women to abort their foetus?" said one user. Family planning officials in the eastern city of Wuxi, where Zhang's wife is registered as living, are investigating, reports in state-run media said. Zhang was willing to cooperate with the investigation and "accept commensurate penalties" according to national laws, said the Sina Weibo posting. If found guilty of breaching the policy, Zhang could be fined around $100,000, according to the per capita urban resident income in Wuxi and the number of children involved, the state-run Beijing News reported.
“But the official news agency Xinhua said that Jiangsu, the province which includes Wuxi, fines violators five to eight times the couple's joint income and said media estimates of the potential penalty ranged as high as 160 million yuan ($26 million). Many of Zhang's early films were banned in China but he has since become close to authorities and was picked to direct the opening ceremony for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. His most recent work, 2011's "The Flowers of War", starred Christian Bale and was a historical drama set during the 1937 Nanjing Massacre.
Zhang Yimou Films
Chris Lee of the Los Angeles Times wrote Zhang’s “films have generally fallen into two categories. There are his gritty epics, such as “Ju Dou’ and “To Live” from his early filmography, that showcase China's struggles with war, poverty and political malfeasance (and have been consequently banned in the director's homeland for ‘subversive’ content). And then there are his more recent martial arts thrillers, such as “House of Flying Daggers” or “Hero”---films that critics complain implicitly glorify the Chinese state and have won Zhang favoritism with the political elite while also saddling him with a reputation as a kind of Leni Reifenstahl for China's authoritarian regime.”
“As he shifted to the martial arts epics, Zhang was criticized as selling out to the Chinese government and pandering to what officials wanted,” Micheal Berry, associate professor of Contemporary Chinese Cultural Studies at UC Santa Barbara, who extensively interviewed the director for his book “Speaking in Images: Interviews With Contemporary Chinese Filmmakers” , told the Los Angeles Times, “He's always rejected those criticisms, though. It's a natural evolution. People tend to be rebellious when they're young and after a while, they become the establishment.
Award Winning Zhang Yimou's Films
Poster for Red Sorghum “Ju Dou” was the first Chinese film to be nominated for an Academy Award. “Raise the Red Lantern” was the second.
“Red Sorghum” (1987) won the Golden Bear Award in Berlin. Based on a semi-autobiographical short story by the writer Mo Yan, it is about a young village girl played by Gong Li who is forced to marry a disgusting old wine factory owner,. On her way to the wedding she abducted by bandits in a sorghum and then is abducted again, with the film being a succession of surprises.
“Raise the Red Lantern” (1991) with Gong Li won the Silver Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival and was nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign film. It is about the unhappy, rich man’s third wife who is preyed upon by the man’s previous wives. The lantern in the title refers to the lantern that is hung identifying the wife the master wants to sleep with. Spielberg called “Raise the Red Lantern” Zhang’s magnus opus and wrote, the vivid use of red in the manufacturing of wine, the traditional wedding gown, the process of dying silk and even the crimson splashes of blood illuminate Zhang’s celebration of life, exoticism and death.”
“Ju Dou” (The Story of Qiu Ju, 1992) also with Gong Li won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. It is about a couple’s rebellion against a decadent tyrant. Gong Li plays woman forced into a marriage with an impotent old textile mill owner. The final scene with the big fire was added after Zhang witnessed the aftermath of the Tiananmen square massacre
“To Live” (1994), about a couple that survived the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, won Grand Prix Du Jury Award an Cannes. It takes place over four decades, ending with the Cultural Revolution.
“The Story of Qiu Ju” is about a pregnant woman (Gong Li) who seeks justice after a village chief kicks her husband in the testicles in a remote villages. He quest involves traveling to a distant city to seek the help of officials that want to have nothing to do with her. Based on the novella “The Wan Family’s Lawsuit” by Yuan Bin Chen, it is a simple story told very well, involving compelling, understated characters and set in rural China depicted with amazing authenticity. Most of the people in the film are real villagers.
