The 100 Essential Directors Part 10: Josef Von Sternberg to Zhang Yimou

The final day of directors is here, Josef Von Sternberg through Zhang Yimou. German Expressionism, Dogme 95, contemporary views of Asian life, post-World War II malaise in Eastern Europe, and the alternately heartwarming and queer takes on everyday life in Baltimore all hold a space on today’s list. Did we forget your favorite director on this list?

 

Josef Von Sternberg
(1894 – 1969)

Three Key Films: The Last Command (1928), The Blue Angel (1930), Shanghai Express (1932)

Underrated: Though it may seem conventionally plotted, The Docks of New York (1928) offers one of the purest examples of Von Sternberg’s penchant for visual flair. It’s a film in which every location comes alive, oozing with atmosphere. Von Sternberg uses fog, shadows, and light in dynamic combinations to create a visual feast. His last silent film, The Docks of New York is one of the essential examples of how visually poetic silent movies could be.

Unforgettable: Marlene Dietrich’s “Hot Voodoo” number in Blonde Venus (1932). It’s hard to pick the most sultry Marlene Dietrich number, but Von Sternberg’s direction of “Hot Voodoo” is hard to argue with. Both sexually and racially suggestive, the pounding island beats give way to Dietrich emerging from a gorilla suit on a nightclub stage as Cary Grant looks on in delight. It’s a moment that is not as visually arresting as much of Von Sternberg’s work, but unforgettable for sure.

The Legend: If, as Vittorio Storaro described it, cinematography is writing in light, Josef Von Sternberg’s films offer a master class. Though heavily influenced by German Expressionism and chiaroscuro, Von Sternberg often transcended his contemporaries in terms of shear visual style. Von Sternberg’s visual lushness is most prominently in service of mood; all of his films are atmospheric, using mist, fog, and light to set the tone for his films.

Though born in Vienna in 1894, Von Sternberg lived most of his childhood in the New York City and New Jersey areas and broke into the film industry with his first feature, The Salvation Hunters (1925). His other three remaining silent films were hugely influential: Underworld (1927) is often credited with sparking the Hollywood gangster genre while The Last Command and The Docks of New York are the some of the purest examples of Von Sternberg’s visual style that would, along with German Expressionists, pave the path for film noir.

As Von Sternberg transitioned into sound films, he began one of the most storied director-actor collaborations. Starting with The Blue Angel (1930) and ending with The Devil is a Woman (1935), Von Sternberg would make seven films with Marlene Dietrich, and made Dietrich an international star. Von Sternberg’s earlier sound films were extremely popular due to their exotic locations and the illustriousness of Dietrich. Though often light in plot, his visual wizardry make the films the classics they are considered today. Von Sternberg’s influence on film noir lies not only his visual flair, but also his cynical male leads: portrayed by actors ranging from Gary Cooper to Cary Grant. Many consider the attitude of these characters to be an expression of Von Sternberg’s own cynicism.

Von Sternberg would be nominated for Best Director at the Oscars twice, for Shanghai Express and Morocco (1930), though he won neither. Despite the decline in the quality and popularity of his films after his final collaboration with Dietrich, his prolific decade long period encompassing his silent films and Dietrich work are enough to make him one of the all time greats. Joshua Jezioro

 

 

 

Lars von Trier

Lars von Trier
(1956 – present)

Three Key Films: Breaking the Waves (1996), Dancer in the Dark (2000), Dogville (2004)

Underrated: The Idiots (1998) Perhaps the most outwardly provocative von Trier feature, The Idiots reveals much about the director at odds with himself and his mission. Von Trier’s onscreen surrogate Stoffer (Jens Albinus) struggles to keep his troupe of “Idiots” together in their revolutionary mission, all the while feeling the pull of self-doubt and eventually, comically, succumbing to the realization that we are all of us players in a more or less predictable human drama.

