Retrospective Roundtable

The Films of Zhang Yimou

Zhang Yimou holds an impressive place within cinema, one of only a few auteurs to direct films that excel both at the box office and amongst critics. He is perhaps the most-known Chinese filmmaker to Western audiences – you might be familiar with his directing through the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympic Games even if you’ve never seen a film of his – and his films routinely premiere at the major film festivals. Zhang’s early films are known for their political subtext and for the Chinese government’s censorship, and his latest film, the Cultural Revolution-set One Second looks to recall some of these themes and will screen at the Toronto International Film Festival next month. Until then, you can read our thoughts on a number of Zhang’s films below as part of our Retrospective Roundtable.

Ju Dou (1990)

By Eugene Kang

Before becoming a filmmaker, Zhang Yimou had been a farmer and laborer. He had pursued photography part-time until being accepted into the Beijing Film Academy despite being ‘too old’. While he achieved prominence with his first feature Red Sorghum, it would be his 1990 feature Ju Dou where his skills as a filmmaker would start to be widely recognized. 

Though Zhang was over 40 by the time he made it, Ju Dou feels like a young man’s brash and flashy first work. It is a simple narrative about a young man, Tianqing (Li Biaotian), and Ju Dou (Gong Li), the wife of his adoptive uncle Jinshan (Li Wei), and the affair they start because of Jinshan’s abusive behavior towards Ju Dou. The story is like a Greek tragedy in terms of how visceral the betrayal and motivations for revenge are. To match the film’s heightened emotional narrative, Zhang floods the screen with the deepest hues of mostly primary colors, red being a predominant one. He also bathes the film with beautiful natural light, making Gong Li look angelic in some shots or making Jinshan look demonic in others.

If anyone could understand bodies and the abuse they go through from those in power, it would be Zhang and the rest of the Fifth Generation who suffered the worst of the Cultural Revolution. Scenes such as Jinshan’s drowning are as violent as any American movie, though no gunfire or weapons are involved. The passion between Ju Dou and Tianqing is far more intense than the relatively chaste films being produced in China at that time. It was probably for this uncomfortable sensuality that Ju Dou was banned, in addition to its regressive subject material (feudal China far before the Communist Revolution).

Zhang would surpass himself himself with his visuals in works like Raise the Red Lantern and Hero and make sharper political commentaries in The Story of Qiu Ju and To Live but Ju Dou is still a brilliant work where most of Zhang’s deepest concerns and obsessions originated.

Raise the Red Lantern (1991)

By Ian Floodgate

Zhang Yimou’s early films were the subject of condemnation from the Chinese government because they were regarded as critical of the ruling Communist Party. Raise the Red Lantern was one of these films. Banned for a short time in China following its release because the government believed it was a critique of authoritarian rule – though Zhang denies this was his intention – the film follows Songlian (played by Gong Li, her fourth of nine appearances in Zhang’s films), a young woman who has to give up her studies and marry a wealthy lord because her father’s death has left her family penurious.

Songlian’s husband never appears on screen. Instead, the film focuses on her relationships and tensions with his three other wives that came before her. At first, Songlian has difficulty adjusting to her new life and the strict rules of the household, but in time she uses her intellect to gain an advantage over the other wives and the affections of her master. The story is intriguing enough for an audience, and to top it off the film also has striking visuals. Zhang started his career as a cinematographer, yet there isn’t any extravagant camera work in Raise the Red Lantern. Instead, there is excellent use of composition and colour to heighten the story, particularly with red and the lanterns. Zhang has said he focuses a lot on symbolism, and there is a superb display of it here. The red lanterns directly show which wife will spend the night with their husband, but it also subverts the audience into thinking which wife is currently in the position of power. Raise the Red Lantern is an exquisite example of how the film uses its design elements to excellent effect to enhance the story, and this film shows why Zhang is a master at achieving this.

