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Zhang Yimou - From Arthouse To Full House

Written by Alison Jobling Tell a Friend

Zhang Yimou makes exceptional films in genres to suit almost any taste. Like historical tragedy? There's not much better than Zhang's lush film Raise The Red Lantern. Enjoy a gentle romance from a rural Chinese village? Zhang's The Road Home is guaranteed to make even the hardest heart melt. Like martial arts and wuxia? Then you must see Hero and House Of Flying Daggers. You can't escape Zhang's films, not if you like watching the best.

Zhang Yimou is one of mainland China's most highly-esteemed directors. He has a reputation for producing work of the highest quality, whether the film is historical arthouse, such as the lush Raise The Red Lantern, modern rural drama, such as the touching Not One Less, or wuxia (martial arts) fantasy, as in the hugely popular Hero. He has also been very astute in casting, and discovered both the sensual and talented Gong Li and the recent favourite Zhang Ziyi.

Zhang graduated from the Beijing Film Academy in 1982. His class formed the core of what would be called the "Fifth Generation" of film-makers, whose work was to bring Chinese cinema world renown. He worked as cameraman on fellow Fifth Generation director Chen Kaige's drama Yellow Earth (1984), and took the lead role in The Terracotta Warrior (1987), shortly before directing his first film, Red Sorghum (1987), which won the Golden Bear at the prestigious Berlin Film Festival. This was the first of several of Zhang's films to star the sumptuously beautiful, and highly talented, Gong Li.

Zhang followed this success with another, Ju Dou (1990), again starring Gong Li. This tragic story of desperate illicit love is set in a world of rich colour and sensual texture, of rippling silk, raging fire, and velvet skin. Zhangs work was already showing the gift for visual beauty and powerful emotion that make his films compelling.

His historical arthouse film Raise The Red Lantern (1991) won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival. This film also stars Gong Li, who portrays the new Fourth Wife Song Lian with icy disdain covering insecurity and unhappiness. The film is beautifully shot, with rich colours and costumes, while the story traces a Byzantine existence of wives and servants conniving for position within the household.

Both Ju Dou and Raise The Red Lantern were initially banned in China, for reasons of sex or politics. Zhang then changed direction, making a contemporary drama called The Story Of Qiu Ju, again starring Gong Li. It became clear that his talent was not restricted to historical tragedy when his drama To Live (1994), won the coveted Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival. His film noir, Shanghai Triad (1995), shows triad life through the eyes of a child, a perspective not often seen in this genre.

Zhang had already won the respect of the arthouse crowd with these films, but now he began to win over a new, more mainstream audience in the West. He began to make a number of films set in contemporary rural China, once again demonstrating his deft touch.

The Road Home is a lovely, gentle film about a city man who returns to the village of his birth when his father dies. There he learns about his parents' early lives, and the story of their innocent romance is deeply touching. The role of his mother as a young girl is played by Zhang Ziyi, who invests her character with a shy charm that is irresistable.

This film won the Silver Bear at Berlin Film Festival, and the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and also achieved screen time in some mainstream cinemas in the West. Western viewers were astonished that such a simple story could be so moving. It also brought the young Zhang Ziyi to the attention of other film-makers, which resulted in her gaining international renown as the headstrong heroine of Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Zhang continued his run with Not One Less, a similarly moving film about a young girl sent as a teacher to a small village. When one of her charges runs away to the big city, she has no choice but to follow him and try to bring him back. Zhang cast this film completely with non-professional actors, and they perform astonishingly well. The raw emotion is heartfelt and searing, and the simple story brought the lives of rural Chinese to the hearts of audiences worldwide.

But it is in the wuxia/martial arts arena that Zhang has made his biggest splash so far. His film Hero, a historical epic full of brilliant colour and packed with stars, was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign film, and was the biggest foreign film opening in the US.

The cinematography is breathtaking, since Zhang secured the services of the highly sought-after Christopher Doyle, whose work with acclaimed Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai includes such classics as Fallen Angels, Happy Together, and In The Mood For Love. The martial action is graceful and soaring, owing much to the talents of two cast members. Jet Li, a martial artist turned actor most famous for his roles in Tsui Hark's definitive Once Upon A Time In China series, has the grace of a cat and the speed of a tiger, while Donnie Yen, martial artist, action choreographer, and actor, star of films such as Iron Monkey, uses his smaller role to provide an unforgettable duel scene with Li.

But the stars don't stop there: this martial epic also stars Maggie Cheung Man Yuk and Tony Leung Chiu Wai, who starred together in Wong Kar Wai's In The Mood For Love, winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes. Both are highly respected actors, and their performances add a tragic gravity to this imposing film, which also features Zhang Ziyi.

Although appearing after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero was conceived some years before. Zhang had spent some time writing and re-writing the script, and the resulting film is a tribute to both the art and the craft of Zhang. Soaring martial arts, brilliant colours and breathtaking scenery, costumes evoking all the mystery of the exotic Orient, all support a classic film made by some of the world's finest film-makers.

Zhang has continued in the wuxia tradition with his latest release, the eagerly-awaited House of Flying Daggers. For months, Asian film afficionados have been scouring the internet for tidbits about this lavish work, and it was released in 2004 to great acclaim, screening at major film festivals Cannes and Toronto.

Once again, Zhang has used his eye for colour and detail to craft a film that combines visual splendour with a tale of epic drama, containing all the elements that have seduced viewers of both wuxia films and Zhang Yimou. And once again, Zhang has secured the services of a stellar cast, to aid him in his portrayal of Chinese history and legend.

Andy Lau Tak Wah must have been hard to catch, being one of the hardest working men in a hard-working industry. Lau's most recent work includes Andrew Lau's superb cops and triads drama Infernal Affairs, and Johnnie To's masterful thriller Running Out Of Time, which earned Lau the Best Actor award from the Hong Kong Film Awards. Lau is no stranger to wuxia films, having performed in such films as Moon Warriors, Handsome Siblings, and The Duel.

The film also stars Japanese heart-throb Takeshi Kaneshiro, whose work in the Wong Kar Wai films Fallen Angels and Chungking Express brought him to the attention of arthouse cinema-goers. And once again, Zhang makes use of the acting talents of Zhang Ziyi, whose imperious air and flashing eyes in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon were worlds removed from the gentle village girl in The Road Home.

It is clear that Zhang is a director who is not content to rest on his laurels. He has successfully attempted most of the major film genres, with spectacular results, and is constantly striving to achieve. One of his non-cinematic achievements was the staging of Turandot at the Forbidden City in 1998. A forbidding task, to stage a major operatic work in the most famous of China's ancient marvels, but Zhang was equal to it. The resulting production, involving over 1000 people and eight performances, was flawless and impressive, making one wonder what he would turn his hand to next.

In fact, the next non-cinematic spectacle has recently been decided. A preview at the closing of the Athens 2004 Olympic Games revealed that Zhang has been selected to stage the Opening and Closing Ceremonies for the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008. There is no doubt that Zhang will devote to that effort all the care, attention, and talent that he has already displayed in his many films, making a spectacle that will be hard to beat.

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Published October 18, 2004

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