Unforgettable: Breaking the Waves‘ Bess prays for her new husband Jan to return home from his job on an oil rig. Bess’s Calvinist church community has already been introduced as cold and unforgiving, so she takes her plight directly to God. In her Academy Award-nominated screen debut, Emily Watson speaks both the voice of Bess and the voice of God, sternly responding to the young woman’s wishes and hinting that the bargain they strike might not lead to the pleasure Bess seeks. Von Trier fills the handheld frame with his actress’s pleading face, and Watson sets the stage for the other “golden-hearted” female protagonists who appear in von Trier’s films into the next decade.

The Legend: Born Lars Trier in Kgs. Lyngby, Denmark in 1956, the man we call Lars von Trier acquired the “von” while attending the National Film School of Denmark. Placing the young filmmaker in the lineage of von Sternberg and von Stroheim, this sort of affectation is standard for von Trier, a natural-born provocateur whose antics inspire both adulation and derision.

At present, von Trier is a difficult figure to defend. His preposterous performance at the Cannes press conference for Melancholia (2011) resulted in sound bites about forgoing his Jewish roots, sympathizing with Hitler, and being a Nazi. To say these things is at best the product of exceedingly poor judgment and at worst an admission of a disturbed ideology. Yet, given his past penchant for ridiculous statements at Cannes (including calling jury chair Roman Polanski a “midget” and proclaiming “I am the best film director in the world”), it’s no shock that von Trier would try to up the ante and risk a backfire at the moment of great potential success.

For better or worse, this is the same conflicted spirit that drives his ever-changing artistic output. His Europe trilogy (1984-1991) was the product of intense cinematic formalism. With The Kingdom (1994,1997), he provided a Twin Peaks-jolt to Danish television, and his Golden Heart Trilogy of Breaking the Waves, The Idiots, and Dancer in the Dark (2000) produced some of the most affecting performances by women in recent years.

More than any single statement or manifesto within his storied career, it is von Trier’s conception of Dogme 95 and its anti-aesthetic that briefly energized international independent film production and refocused the attention of the film world on Scandinavian cinema. Mette Hjort’s Purity and Provocation, one of the better publications on the subject of Dogme 95, provides a context for discussing and understanding the creation and the content of von Trier’s work. By putting cinema in a rigid “uniform”, von Trier and his associates aimed to lose not only the influence of polished narrative cinema, but to purposefully lose control of the process entirely. Of course, once the anarchic Dogme ran its course, von Trier turned his back on it, as well.

Von Trier’s constant molting could be even better described as purity through provocation, taking each impulse to the limit as a means of exorcising personal and artistic crises. The Five Obstructions (2003), co-directed with Jørgen Leth, cannily documents the very method of being tormented towards a breakthrough. Though most von Trier films don’t literally examine this dynamic relationship, they do share a search for deliverance that immerses the viewer in the difficult circumstances of the characters’ lives: The loss of Karen’s young son in The Idiots, Selma’s blindness and imprisonment in Dancer in the Dark, Grace’s forced labor and rape in Dogville (2003), and the multiple mutilations of Antichrist (2009).

Though von Trier usually leaves some room for salvation, never more powerfully so than in Breaking the Waves: Bess goes through hell on earth, but she ascends to the sound of heavenly church bells. In the wake of his most recent Cannes scandal, von Trier has told reporters that he’s “an idiot that should just stay home in Denmark and never talk to anybody.” That self-prescription might not prove to be his salvation, but it should provide some temporary relief until the next press conference inevitably comes around. Thomas Britt

 

 

 

Wong Kar Wai

Wong Kar Wai
(1958 – present)

Three Key Films: Fallen Angels (1995), In the Mood for Love (2000), 2046 (2004)

Underrated: Days of Being Wild (1990) — Despite its thematic and stylistic ties to later smash hits In the Mood For Love and 2046, and the acclaim it won on its initial release during the 1991 Hong Kong Film Awards, this early artistic success has unfortunately fallen by the wayside in favor of the director’s later works. It is truly a shame, because it actually is one of the director’s more beautiful, nostalgic works. Although the theme of memory is obviously a prevalent one in all of Kar-Wai’s films, in this particular one it manifests itself in one of the most effective appearances in the director’s career in the repeated use of Xavier Cugat’s “Perfida”.