“Not One Less” won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1999 after Zimou had pulled it from Cannes. The story of villager who locates a lost student with the help of a benevolent state television boss, it is an interesting and endearing film set in a poor rural school with a cast of children, the oldest a 13-year-old schoolgirl, who plays the school’s barefoot teacher. The film takes unflattering look at a school in a poor area of China. The school looks like shack and suffers from a chronic shortage of chalk.
“The Road Home” (2000) won the Silver Bear Award at the 2000 Berlin Film Festival. Starring Zhang Ziyi as a charming and delightful peasant girl, it is a charming, minimalist story about a girl’s crush on a young man that visits her village. I love this film.
After the success of Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” Zhang began to make more commercial films.
”Hero” (2002) is a big-budget, big-name, Hollywood-style epic star film directed by Zhang. Described by Time magazine as a “a masterpiece” and by the Los Angeles Times as a “visual knockout,” it is a dazzling, visual film, noted for its stunning use of color and imaginative use of “Crouching Tiger”-style digitalized action sequences. The censors in Beijing liked it too but some international critics condemned it as overproduced and silly and some Chinese critics claimed it promoted servility and glossed over the horrible things done by the ancient ruler Emperor Qin.Some critics panned Hero as being an “implicit homage to authoritarian rule." Government critics hailed it as a “new starting point."
“Hero” is based on the story of a 3rd century B.C. assassin who had an opportunity to kill the great Emperor Qin but failed to do so. Like the classic “Rashomon”, a single story is told several times from different perspectives as the assassin struggles to overcomes three rivals. The film is divided into three main sections, each dominated by a single color---red, blue and white, with green thrown in for flashbacks. The blue scenes were shot at the beautiful lakes in the Jiuzhaigou region of China and were said to be inspired by the lake’s color. The white scene were shot in desert near the Kazakhstan border.
“Hero” was the most internationally successful Chinese film export until the mid 2000s and remains one of the top-grossing foreign-language films to appear in American theaters. Costing $30 million to make, Hero features grand battle scenes, martial art choreography and big names like Jet Li, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung and Zhang Ziyi. It was a box office smash in China, where it ranked second only to Titanic as the highest grossing film ever in China. The United States version— with an imprimatur from Quenton Tarantino and with 20 minutes edited out to speed up the pace and make it more palatable to American audiences---came out in 2004. It broke box office records there for an Asian film. As of early 2005 it had earned $53.5 million in the United States and $155 million worldwide. The Chinese government lobbied hard to get the film an Academy Award nomination in 2002 for best foreign film and then lobbied hard to get it to win.”
Some critics accused Zhang of selling out to Hollywood. Zhang responded that he was developing a style that was international and modern. “China has stepped into a new era, an era of consumption and entertainment. You can condemn it if you like, but it is a trend of globalization.” Zhang was critical of the way Mirimax cut the American verison of “Hero”. He wrote them, “If you insist on doing nothing to support the film but keep on delaying and cutting down the movie, and eventually destroying it, I cannot imagine how the Chinese government and the whole Chinese population will think of you and Mirimax...I truly believe, no one cold stop their anger! You will be hurting not only me, but also the whole Chinese population.”
Zhang Yimou Remakes Blood Simple
Scene from Raise the Red Lantern In 2010, Zhang released “A Simple Noodle Story”, a visually-lush, radical remake of “Blood Simple” , the 1984 Joel and Ethan Coen nerve-jangling noir thriller set in a Texas bar. The story revolves around the chain of events when a good-for-nothing bar owner hires a detective to kill his wife and her lover. Zhang's version transplants the action to a remote noodle shop in ancient China, leaving much of the storyline intact and using some identical shots.[Source: National Public Radio, January 4, 2010]
Zhang told NPR he set the film in the past for the sake of ease. “It's more convenient setting it in ancient China. The level of freedom is greater. It's not that easy to shoot contemporary material. Lots of things are forbidden,” he said.
The surprise is the director's decision to remake the movie as a slapstick comedy with song-and-dance numbers revolving around noodle-making. The cast includes some of China's top comedians: Xiao Shenyang as a nervous girly guy and Zhao Benshang as a goofy character with buck teeth who falls down almost every time he appears.
