Gong Li, in a scene from the film Red Sorghum, Zhang Yimou’s first film to become a major hit. Zhang Yimou filmed it at Xi’an Studio. PHOTO COURTESY OF JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.
Zhang Yimou is one of China’s most celebrated and commercially successful film directors. His martial arts blockbusters since 2002 contrast with films from the early part of his career that focused on China’s tumultuous history. An acclaimed stage director, Zhang has directed operas, ballets, folk musicals, and the spectacular opening ceremonies to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
Born in Xi’an on November 14, 1951, Zhang Yimou has been one of China’s most celebrated and commercially successful filmmakers since the 1980s. Zhang graduated from the Beijing Film Academy in 1978 and was assigned to work as a cinematographer in the Guangxi Film Studio in 1982. Founded in 1958 and located in the southwestern city of Nanning, this studio is one of the major state-owned film and television studios in China. Zhang served as the cinematographer for Yellow Earth (1984), which was directed by classmate Chen Kaige. The film’s stark shots, sparse dialogue, and politically ambiguous message marked a radical change from the revolutionary themes and socialist realist style of films made during the Maoist era (1949–1976).
His directorial debut Red Sorghum (1987) received notable international acclaim for its rich imagery and powerful narrative about a rural winery’s opposition to the Japanese occupation of northeast China. Ju Dou (1990) and Raise the Red Lantern (1991) provide an oblique critique on contemporary society by adopting the theme of traditional society’s oppression of women.
To Live (1994) reminds audiences of the tumult of China’s twentieth history while affirming the universal theme of the struggle to survive and maintain dignity despite hardship and tragedy. Zhang’s new cinematic language combined with social and historical critique launched his international stardom and established Zhang as one of the key representatives of the fifth generation of filmmakers in China.
Between 1992 and 2000 Zhang experimented with a range of cinematic styles, especially neo-realism. Whereas his earlier films featured stories from China’s past, The Story of Qiu Ju (1992), The Road Home (1999), and Not One Less (2000) are set in recent China and address contemporary social issues such as legal rights, universal education, and family values. The latter two films represent a shift away from a critique of China to a call for audiences to assist in China’s social development. These films moved Zhang closer to the government and shaped the trajectory of his future career.
Following on the heels of the success of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Zhang sought to create a Chinese blockbuster and capture global box office receipts by appealing to the international audience’s interest in an exotic, mythical China and the Chinese audience’s taste for historical costume dramas and martial arts. Hero (2002) is an action-packed and visually mesmerizing film about a failed assassination attempt on China’s first emperor. House of Flying Daggers (2003) and Curse of the Golden Flower (2007) feature increased budgets and star-studded casts, and despite their unconvincing plots, achieved success at the box office.
The spectacle of Zhang’s films are also presented on stage as ballets, operas, theatre, and pageantry. Zhang directed Puccini’s opera Turandot in Italy (1997) and in an historically unprecedented performance in Beijing’s Forbidden City (1998), he adapted Raise the Red Lantern into a ballet (2001), and directed The First Emperor at the Metropolitan Opera in New York (premiered in 2007). He has also directed the outdoor folk music spectaculars Third Sister Liu (since 2003) in southwestern China and Impression Lijiang in scenic Yunnan Province (since 2006).
After having directed the 2001 short film to promote Beijing’s Olympic bid and China’s eight-minute performance at the closing ceremonies of the 2004 summer Olympics in Athens, Zhang was selected to direct the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. The nearly four-hour show, described by many as dazzling, was held in the Bird’s Nest, China’s newly built and iconic national stadium. It was attended by an unprecedented eighty world leaders and viewed by 1 billion people on television. The spectacular show included a display of 35,000 fireworks, designed by acclaimed artist Cai Guo-qiang, and 15,000 performers of acrobatics, martial arts, and a variety of musical performances, including the countdown performed by 2,008 drummers. The magnificent performance represented China’s global prominence and symbolically displayed the Chinese government’s emphasis upon solidarity, harmony, and technological progress.
Source: Noble, Jonathan. (2009). ZHANG Yimou. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2619–2620. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.
A scene from the film Red Sorghum, by Zhang Yimou. PHOTO COURTESY OF JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.
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