Unforgettable: Faye Wong, despite somewhat lacking acting experience, gained great acclaim for her singular performance in Chungking Express as a restaurant worker in love with Cop 633 (Tony Leung). In one incredible sequence, she hands him a letter written to him by his ex-lover. Rather than read it, he decides to sip his coffee just recently served to him. Time seems to stand still, as people rush by in fast-motion while he ever-so-slowly raises his cup to his mouth. Faye leans over the counter, looking the epitomized face of expectation. And we as an audience are thunderstruck by the sheer combination of form and content, the emotions being deepened and furthered by the stylistic techniques.

The Legend: Wong Kar-Wai paid his dues for the first ten years of his career, for the most part restricting his work to writing scripts for television and the films of other directors working for the Hong Kong film industry. His 1988 directorial debut, As Tears Go By, was a perfectly serviceable gangland epic where the beginnings of his nostalgic cinematic style could be glimpsed. But it wasn’t until his follow-up work Days of Being Wild that his true voice was heard. His later films Chungking Express, Fallen Angels, and In the Mood for Love indeed led to something resembling international success.

So why is he an “Essential Director?” Only because his films exist as the perfect realization of a directorial vision. Musical montages and poetic voice-over sequences makes it clear that what we are watching is in fact a manipulated version of reality, put through the filter of memory. However, rather than being misleading and manipulative in themselves, they push audiences to understand the true pathos and romance of the various misfits, cops, night-owls, and spouses that populate the world of Wong Kar-Wai. The unrequited love of a restaurant worker; the troubled romance of a gay couple in South America; the unimportant, ignored people — the lonely housewives, the cops working the quiet beat.

Wong Kar-Wai also has partially made a name for himself due to the sterling talents he has surrounded himself with his entire career. The best of Hong Kong and China’s acting pools, including such names as Tony Leung, Gong Li, and Maggie Cheung; along with long-time collaborating cinematographer Christopher Doyle — who has also worked with such stalwarts as Jim Jarmusch and Gus Van Sant — all acquit themselves more than adequately. Every one of his Hong Kong-based films are beautifully acted and shot (the less said about American production My Blueberry Nights the better). But at the core is an idea. Something about memory. Something sprung purely from the mind of Wong Kar-Wai, the master of the cinematic lonely streets of Hong Kong. Mark Schiffer

 

 

 

Andrzej Wajda

Andrzej Wajda
(1926 – present)

Three Key Films: Kanal (1956), Ashes and Diamonds (1958), Man of Marble (1976)

Underrated: Everything for Sale (1968) “Today you’re in despair. Tomorrow you’ll be thinking it’ll make a great film…” Inspired by the death of Zbigniew Cybulski, acting icon and star of Ashes and Diamonds, Everything for Sale is Wajda’s (1963), a dazzling reflection upon the relationship between art and life, in which a film crew (led by a director called, yes, Andrzej) must deal with the death of its leading man in an accident. A fascinating experience in its own right, Everything for Sale is also an interesting companion piece to Wajda’s most recent film, Sweet Rush (2009), a collaboration with Krystyna Janda, that is another astute and poignant meditation upon loss and the filmmaker’s art.

Unforgettable: In Ashes and Diamonds, the increasingly reluctant assassin Maciej finally fulfills his remit to kill Comrade Szczuka, shooting him at point-blank range in the street. The dying man staggers forward and Maciej finds himself holding his victim in his arms. In a final expressionist flourish, fireworks from a party light the night-time sky behind the pair, locked in their strange, momentary embrace.

The Legend: More consistently than any other Polish filmmaker, Andrzej Wajda has dedicated himself to presenting the social, cultural and political life of his country on screen. Born in Suwalki, north-east Poland, Wajda was 13 years old when Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union invaded and partioned the country, an experience that would have an indelible effect on his psyche, and, ultimately, his cinema. His father, a cavalry officer, was among the thousands murdered by the Soviets in the Katyn massacre of 1940, an atrocity that Wajda would finally address in Katyn (2007), the Oscar-nominated film that became a cultural phenomenon in Poland. After the war, Wajda studied painting at the Cracow Academy of Fine Arts, a discipline that is evidenced in the profusion of memorable single-shot images in his films. However, the solitary act of painting failed to satisfy his artistic temperament, and he subsequently trained at the famous Lodz Film School, making an immediate impact in 1955 with his feature debut A Generation, a portrait of a teenage anti-German resistance group, that provided the foundations for the nascent “Polish School” of cinema. “With this film Polish cinema began,” commented Roman Polanski, who acted in the film.