“It's very absurd, very exaggerated,” Zhang told NPR unapologetically. “It's because I shot such serious films before, I wanted to experiment with a different style. In fact, there were commercial factors. We wanted to make a New Year film,” he said. Chris Lee wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “The film situates “Blood Simple's” double-crosses and misunderstandings, grand mal scheming and thievery, in desolate Gansu province, somewhere between the Great Wall of China and the Silk Road, during the late Ming dynasty of the 17th century. The original film's perfidious private eye, oily gin-joint owner and his wife have been respectively reincarnated as a granite-faced local constable with a gigantic sword, a curmudgeonly restaurateur and a shrill adulteress with a gymnastic talent for making hand-pulled noodles.
“As well, where “Blood Simple” exists almost as a formal exercise in the cinematic usage of darkness, shadows and light, color fairly explodes from the screen in “A Woman, a Gun.” And with several of China's most beloved comedians in prominent roles, it is also shot through with a goofy brand of Peking Opera-inspired comedy that has proved somewhat baffling to many non-Chinese viewers.
In the United States and Europe the film was released under the name “A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop”. The $12-million film premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in 2009. It got relatively good press from Variety, Indiewire and Slash Film. Sony Pictures Classics distributed it.
“A Simple Noodle Story” premiered in China on December 2010. It took in almost $15 million at the box office in its first four days and earned $38 million overall. Despite its commercial success, it's been panned. Half of those answering one online survey at a popular Web site, Sina.com, thought it was terrible or worse than expected.
Background Behind Zhang Yimou Remake of Blood Simple
On Zhang’s decision to remake “Blood Simple”, Chris Lee wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “In the autumn of 2008, China's best-known filmmaker, Zhang Yimou, found himself at a career crossroads. The multiple Oscar nominee had spent the previous two years away from movies, orchestrating the opening and closing ceremonies for Beijing's Olympics. Problem was, without any original movie material indevelopment, Zhang didn't know what to do next. Then inspiration struck: a remake! “I wanted to do something to relate my humor,” Zhang said by phone from Beijing. ‘something light.” [Source: Chris Lee, LA Times, August 29, 2010]
“Paradoxically, the filmmaker's first thought was to tackle a “cold and distant” American movie he had seen at the Cannes Film Festival nearly a quarter century earlier. A film he had seen without even comprehending any of the dialogue absent Chinese subtitles. A work that had left a “deep impression” on Zhang: Joel and Ethan Coen's mordant 1984 thriller “Blood Simple.” “Very, very few Chinese films are remakes,” Zhang told the Los Angeles Times through a translator. “That has to do with financial considerations. International copyrights cost a lot of money. As for my own adaptation, when I told my producers what I wanted to do, they said, 'Forget that. It's way too expensive!'
Zhang is the only person the Coens have ever given their remake blessing. Zhang’s s longtime producer Bill Wong negotiated with the Coens over “Blood Simple,” their debut film. The two parties eventually agreed to pay a copyright fee and ironed out a profit participation deal. Although Zhang and Joel and Ethan Coen have never met, as Zhang tells it, the brothers said: “We won't do this for any other director but we're willing to do it for you.”
“Turns out, “Blood Simple” wasn't necessarily Zhang's first choice for adaptation. “He wanted to do 'No Country for Old Men,'” Wong said. “I said, 'It's too recent. It won Oscars, it involves too many parties and would take forever to clear the rights.' But Yimou is a big admirer of the Coen brothers. We looked into [remaking] 'Fargo,' all of them.”
Zhang told the Los Angeles Times the Coens saw an early cut of “A Woman, a Gun” and gave it their approval. “They thought it was fun and interesting the way we took their contemporary film, added Chinese flavor and set it in the past,” the director said. “They never imagined their film could be expressed in this manner.” According to Wong, the adaptation may have unintentionally opened the door to a kind of cross-cultural movie exchange program. “They sent a note of congratulations to Zhang,” Wong said. “They told him that they are going to make a remake of 'Raise the Red Lantern.'”
