Zhang Yimou, who was born in 1950 in Xian, China, is the most internationally successful Chinese director. He has received many awards for his intensely colourful and highly stylised dramas "Joudou" and "Raise the Red Lantern". Both as a "film-artist" and as a "peasant-film-maker", Zhang Yimou is interested in the fate of the oppressed, especially Chinese women and ordinary people.
Zhang Yimou is the great painter among the directors. His screen works impress through artistic light and colour design, with films such as "Red Sorghum", "Raise the Red Lantern" or "The Way Home" glowing with chromatic intensity. In "Raise the Red Lantern", which was made in 1991, different shades of red tell the story almost more impressively than the plot itself. Initially, the young woman Songlian, portrayed by Zhang´s long-time leading actress and partner, Gong Li, ignores her sumptuous red wedding dress. She enters into marriage independently, wearing a white blouse, black trousers and carrying a suitcase. The family´s poverty leaves her no other option. In the master´s house, Songlian, "the forth wife", learns about old traditions: Wherever the master resides, enormous red lanterns light up the rooms. If he changes his bed, a host of servants put out the lights in order to light them in a rival´s court. After dramatic events, the red colour finally emancipates itself from man´s favour. It becomes the colour of an area, be it a dress whilst singing a Chinese opera, or as the light of madness.
"Raise the Red Lantern" dissects "completely normal" married life in northern China in the twenties. Using calm and ritualised images, the life and everyday events of the privileged wives of one man are presented. They live in a high degree of luxury, yet are completely dependant on the arbitrary will of their master. But the women themselves deny each other any chance of improving their situation through solidarity: They make their lives hell, deceiving each other so that even the softest of them all finally becomes an ice-cold schemer. Rarely has a film on male chauvinism been portrayed so soberly and mercilessly.
Zhang Yimou is one of the few male directors who place women exclusively at the centre of their films. His leading actress – both in "Raise the Red Lantern" and his first seven films – is Gong Li, his long-time partner. "One must not forget," he notes, "that China has a 2000 year-old, highly feudal tradition. Within this tradition, women were at the very lowest level of society and were terribly oppressed. This situation has not yet been entirely overcome. Thus, I prefer women for the lead roles in my films, since one can best expose and attack the mechanisms of oppression in China using the fate of women. With this exposure, I can also release and address emotions."
"Raise the Red Lantern" is a classical tragedy which is structured in a highly artificial way, although such stylisation is never created for its own sake. Zhang Yimou thereby aesthetically reacts to the massacre of supporters of democracy on Tiananmen Square in Beijing. If the static images feel like pictures, they are an expression of the rigid compulsion and unbending order which dominate the protagonist´s life in the film, and Chinese society in real life. Over 1,000 people were executed in China shortly before the film was made. When Gong Li then repeatedly screams "You murderers!" in outrage, it can be seen as a direct reaction to the massacre. The Chinese government understood the message and banned the film from being shown in China.
Just like the leading characters in his films, Zhang has had to fight long and hard to achieve his own self-determination and artistic freedom. Only late, after many years of suppression before and during the Cultural Revolution, was he given the chance to achieve his professional fulfilment as a film director, in a film studio in Xian, by that time being in his mid-thirties. Zhang´s debut as a director, "Red Sorghum", is an enthralling drama which is full of power and revolutionary pathos. It is an expression of Zhang´s love of simple life and rural people, as he himself got to know them during the Cultural Revolution during his exile in the countryside. After the bloody repression of the democratic movement on Beijing´s Tiananmen Square in 1989, Zhang´s films became more pessimistic, placing him constantly at odds with the communist censors.
He was banned from travelling abroad or working, and had to stubbornly negotiated for a chance to shoot further films. His next work, "The Story of Qiuju“ (1992) seems to be a compromise with the communist cultural observers: Although the comedy exposes a small group´s abuse of power and the rulers´ mechanisms of oppression, the film can also be regarded as subtle propaganda: The communists in uniform and higher officials are always presented as benevolent people who selflessly and patiently care for the poor peasant woman Qiuju and her woes. The Beijing cultural officials seem to have been satisfied by this, releasing earlier banned films for viewing after this film was completed.
Zhang Yimou renewed his battle against cultural bureaucracy with his film "Life!" in 1994. In this film, he sketches China´s chaotic history between the forties and seventies, using the fate of a puppeteer as an example. During the civil war, he is forced to joint the Kuomintang troops to fight against the communists. He wanders aimlessly through the battleground until he is captured and begins to work for the communists. After Mao´s accession, he compliantly works together with his wife on various different "revolutionary" programmes – even when his zeal costs him the life of his only son. He mainly escapes the terror of the Cultural Revolution by marrying his daughter to a member of the "Red Guards". "The Chinese have been through so much in their lives, yet still most of them believe that things will improve sooner or later. That is the main theme of the film, whose original title simply means "staying alive". That is what it is about. On the one hand, it is normal, whilst on the other, it is heroic deeds."
"Life!" covers the same ground as "Joudou", "Raise the Red Lantern" and "Shanghai Serenade", namely the loss of individual innocence due to the enormous pressure to conform in a male chauvinist society ruled by violence and money, where the weak are mercilessly exploited by those in power. Using the narrative techniques of parables and allegory, Zhang criticises Chinese culture and society, but also the communist rulers who maintain the inherited rigid, Confucian and feudal structures under a different name.