Wajda’s following film Kanal, a vivid, intense depiction of the last days of the 1944 Warsaw uprising, won the Cannes Special Jury Prize, catapulting Wajda to international fame. The director’s position was consolidated by the release of Ashes and Diamonds, which starred the iconic Zbigniew Cybulski (dubbed Poland’s James Dean) as a resistance fighter assigned to kill a Polish Worker’s Party official. The film is still regarded as Wajda’s masterpiece.

As Janina Falkowska has argued, “in his films Wajda presents human dilemmas within a complex historical and social reality… An individual is shown as either trying to oppose the historical reality or as annihilated by it.” Consistently concerned with the excavation of the past to uncover long-buried truths, Wajda has explored Polish experience in numerous films, including the classic, Citizen Kane-inspired Man of Marble and its sequel, Man of Iron (1981), which explore political activism in the country from the Stalinist era to the Gdansk shipyard strike. In addition, he has turned his hand to lavish literary adaptations, including The Promised Land, based on Stanislaw Reymont’s novel about industrial development in Lodz, and the less successful Pan Tadeusz (1999), an adaptation of Adam Mickiewicz’s epic poem.

Wajda has seldom worked outside Poland, although in the martial law era he directed the French-produced Danton (1983), a film interpreted by many as an allegory of the Lech Walesa/Wojeiech Jaruzelski conflict of the time. These epic films, however, have been balanced by other, smaller-scaled, more idiosyncratic and self-reflexive projects, including Everything for Sale, The Conductor (1980), featuring John Gielgud, and the recent Sweet Rush, an intimate collaboration with his iconic actress, Krystyna Janda. Ultimately, though, it is the political commitment of Wajda’s cinema — its ability to turn the complexities of Polish history into compelling human drama — that will be the director’s enduring legacy. Alex Ramon

 

 

 

 

John Waters

John Waters
(1946 – present)

Three Key Films: Pink Flamingos (1972), Polyester (1983), Hairspray (1988)

Underrated: The third and final film in Waters’ “Trash Trilogy” (the other two being Pink Flamingos and 1974’s Female Trouble), Desperate Living (1977) is notable for two reasons: it rivals the outrageousness of Pink Flamingos and marks Waters’ first time working with a formerly scandalous lady, Mobster Mickey Cohen’s moll Liz Renay (he would later provide roles for two other infamous women, Patty Hearst and Traci Lords). This is Waters’ second most successful attempt at making the viewer feel like they are watching a dress-up play date populated by freaks and social misfits, with tastelessness substituting for coherency. Whether one enjoys torture, unconventional sex scenes, and sex change operations and reversals, it’s hard to get Desperate Living out of your mind; Waters’ signature sense of humor being in particularly strong form helps a lot too.

Unforgettable: Most people who know the name “John Waters” have at least heard of the scene from Pink Flamingos that marked him as a Trash God. Since its notoriety is almost unmatched, let’s provide the slightest of details here — it involves drag queen Divine and something that came out of a dog. That it works as somewhat of an epilogue to the film gives it the feel of Waters saying, “You know what? This movie — with its sex with chickens, cannibalism, and incest — still isn’t tasteless enough. What will really get people talking?” It did, and they still are.

The Legend: If one’s sole knowledge of Baltimore, Maryland were gleaned from television show The Wire and John Waters’ films, that person would be right in thinking of Baltimore as a broken and deranged place. While the former provides a much more serious look at a city than the latter, it can be argued that both have given exposure and granted humanity to those on the fringes. Few things are more heartening than the fact that Waters managed to foist a plus-sized drag queen upon the mainstream, as he did so successfully with Divine. That Waters is such a strong advocate for gay rights and in opposition of censorship proves there is more to him than shock value and an affinity for kitsch.