Zhang Yimou's "Hawthorn Tree"
Alexandra A. Seno wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “After a decade of working on spectacles like the 2008 Olympics ceremonies, leading Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou has returned with an intimate, low-budget drama set in the Cultural Revolution. “Under the Hawthorn Tree” features young, unknown actors in lead roles and was shot for under 65 million renminbi ($10 million). It has already brought in more than 150 million renminbi in China, according to its producer, Bill Kong, setting a box-office record for a drama by Mr. Zhang, one of the country's few high-culture filmmakers with mass appeal.” [Source:Alexandra A. Seno Wall Street Journal, November 19, 2010]
“Under the Hawthorn Tree” is a love story set during the Cultural Revolution. It tells the story of the son of a Communist Party official (played by Shawn Dou) and the daughter (Zhou Dongyu) of a jailed political outcast in 1970s China. Ms. Zhou's character, Jingqiu, is based on a real person whose identity has never been made public, but whose diaries formed the basis of a biography that, in turn, became an online sensation, widely read on the Internet.”
“The 1970s, when "Hawthorn Tree" is set, have recently been much romanticized in pop culture on the mainland for being a simpler time, of "purer" values. Interviewed by phone from Beijing, where he is based, Mr. Zhang says that he looks back on those years as a formative part of his youth. After a nationwide search where he auditioned over 6,000 actors in 16 cities, he chose Mr. Dou and Ms. Zhou because 'they looked "very clean," much like the people of that era.” The small-scale film contrasts sharply with big-budget affairs that Mr. Zhang has made in recent years.
Flowers of War
Steven Zeitchik wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “In a sign of the growing East-West cooperation in filmmaking, Christian Bale, the on-screen incarnation of Bruce Wayne and his caped alter ego, is starring in "The Flowers of War," a $94-million movie that is China's submission for the foreign-language Oscar this season. Directed by Zhang Yimou, "Flowers" shows how people from radically different backgrounds can come together to create a movie with potentially broad appeal. The film is, after all, a uniquely Chinese story told largely through a veteran actor of Hollywood blockbusters. [Source: Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times, December 11, 2011]
Partially funded by the state, following increased government investment in the media and culture industries, “The Flowers of War” is China's most expensive film. Adapted from a novel by Geling Yan, it also shows how that combination can pose challenges---particularly on the question of language. The film contains dialogue that's about 60 percent Mandarin, with the rest in English."I didn't speak a word of English, so I really needed to trust Christian," Zhang said in Mandarin, via a translator.
For his part, Bale, who does not speak any Mandarin, said it was a difficulty they were able to overcome. "It's amazing how much you can have a language barrier and still break down a communication barrier," the actor said in an interview with Zhang recently in Los Angeles. "I was able to communicate better with Yimou than with many English-speaking directors."Their linguistic bridge was Zhang Mo, the director's 28-year-old-daughter and aide de camp, who speaks Mandarin and English fluently and was a frequent presence on set.
In the 145-minute film, Bale plays John Miller, a carpetbagging American mortician looking to make a quick buck in China as the Japanese invade the city of Nanjing in 1937. When he holes up in a Catholic boarding school where teenage students and prostitutes have taken refuge from the fighting, Miller suddenly finds himself responsible for their welfare. As the horrors of the war close in---a Japanese commander, for instance, demands that the girls "sing" for officers at a military parade, code for rape---Miller is given a crash course in atrocities as well as his own capacity for sacrifice.