His two current films, "None Fewer" and "The Way Home" adopt a conciliatory tone and idealise rural life. "The Way Home" feels in part like tourist advertising film for China. Zhang´s preference for beautiful images threatens to undermine the critical message of his films. For example, he attacks poverty and the lack of means in the school system in the Chinese provinces in "None Fewer", but portrays the village in such a warm light, that the dilapidated school building and even a poor widow´s clay hut are portrayed in picturesque beauty. In "The Way Home", he transforms the life and poverty of poor village inhabitants into an idyllic fairy-tale through the use of glowing autumn colours.
"If you visit these remote villages in China´s mountain regions, one can see that the people are not driven by the hectic life of the industrialised world. There really is idyllic countryside which has not yet been marred by civilisation and technology. The people there are relatively independent and follow the rhythm of nature and traditional lifestyles. I was very attracted by that. And I reflected that image, since there were no other idyllic places in my head which I could project onto the landscape." But Zhang admits: "Reality is harder and dirtier."
The transformation of an ambitioned film-artist to a "peasant film-maker" is also explained by Zhang´s rejection of the materialism of Chinese major cities. "I believe that the fate of simple people is not portrayed often enough in Chinese film. I am sure you know the films by directors of the fifth generation. For many years, they almost exclusively produced films with a pleasant appearance, which were highly stylised and contained great depth of meaning. I am now more interested in the simple members of our folk. This is, by the way, a trend which can generally be seen in Chinese cinema at the moment. It is quite natural that this direction should be taken. We did not previously agree upon filming a different kind of film. In the Chinese cities today, people are obsessed with making piles of money. In my opinion, they thereby lose sight of the true values. I wish to revive a feeling for the people, for natural and down to earth values with my films."
Events at the HKW:
The Great Directors of Asia, Africa and Latin America
Dahong Denglong Gaogao Gua / Raise the Red Lantern
Organiser: House of World Cultures
Author: House of World Cultures
Zhang Yimou was born on November 14th, 1951 in the Chinese provinces near the city of Xian. He was at secondary school at the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. The son of a doctor and a former officer in the nationalist Kuomintang army was considered to be politically dubious and was forced to cut short his education, despite the fact that he had helped to destroy his institution. In 1968, he was deported to the countryside for re-education. For three years, he worked on farms in the Shanxi Province. Between 1971 and 1978, he was a labourer in a textile mill, whilst in his spare time, he developed a talent for drawing and photography.
When the Beijing Film Academy reopened after the Cultural Revolution in 1978, Zhang applied for a place. Despite passing the entrance examination with good grades, he was denied entrance since he was already 27 years old – the highest admissible age for entrants being 22. After two unsuccessful attempts at reversing the rejection in Beijing, Zhang wrote directly to the Minister for Culture, stating that he had lost ten years of his youth due to the Cultural Revolution. Two months later, he was told that he was allowed to study Cinematography at the Film Academy.
After his final exams in 1982, Zhang was allocated to the Guangxi film studios as a camera man, and filmed "‘One‘ and ‚Eight‘" (1982, directed by Zhang Junchao), "Yellow Earth" (1983) and "The Big Parade" (1985), both of which were directed by Chen Kaige. Zhang himself had ambitions as a director and managed to be transferred to the film studio in his home town, Xian.
But before his dream came true, he first had to work in front of the camera: as the lead role in "Old Well" (1987, directed by Wu Tianming). He was promptly awarded the Best Actor´s Prize for this role in Tokio. He also made an appearance as an actor in the Hong Kong production "A Terra Cotta Warrior" in 1990.
He finally achieved his aim in 1987: Zhang´s directing debut, "Red Sorghum" won the Golden Bear at the Berlinale in Berlin and made the director instantly famous.
Whilst his second film, "Codename Cougar" (1989) hardly attracted attention in the West, his third film, "Judou" (1990) was nominated for an Oscar in Hollywood for the category "Best Foreign Language Film".
Zhang received numerous prizes for his work in the following years: "Raise the Red Lantern" received the Silver Lion in Venice in 1991 and an Oscar nomination, "The Story of Qiuju" won the Golden Lion in Venice. "Life!" was awarded the Jury´s Grand Prize in Cannes in 1994, whilst "Shanghai Serenade" was awarded the prize for the best technical design in Cannes in 1995.
After filming his eighth film, "Keep Cool" (1996), Zhang turned to directing operas: He directed Puccini´s "Turandot" in Florence in 1997, which was conducted by Zubin Mehta. The following year, Zhang and Mehta also produced the opera in the ´Forbidden City´, Beijing.
Zhang´s next film "None Fewer", was the first production by Columbia Pictures Asian Productions (a Sony Pictures Entertainment subsidiary), and was awarded the prestigious Golden Lion, the main prize of the 1999 film festival in Venice.
Zhang was awarded the Silver Bear in Berlin for "The Way Home" in 2000.
In addition, Zhang also directed advertisements for Marlboro and McDonald’s.