During his childhood in a Baltimore suburb, Waters became so entranced with puppets that he staged horrific versions of Punch and Judy at the birthday parties of friends. The young Waters also spent plenty of time watching drive-in films via binoculars, and these — as well as Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman — had the greatest influence on his own filmmaking.

After dabbling in short films throughout the ’60s, Waters ended the decade with Mondo Trasho (1969), his first feature. In 1972, Waters made his first big splash with the now legendary Pink Flamingos and directed a number of other trash epics before edging closer to the mainstream with 1981’s Polyester (his first film to receive an R, rather than X, rating) before going full-throttle with Hairspray in 1988. The film made history as Waters’ first and only to be rated PG, and also became his most successful and well-received feature overall.

Following Hairspray, Waters’ films attracted big names such as Johnny Depp (1990’s Cry-Baby), Kathleen Turner (1994’s Serial Mom), and Melanie Griffith (2000’s Cecil B. Demented), but still kept their Baltimore roots and featured the odd Dreamlander, the name Waters gave to his cache of regular players (among them, Mink Stole and Mary Vivian Pearce, who have appeared in every Waters film). While not always successful, Waters has never released a film that has failed to dignify his Baltimore roots. Of his beloved city, Waters has said, “You can look far and wide, but you’ll never discover a stranger city with such extreme style. It’s as if every eccentric in the South decided to move north, ran out of gas in Baltimore, and decided to stay.” Somehow, John Waters has made us feel privileged to be in the company of such eccentrics. Maria Schurr

 

 

 

 

Orson Welles

Orson Welles
(1915 – 1985)

Three Key Films: Citizen Kane (1941), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Chimes at Midnight (1965)

Underrated: The Trial (1962) Welles’s version of Kafka is perhaps as visually arresting of a film as he ever produced. You can hear reverberations of its loopy surrealism and alternatingly wacky and piercing paranoia in some of David Lynch’s best work and in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. Welles was fearless in adapting literary masters, and his take on The Trial is nimble, wicked, and ultimately, suffocating. It stands as a prime example of film touching on the wild drama of nightmares.

Unforgettable: In This is Orson Welles, Welles tells Peter Bogdanovich, “I don’t want to be remembered for ‘great shots’.” Still, each of his films is full of them. Picking one is impossible and any Welles fan will have their favorite. Tracking shots from Touch of Evil and The Magnificent Ambersons are now legendary and Citizen Kane could fill a semester of ‘Introduction to Film’ on its own. Chimes at Midnight, meanwhile, contains some of the most emotionally stirring battle sequences ever filmed. I’ll take one of the final scenes from Othello when Welles in the title role, his face enclosed in shadows, takes in the enormity of his downfall and then collapses to the ground with the body of Desdemona. Throughout, the camera lingers on Welles, and then cuts quickly away. The whole sequence stops time cold in its tracks.

The Legend: Unlike anyone else on this list, Orson Welles may be least remembered by the general public for his work as a director. His work on radio, especially 1938’s landmark War of the Worlds broadcast, is perhaps better known, and he also acted in dozens of films (many of which he also did un-credited directing and writing work on). Some may only know him as the pitchman for Paul Masson wine.

Popular knowledge has it that Welles peaked in his mid-20s with Citizen Kane, creating a work widely ranked as the greatest movie of all time on his first try, and then floundering through the remainder of his career trying to live up to it. Even the true extent of his contribution to that film is endlessly debated. But, if you buy into the myth, you’ll miss films that took incredibly innovative film technique and put it to the service of digging into all of the tragedy and ridiculousness that’s part of the human condition.

Citizen Kane is required viewing for anyone with even a passing interest in movies and movie history and 70 years has done nothing to diminish its wonder. Welles and his team used every trick in their bag to create a massive work that was almost destroyed before it could be released due to lawsuits from William Randolph Hearst. The film lost money and began Welles’s contentious relationship with Hollywood, resulting in his films being edited and changed mercilessly without his permission.