Shanghai Triad (1995)

By Eugene Kang

Shanghai Triad may not be the best known of Zhang’s films, but its relative simplicity of narrative and confident filmmaking make this an essential work. A boy named Shuisheng (Wang Xiaoxiao) is sent to his uncle who works for a Triad boss. Shuisheng is assigned to Jinbao (Gong Li) who is at first cruel and dismissive of him, mainly because she is the boss’ mistress and star singer at his club. When the club is attacked however, he and Jinbao retreat to an island where they befriend a peasant women and her young daughter. 

Shanghai Triad’s story is filtered mainly through Shuisheng’s eyes, which provides a unique angle on what is basically a typical gangster movie. His perspective makes characters seem more mythic and the stakes more terrifying, simply because he is quite powerless. His point of view also provides a lot of insight into Jinbao’s personality. She can be cruel and intimidating, but as he gets to know her, he sees the more humane side of her. If he had been just another adult man, we wouldn’t have learned things about her like how she was a poor girl from the country and how she had truly done her best in the criminal underworld where women had no power. Zhang also makes effective use of landscape, especially with the fog that naturally envelopes the island and serves as a major plot device. This would be Zhang’s last collaboration with Gong Li until Curse of the Golden Flower, but the work that he and Gong did together has to rank high in the best director-actor collaborations of all time.

Hero (2002)

By Alex Sitaras

The years before the Chinese empire were known as the Warring States Period. For approximately two hundred years, these states were at war with each other until the King of Qin conquered the bordering states and unified China under his rule. Hero tells a fictionalized version of an assassination attempt of the King of Qin (Chen Daoming) prior to the unification, starring Jet Li as the nameless assassin.

Nameless arrives at the king’s temple under the presumption he had killed three assassins who were sent to kill the king. His accomplishments allow him to get within ten paces of the king, close enough to deliver his signature attack and take the king’s life. Nameless retells the story of how he killed the assassins, but the king is much too wise to believe Nameless’ folly. The king then presumes how Nameless had coordinated with the assassins to plan to kill him. Hero frames its story with the use of different perspectives, but it’s unlikely the word “Rashomon will cross your mind until you’re well into the film. Each part of the story, told in alternation between Nameless and the king, is vivid in its use of color and wuxia combat. Nameless and the king engage in a discourse of wits as the king reveals his motivations as king and for China as a nation to come.

When Hero was released, it was one of the most expensive Chinese films ever made. Miramax purchased the rights for the film, and Quentin Tarantino championed the film until it was finally released, two years and six delays later. Hero became the first Chinese film to place #1 at the American box office to positive reception, indicating the film’s treatise on peace and unity was more than well-received.

Shadow (2018)

By Alex Sitaras

Shadow tells the story of conflict between two kingdoms. Now at an uneasy peace, the kingdom of Yang and Pei fought over the city of Jingzhou, the Yang kingdom taking hold of the city following a duel between Commander Ziyu (Deng Chao) and Yang Cang (Hu Jun). Ziyu was scarred from the fight, but his resolve and obsession with victory and revenge resulted in him retreating into exile and training a protege, Jingzhou (Chao), to be his “shadow” and appear as Ziyu to re-engage in conflict with Yang Cang and win a duel.

When the King of Pei, King Peiliang (Zheng Kai), is informed that Jingzhou stirs conflict with Yang Cang, he is enraged and strips Jingzhou of his military ranks. The king is an interesting character to say the least – he is of utmost cowardice and accepts Yang Cang’s counteroffer to take Peiliang’s sister as a concubine for his son, Yang Ping (Leo Wu), after Peiliang offers to Yang Ping her hand in marriage as a peace offering. We typically don’t see kings be such cowardly, small characters.

Jingzhou’s duel with Yang Cang becomes more than just a duel – it becomes a diversion for Pei fighters to take back the city of Jingzhou. Shadow features creative fight sequences involving bladed umbrellas, and Zhang shoots the film in color, yet adorns his set and costumes with monochrome black and white. The effect is one that draws out the contrast between light and dark, and also makes the color that does appear within the film all the more emphatic.

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