I'm not sure
if we can call Zhang Yimou a great filmmaker, but in the '80s and
'90s he was certainly a force to be reckoned with. For director
Chen Kaige he shot "Huang tu di" (Yellow Earth, 1984), a film that
announced to the world the presence of the "Fifth Generation" of
mainland Chinese filmmakers; three years later, with "Hong gao liang"
(Red Sorghum), "Ju Dou" (1990), and "Da hong deng long gao gao gua"
(Raise the Red Lantern, 1991) Zhang helped establish the house style
of the Fifth Generation--at once old-fashioned in its embrace of
melodrama ("Ju Dou" owes a plot twist or two to "The Postman Always
Rings Twice") yet new in its utter lack of cynicism (the unabashedly
romantic flavor of "Hong gao liang's" love scene); voluptuous in
its use of colors, shapes, textures (the dyed cloth in "Ju Dou"
filling the screen with ribbons of fluttering scarlet, purple, gold)
yet somehow austere in intent and ultimate impact (repeated shots
of the compound's imposing rectangular floor plan in "Da hong deng"
emphasizing the heroine's imprisonment).
The 1999 "Yi ge dou bu neng shao" (Not One Less) subordinated that
gorgeous visual style to the story of a young teacher struggling
to keep her class of poor student peasants together. The result,
I thought, was a film more persuasively moving (thanks to its countryside
grit and simplicity) than any of his earlier efforts.
ever since, sometimes in interesting ways: "Wo de fu qin mu qin
" (The Road Home, 1999) is a romance told in flashbacks, as the
lovers' son arrives from the big city to bury his just-died father
(I liked it well enough, save that the mother seemed a tad too self-indulgent);
"Xingfu shiguang" (Happy Times, 2001) felt like a reworking of Charlie
Chaplin's "City Life" (blind girl given the illusion of a better
life by an equally poor benefactor) and suffers in comparison (you
also couldn't help but feel sexually predatory overtones--all these
middle-aged men, surrounding a helpless blind girl--in what Zhang
strenuously tries to present as an innocuous situation).
(Hero, 2002) represents a third stage in Zhang's career, the Chinese
martial-arts extravaganza set in the country's distant past, where
Zhang's often provocative political subtext can be tucked safely
away inside an entertaining metaphor. Chris Doyle was the cinematographer
and I'm only guessing here, but he apparently took inspiration from
an idea Vittorio Storaro tried to work into Warren Beatty's comic-book
epic "Dick Tracy" (1990) but failed; Doyle's primary colors aren't
there just to make some visual statement, but suggest the emotional
tone and philosophical nature of the various points of view making
up the film's "Rashomon"-like story. Zhang's follow-up film "Shi
mian mai fu" (House of Flying Daggers, 2004) was less impressive,
partly because Doyle had been replaced by Zhao Xiaoding (who also
does the cinematography of this, his latest), partly because melodrama
swamps the already overripe film.
jin dai huang jin jia" (Curse of the Golden Flower, 2006) takes
this trend of melodrama and extravagant production design and pushes
it to the nth power. With Zhao's help, Zhang fashions a--well, it's
hard to say just what: think "Blade Runner" set in the Tang Dynasty,
or the Chernobyl nuclear power plant suffering its meltdown inside
a Chinese restaurant. The décor doesn't just have a poisonously
radioactive glow; there's also a delirious tackiness that dares
you to respond with something sarcastic (my favorite speculates
that set designer Huo Tingxiao must have been "channeling Liberace").
The costumes reflect the outrageousness of the sets--gold silk by
the dozen square miles, push-up bras by the thousands, more scimitar-length
intricately carved and painted nail extensions than might be found
in Wolverine's manicure kit. Sets and costumes are a mishmash of
styles--the Forbidden City, a prominent setting for much of the
action, wasn't built until the Ming Dynasty, some five hundred years
later; some of the palace's defenses--a huge tanklike wall made
up of spears and shields--seem cribbed off of, I don't know, either
D.W. Griffith's "Intolerance," Anthony Mann's "The Fall of the Roman
Empire," even Terry Gilliam's "Brazil."
than the production design is the chosen source for the film's screenplay--"Thunderstorm"
(1933), the single most famous drama by legendary playwright Cao
Yu (real name Wan Jiabao), done when he was only twenty-three years
old. Zhang had gotten in trouble several times before, particularly
for "Ju Dou" and " Da hong deng," which were seen as allegories
on the authoritarian nature of the Chinese government; in his recent
work it's possible to see a reluctance to engage in direct criticism.
"Shi mian mai fu," for example, may feature a secret band of knife-throwing
rebels, but the focus is more on their derring-do and love lives
than on any particularly despotic government activity. "Ying xiong"
on the surface reads as wholehearted endorsement of the government's
history of repression (the end--national unity--justifies the means).
"Man cheng jin dai huang jin jia," in channeling Cao Yu (who had
openly condemned the communists), is more overt: the corrupt emperor
(Chow Yun-fat) is secretly punishing his wife (Gong Li) for sleeping
with her stepson (Liu Ye)--perversely, by feeding her poisoned medicine
that he insists is crucial for her health; his wife in turn plots
revenge via a deadly coup attempt.
An outré detail, the sort of vicious slander Jonathan Swift
liked to heap upon particularly despised enemies: the emperor suffers
from what appears to be a spectacular case of hemorrhoids--his treatment
involves huddling in gargantuan throne that doubles as an elaborately
herbed and medicated steam bath.
(left) and Gong Li.
to know how to take the film--are we asked to swoon to the passions
on display, or laugh at the camp presentation? The sets, costumes,
plot twists, even acting style go so thoroughly over-the-top that
when one particularly grotesque revelation is made between two lovers
you're not so much shocked as shockingly amused by their reactions--eyes
wide, jaws dropped, libido unmistakably doused.
emperor--I've heard him called miscast, but I'd rather say he's
a villain in the classic Hitchcock mode, gracious and gallant and
courteous to a fault. His ruthless response to his beloved's fledgling
coup attempt inspires Zhang to evoke images from the 1989 Tiananmen
Square massacre; more, Zhang follows this up with a brilliant bit
of satire involving thousands of chrysanthemums moving in clockwork
precision, the sequence ending with a truly shocking image: all
the surviving combatants sitting down to a celebratory family dinner.
For a few breathtaking moments Zhang's effrontery cuts through all
the brocaded silk, heaving bosoms, overilluminated screens; for
a few moments the film is truly worth seeing.
was a huge hit; "Shi mian mai fu" did respectable business; this
picture--despite the large budget, terrible notices, and unspectacular
boxoffice--will probably make its money back. From controversial
arthouse filmmaker Zhang has evolved into a recognizable international
figure with a celebrity status similar if not equal to John Woo
or Ang Lee--only Zhang seems committed to making Chinese films,
using mostly Chinese talent and production facilities financed largely
by Chinese money, and he seems to want to say something beneath
all that hoopla.
I'm not exactly happy with what Zhang's become (I thought his "Yi
ge dou bu neng shao" was his finest work to date), but considering
his competition--I hear James Cameron of "Titanic" fame is planning
yet another 200 million dollar bonfire of the vanities--frankly,
I'd rather root for the Fifth Generation veteran making hash of
his culture, slipping subversive subtexts past government censors,
overall showing Hollywood that there's an alternative to their flavorless
First published in Businessworld, 02/09/07.
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