Working outside of Hollywood he became a prototype for future indie-filmmakers, but struggled endlessly to fund his work. A now iconic scene from Othello, the attempted murder of Cassio, was filmed in a Turkish bath; a decision made at the last minute when the costumes for the originally planned scene never arrived. Touch of Evil (1958) and Othello (1952) both saw re-release in the ’90s after large-scale restoration projects, while Mr. Arkadin (1955) is available in multiple cuts. The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), as it exists, is every bit as wonderful of a work as Citizen Kane, but the extensive footage cut before its release, without Welles’s permission, is believed lost. Other projects, like The Other Side of the Wind, Don Quixote, and It’s All True, remain in varying states of completion.

A street corner trickster with impeccable taste and unparalleled skill, Welles may be the least condescending, least prone to preciousness, film genius ever. “The film director must always remain a slightly ambiguous figure, after all,” Welles has said, “because so much of what he signs his name to came from elsewhere, so many of his best things are merely accidents over which he presides. Or the good fortune he receives. Or the grace.” Welles overcame filmmaking obstacles that would have buried most directors, and through F For Fake (1974), his final film to be completed during his life, he never lost his touch for bending and expanding the limits of the medium to fit his massive vision. Jon Langmead

 

 

 

Wim Wenders

Billy Wilder

William Wyler

William Wyler
(1902 – 1981)

Three Key Films: The Little Foxes (1941), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Roman Holiday (1953)

Underrated: The Collector (1965) This film has been largely forgotten by audiences used to the depravities portrayed on TV crime shows and who view the terror of The Collector as mild. For its time, it offered a rare insight into the mind of a psychopath, while providing a tense psychological war between geeky Frederick Clegg (Terence Stamp) and his kidnap victim Miranda (Samantha Eggar).

Unforgettable: Many would list the chariot race in Ben-Hur (1959) as Wyler’s greatest scene. Yet, it is in the more subtle scenes of Mrs. Miniver that Wyler’s brilliance is most evident. Huddled together in the dim light of their bomb shelter, Mr. and Mrs. Miniver (Walter Pidgeon, Greer Garson) try to lift their children’s spirits as they listen to German bombs destroy the English countryside. The scene presents the contrasts between wartime and normalcy, as well as adult knowledge versus childhood innocence.

The Legend: It is easy to overlook Wyler as one of film’s great directors, as he has no clear overriding vision or directorial style. Nor did he favor a particular genre of film — epics, musicals, romantic comedies, war dramas, thrillers, Westerns, crime stories, and character studies all got the Wyler touch. Scorsese’s films are “gritty”, Bergman’s are intellectual, but Wyler’s are seemingly all over the place. Yet, it is because he has ventured into such an array of styles, delivering dozens of good to classic films, that his contributions to film are note-worthy. He demonstrated that a director with an appreciation for good story-telling could venture into any genre of film. Such versatility allowed Wyler to receive a record 12 Oscar nominations for Best Director (he won three).

Nonetheless, Wyler’s movies carry a dominant theme: the growth of the lead(s) by overcoming challenges and facing personal shortcomings. In his first feature, Lazy Lightning (1926), idle cowboy Lance (Art Acord) is forced into manhood when someone he cares for is stricken with a fatal disease, a heavy storyline for a silent Western. Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland) in The Heiress (1949), Ben Hur (Charlton Heston), Funny Girl‘s Fanny Brice (1968, Barbra Streisand), and Jezebel (1938, Bette Davis) are just a sampling of the characters who get their ideal worlds shaken and emerge stronger for the experience.

It wasn’t just characters who got their worlds shaken; the actors portraying them were often rattled by Wyler’s insistence on perfection, which earned him the nickname “90-take Wyler”. Wyler subjected cast and crew to dozens of retakes of scenes, providing little insight into what he was looking for beyond “Do it better.” They did, and countless actors credit Wyler with pulling from them their greatest performances. Still, he felt there was one film that he didn’t get “right”, These Three (1936), which didn’t feature the lesbian theme of the play it was based on due to censor interference, so he remade the film 25 years later under its original title, The Children’s Hour. It was the biggest retake of his career, indicative of the perfectionist he was. Michael Abernethy

 

 

 

Zhang Yimou

Zhang Yimou
(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

 

 

 

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