The Bank of China is among those funding The Flowers of War, which was released in early December 2011 at more than 8,000 screens in China and then released in the U.S. and Europe. Zhang's drama, which had trouble finding a U.S. distributor and took 164s day to shoot, assumes knowledge of a historical period, but its themes are universal, Zhang Weiping, the film's producer and financier, told the Los Angeles Times. "It's a story about heroism, and everybody can relate to that," he said."We would like to take the chance to make it the most influential and top-grossing Chinese film in the world," Zhang Weiping said. The production may also benefit from the involvement of power players who know a little something about Western releases, including former Universal co-chairman David Linde and "Crouching Tiger" executive producer Bill Kong. [Source: Steven Zeitchik and David Pierson, Los Angeles Times, July 03, 2011]
The Guardian reported: "Reviews of “Flowers of War” criticized its poor plot, commercial vulgarity, wooden acting and propagandist message. Released just days after the anniversary of the 1937 Nanking Massacre, the film looks set to stir up nationalist passions, both over the country's historical grievances and its modern cultural ambitions. There is no more sensitive subject in modern Chinese history than the "Rape of Nanking” as the massacre become known in the west. Dramatisations of the killings have been a staple of Chinese films since the black-and-white propaganda epics of the Mao era. But the new big budget production adds racier dialogue, image makeovers and hi-tech gore.” [Source: Jonathan Watts and Justin McCurry, The Guardian, December 15, 2011]
Christian Bale in Flowers of War
Poster for Road Home Steven Zeitchik wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Zhang said he was moved to cast Bale on the recommendation of Steven Spielberg. Bale starred in Spielberg's 1987 hit "Empire of the Sun," playing a young boy struggling to survive in Japanese-occupied China during World War II. (Bale, for his part, said he was "completely oblivious" to the connection between the two films when he committed to "Flowers." "It's a different lifetime for me," Bale said of "Empire of the Sun." "I barely remember that experience.") [Source: Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times, December 11, 2011]
Zhang had seen only Bale's two Batman films and said he initially had doubts, from those viewings, about Bale's ability to play the Miller character. But when he arrived for a meeting at Bale's house and found books about the rape of Nanjing on his coffee table, he was convinced. "It showed he was serious about this, more serious than anyone else I talked to," Zhang said. Zhang demurred when asked if the actor's Hollywood star power was a factor, though said he believed this role would cause Bale to be nearly as famous in China as he is in the West.
With a kind of reluctant heroism, Bale's character in "Flowers" in a strange way echoes his trademark Batman role. (The third and final movie in that franchise, "The Dark Knight Rises," comes out next summer.) And Miller puts on a priest's vestments to boost his standing vis-à-vis the Japanese officers, a gesture that could evoke comparisons to his Batman guise. But Bale seems hesitant to acknowledge any parallels to "Dark Knight" or the grimaced heroes of some of his other films."I'm not looking for a pattern in my work; that's an outsider's perspective," said the actor. "I just thought this was the approach to take this character---with wartime situations, it's always the surprising [kind of] heroism that you get out of people."
The Welsh-born, Los Angeles-based actor said he didn't choose the role to make a statement about Chinese-U.S. cooperation. He was inspired to take the role because of being spurred, he said, by the "novelty factor" of making a movie in China, as well as the opportunity to work with Zhang, whom he met at the Telluride Film Festival nearly 20 years ago. As for future collaborations, Bale said, "I absolutely would work with Yimou again, but that's not to say I necessarily want to work in China again and again."
Flowers of War as a Chinese-American Collaboration
Steven Zeitchik wrote in the Los Angeles Times, ‘still, "Flowers" will almost certainly be seen as a weather vane for Chinese-American filmic collaboration. The film's executive producers include William Kong, the producer of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," and former Universal Pictures co-chairman David Linde. The film was adapted by well-known novelist Liu Heng from an acclaimed historical novel by Yan Geling. The Chinese actors are largely unknowns, even in China. [Source: Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times, December 11, 2011]
Mainland Chinese films have struggled to catch on in Europe and America, but this wartime epic, with its sense of spectacle, its schmaltzy story of redemption and its classic Hollywood feel, may offer one of the better chances for success. "It's not the only film that's a collaboration of the East and the West, but in none of the other movies is the collaboration as organic," Zhang said of the movie, which opens this week in China. "I think it will give people hope about what can be done."
Financed by producer Zhang Weiping, a longtime partner of Zhang Yimou's, with money from Minsheng Bank and the state-owned Bank of China, the picture is one of the most elaborate ever made in mainland China. Shooting took place over about six months, with a section of Beijing cordoned off and built up to look like 1930s Nanjing.
