(1951 – present)
Three Key Films: Ju Dou (1990), Raise the Red Lantern (1991), The Story of Qiu Ju (1992)
Underrated: Curse of the Golden Flower (2006). This big-budget extravaganza about court intrigue and political maneuvering in medieval China achieves the perfect balance between the personal focus of Zhang’s favorite theme—a strong woman resisting subordination by an abusive man (manifested here in the main and secondary plots)—and the grand scale of the wuxia (martial arts) film tradition the director has embraced in the last decade. Operatic rather than epic, Curse alternates between sweeping, choral moments and intimate, virtuosic arias, with incandescent performances by Chow Yun-Fat and Gong Li as the emperor and empress.
Unforgettable: Ju Dou (Gongi Li) setting fire to her husband’s dye works and immolating herself at the end of Ju Dou. After suffering at the hands of her sadistic spouse, Ju Dou briefly finds happiness with his kind nephew. But when her son turns against her, she fills with a withering rage that leads her to destroy his inheritance along with herself. In this dazzling scene, Gong conveys Ju Dou’s vengeful, self-destructive determination simply through her facial expression, which remains unchanged as the flames encroach. Zhang, who shot Ju Dou in Technicolor, uses that process’s richly saturated palette to amplify the emotional currents of the story as well as to foreshadow events. The film’s key red color (Zhang’s signature hue) has augured the tragedy to come throughout the film, and at the end fills the frame to mark the triumph of the hate and bitterness that has already consumed the family.
The Legend: Director of the first Chinese film nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (Ju Dou), Zhang Yimou has been instrumental in the development of the modern Chinese film industry and in the growth of an international audience for Chinese film.
Zhang trained as a cinematographer at the Beijing Film Academy, graduating in 1982, with classmates Chen Kaige, Tian Zhuangzhuang, and Zhang Junzhao. Along with other members of what has become known as the Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers, these four learned their craft and began their careers in the period of relaxed governmental control over artistic expression that followed the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976).
With the exception of his wuxia films, Zhang generally opts for simple, economically structured plots that resonate with the surety and fatefulness of a parable: a pregnant wife seeks justice for her husband, who has been injured in a scuffle with the village chief (The Story of Qiu Ju); a young girl drafted as a substitute teacher leaves her village for the city to retrieve a runaway pupil (Not One Less, 1999). It’s rare to find a wasted or extraneous scene in any of his features, and ambiguity and complexity derive from the conflicting motivations of well-drawn characters and the rich visual textures of the mise-en-scène.
While Zhang, like the other Fifth Generation filmmakers, has rejected the realism associated with their predecessors in China, his films render life in whatever era they are set with convincing and compelling detail, from the ritual lighting of the lanterns in front of the house of the wife favored by a visit from the husband in Raise the Red Lantern to the cloth-dying process in Ju Dou.
In his films set in the present day, Zhang represents modern China in rich, documentary detail. Location filming and the use of nonprofessional actors lend vitality and depth to Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (2005) and Not One Less. In The Story of Qiu Ju a shot of men coaxing a goat atop a bus accents the film’s clash of rural and urban life, while in another scene two principal characters converse alongside real couples being interviewed for marriage licenses.
Zhang has acquired some detractors as his influence and prestige—not to mention the budgets of his films—have increased. Some argue that he’s become too cozy with the Chinese government, or that his embrace of international blockbusters like Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004) dilutes his talent.
It seems clear, however, that Zhang operates not just with his own career and legacy in mind, but with an eye to the well-being of Chinese cinema, which he sees endangered by Hollywood’s increasing grip on international audiences. Why can’t China (and the world) watch Chinese blockbusters as well as American ones? Besides, as A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop (2010), Zhang’s clever adaptation of the Coen brother’s Blood Simple shows, he has a few surprises left for audiences in China and abroad. Michael Curtis Nelson