But despite the Hollywood-level production values---large-scale battle scenes evoke a kind of urbanized "Saving Private Ryan," and Clint Eastwood's "Letters From Iwo Jima" and "Flags of Our Fathers" also come to mind---"Flowers" also has a decidedly homespun feel. Ni Ni, the film's 23-year-old female lead (she plays a prostitute whom Miller falls for), was an unknown plucked from an acting class shortly before the start of production. "Christian Bale was my favorite actor. He was just so sexy," Ni said in a recent interview, sounding as much like a schoolgirl as a costar.
"I really wish this film can be popular and welcomed in the international market," Zhang told the Los Angeles Times. "I personally advocate movies have to be fun to watch, which means ordinary audiences will be able to understand and accept it.... Such international a theme, story and structure will be very fresh."
Bale said, half-smiling, that he worried this film would create a level of recognition for him on the streets of China, and that one of the things he liked about shooting so far away is the relative anonymity, not to mention the remove from Hollywood. "I cultivated a reputation for not getting back to anyone while I'm shooting a movie, and with this I had the added advantage of the different time zone," he said.
He added that he had no inkling as to whether the film would catch on commercially---it is a wartime movie with heavy doses of a foreign language---either in China or abroad. "I'm terrible at predicting box office," he said. "I thought 'Titanic' was going to bomb."
Critics of Flowers of War
Other Zhang Yimou's Films
2008 Beijing Olympic
“Shanghai Triad” is about gangsters in Shanghai in the 1930s. It was chosen to open the prestigious New York Film Festival. The Communist government prevented Yimou from attending the festival because the festival also was showing a film about Tiananmen Square. This was a blow to Zhang who had received approval from the government to film Shanghai Triad after his other films had been banned in China.
In late 1990s, Zhang has produced stage versions of Puccini's “Turandot” and Mozart's “The Magic Flute”. “Keep Cool” (1997) was kept out the Cannes Film festival by Chinese official who prevented it from leaving the country. The film seems unfocused and doesn't have Gong Li.
“House of Daggers” (2004), another martial arts epic with Zhang Ziyi. premiered with much acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival in 2004. Set during the Tang dynasty, it showcases Zhang as a blind martial arts master and was described by Time “zippier, more cunning” than Hero but criticized by others for having a confusing plot and weak ending Both Hero and House of Daggers both seemed like attempts to produce films that would delight the Beijing censors and foreign critics and audience.
It is somewhat surprising that Zhang took up martial arts. When he was growing up during the Cultural Revolution it was a crime to watch or even read about kung fu or the martial arts, he didn’t see a Bruce lee movie until 1979 and as of 2005 he said he only watched about a dozen and half martial arts films.
“Riding Alone a Thousand Miles” is a film by Zhang starring the Japanese actor Ken Takakura. It is about a father who goes to China to see his critically ill son and their last chance to med fences. Wearing Golden Armor Across the City features Gong Li as an Empress and Chow Yun-fat as an Emperor, The film was the first time Zhang and Li had worked together in more than decade.
2008 Beijing Olympic
“Curse of the Gold Flower” (2006) is blockbuster, costume drama about an imperial family that turns on itself with an emperor trying to poison his wife and the empress unleashing her there sons against their father with all three meeting brutal, violent ends. Starring Chow Yun-fat and Gong Li, it was named one of the 10 Best Movies of the Year by Time magazine but was criticized by Chinese critics as lavish but lacking in substance, showing too much cleavage and being to violent. One Chinese critic called it a “bloodthirsty movie” and said that after watching it he had a “feeling of nausea that would not go away.” At $45 million it is the costliest film ever made in China
Zhang Yimou was originally slated to make the “The Founding of a Republic”, a 2009 film that depicts Mao Zedong rise to power, released to mark the 60th anniversary of the founding of Communist China. In the end Han Sanping directed it.
Zhang is preparing to shoot a film about women during the brutal 1937 Japanese invasion of the Chinese city of Nanking with Christian Bale playing heroic priest. Dozens of films have made about the conflict, a focus of nationalism in China. Mr. Zhang believes his movie will be different because it offers a "female point of view on war." The story is based on Yan Geling's best-selling Chinese novel “The 13 Women of Jingling,” where a group of schoolgirls are saved by prostitutes who go in their place to become "comfort women" for Japanese soldiers. Zhang’s producer Zhang Weiping said the director talked to Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks about possible roles in the film.
Zhang Yimou’s Other Projects
Zhang was chosen to direct the Opening and Closing Ceremonies at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. He has also served as president of the jury at the Tokyo Film Festival. Film is not his only passion In 1998 he staged Puccini’s opera “Turandot” on the grounds of the Forbidden City before a nightly audience of 36,000.
Zhang directed a folk musical and staged it outdoors in 2003. In 2006, he directed Tan Dun’s “First Emperor” for the New York City’s Metropolitan Opera.
In May 2007, Yimou was awarded an honorary degree by Boston University. He failed to show up a the commencement ceremony.
Zhang Yimou and the Opening Ceremonies
2008 Beijing Olympic
Film director Zhang Yimou was selected to do the Opening Ceremonies in part based on what he achieved in staging outdoor performances that combined theater and tourist spectacle. He spent more than two years designing and rehearsing the show. The final rehearsals were held over several months in a secure Olympics compound.
Zhang said in an interview that the Olympics presented a once in lifetime opportunity that only a fool would pass up. “For a century, this is the most important time for the Chinese people to honor guests from all over the world. I took his job, to a great extent, because I wanted to do something for the Chinese people.”
After the event was staged Zhang Yimou said that he was pleased with the Opening Ceremonies show but said there were serious problems in the rehearsals. “I regret many things, many details of this performance, may things I cold have done better,” he told the Chinese media. “For example, there are performers who were injured. I blame myself for that . It might have well have been avoided if I had given more detailed instructions.”
Opening Ceremony at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing
Beijing and the Chinese government pulled out all the stops for the Opening Ceremonies, which was arguably the most impressive display of any kind the world has ever seen within and outside the world of sport, exceeding anything staged at previous Olympics, at Superbowls, Broadway, the West End, Woodstock or ancient Rome.
The 2008 Olympic opening ceremony in Beijing, according to the research consultancy, Future Sports and Entertainment, was the most viewed television event ever, watched by 1 billion people or about 15 percent of the world's population.
Before a live audience of 91,000 in the Bird’s Nest stadium and a television audience of 4 billion, the Chinese put on a show that featured 2008 drummers, all drumming in unison with glowing red drumsticks, and all dressed in silver robes trimmed with crimson; synchronized card displays for which one practice lasted 48 straight hours; mind-blowing fireworks that reverberated along the 16-kilometer-long central axis of Beijing, with the most dramatic display sprouting forth from 287 fireworks points on the stadium.
The Opening Ceremonies lasted for four hours and reportedly cost more than $100 million, more than a Hollywood blockbuster. More than 14,000 performers, wearing 15,153 costumes took part. More than 30,000 fireworks were set off and 40 tons of wire was used to suspend performers and objects. Some 840 million Chinese watched it on television. Among the world leader on hand to see it live were U.S. President George Bush, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and French President Nikolas Sarkozy.
The theme of the Opening Ceremonies was China’s history and achievements. A 400-foot-long Chinese scroll---actually one of the biggest LED television screens ever made---was laid on the stadium floor to celebrate Chinese inventions such as gunpowder, paper, movable type and the compass; honor Chinese cultural advances such as martial arts and traditional music; highlight periods of China’s history; and provide an electronic stage for the masses of dancers and performers. Zhang also directed the Olympic closing ceremony.
In China, his status has also been transformed, according to Yang Junlei, an associate professor at Fudan University in Shanghai told NPR: “Before the Olympics, Zhang was a trailblazer for an elite minority of culture lovers. But afterward, because of the success of the opening ceremony, he's become a national cultural hero who is widely approved of by ordinary Chinese people.” [Source: National Public Radio, January 4, 2010]
Image Sources: Movie posters, IMDB, Wikipedia, Wiki Commons
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated November 2011