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Zhang Yimou: The Famed Director’s Complicated Relationship with Censors and Cinema

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Zhang Yimou has been one of China’s pre-eminent directors for twenty-plus years. The release in 1986 of Red Sorghum, his first film as a director, catapulted the auteur to fame. Now considered a classic of Chinese cinema, the movie also marked the film debut of Gong Li, and showed off Zhang’s penchant for exquisite color palates. 

This week ought to see the release of Zhang’s new movie, One Second, set during the Cultural Revolution. Scheduled for Chinese cinemas on November 27, the film was supposed to open one of China’s leading film festivals, the Golden Rooster Awards, but was pulled at the last minute — the second time the movie has disappeared from a film festival schedule at short notice after a similar incident at last year’s Berlinale.

This setback is the latest of numerous twists and turns that have characterized Zhang’s lengthy career as he’s looked to navigate censorship and a balance between artistic vision and box office appeal. The famed director of award-winning films like Raise the Red Lantern, Ju Dou, Hero, and Red Sorghum (to name just a few), Zhang is one of China’s most critically acclaimed filmmakers. We’ve seen a multitude of styles from him throughout the years, as he’s honed his unique cinematic voice, helped to revive the popularity of wuxia (martial arts) film-making, and been involved in some of China’s biggest blockbusters. At the same time, he’s courted controversy and supported Party initiatives. 

Here, we take a look back on some of the more prominent themes that have populated Zhang’s career to date.

Leading the Fifth: Zhang Yimou’s Early Years

Zhang has been a dominant force in the Chinese film industry for years. Having attended the prestigious Beijing Film School, his graduating class of 1982 consisted of directors such as Tian Zhuangzhuang (The Blue Kite), Chen Kaige (Yellow Earth and Farewell My Concubine), and Zhang Junzhao (One and Eight — which actually featured Zhang Yimou on cinematography duties).

This group of filmmakers went on to become a foundational core of China’s so-called Fifth Generation filmmakers. Their films pushed boundaries stylistically, creatively, and politically, garnering attention from overseas audiences as well as folks at home.

In Zhang Yimou’s case, his films crossed such boundaries as far as the authorities were concerned — some of his earlier films, such as Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern, were initially banned in China. 

Even though his films were censored at home, internationally Zhang gained acclaim for his distinct cinematic style, leading to various nominations and awards at global film festivals and award ceremonies around the world. Ju Dou became the first-ever Chinese film to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, and Raise the Red Lantern followed suit — each while they were banned in China. 

Not Everything is Black and White: Zhang Yimou’s Use of Color

One of the most distinct aspects of Zhang’s films is their stunning use of color, a strategy which has led to the creation of numerous visual masterpieces that have captivated audiences. Steven Spielberg once wrote of Zhang, “For the past two decades he has inspired the world’s fascination with China through his cinematic vision. Not since the great British director Michael Powell has a director used color so effectively.”

Red Sorghum, Ju Dou, and Raise the Red Lantern established Zhang’s reputation as a director who had a flair for using color. These films predominantly feature a striking red color palette. The color is symbolic of numerous themes throughout all three films.

For example, in Raise the Red Lantern, a film about concubines and their struggle for survival, red symbolizes power and status for the concubines, as well as lust, and eventually comes to represent or evoke death.

Red Sorghum’s use of the color is just as meaningful. The striking color palette is visually intense and jarring. Zhang said he utilized the color because, “in China’s five thousand years of cultural tradition, the color red has simply represented hot passion, the approach of the sun, burning fire, warm blood.” Red comes to symbolize passion between Gong Li and Jiang Wen’s characters, violence and bloodshed in the struggle against the Japanese, and the revolutionary spirit in the heroism of the villagers. 

One of the best-known examples of Zhang’s flair for color is the film Hero. The film uses a color narrative with five main colors represented: blue, black, white, green, and red. Each color represents a different character and their situation. The shift in colors also acts as a sign to the audience that the “angle of narration is changed” and helps to avoid confusion of storylines.

There are different interpretations as to what each color narration could symbolize. In an interview with IndieWire, Zhang said:

ZY: There’s no particular meaning to each color. I just needed the colors to represent…

IW: Points of view.

ZY: Yes, yes. Each color represents a different period and different [way of telling the] story.

More recently, martial arts epic Shadow also made striking use of color, adopting a black and white palette throughout, echoing the yin and yang of the story and its central characters.

Although Zhang insists the colors only represent ways of telling the story, it can be said that there is more to each sequence. People have speculated that the colors could be associated with elements (blue, green) or could have political references (red). But overall, it cannot be disputed that the film is a visual masterpiece in itself.

“Yimou Girls”: Zhang’s Muses

Throughout his career, Zhang has worked with some of the most famous Chinese actresses — who have become known as “Yimou Girls,” and often received lots of media attention after starring in his films. Perhaps the most prominent are Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi.

After appearing in Zhang’s first few films, Gong Li became one of the best-known actresses in China. She is often considered as Zhang’s first “muse.” He “discovered” her when she was 21 years old and a student at drama school and directed her breakout role in Zhang’s first film, Red Sorghum. The film went on to win the Golden Bear Award at the Berlin Film Festival and propelled the two of them to international stardom.

Gong Li starred in seven of Zhang’s films between 1987 and 1995, including Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern. Through starring in Zhang’s films, she quickly established a reputation as “one of the world’s most glamorous movie stars and an elegant throwback to Hollywood’s golden era,”  according to Asiaweek. 

During this time period, their relationship was not only professional but became personal, with the pair entering into a romantic relationship. They stopped collaborating on films for a period of time after 1995 when their relationship ended. Gong went on to make her Hollywood debut in 2005 in Memoirs of a Geisha and has continued to be a prominent star, with roles in films such as Hannibal Rising and Disney’s remake of Mulan. She also reunited with Zhang, starring in two more of his films. 

Zhang went searching for a new muse after he stopped working with Gong Li, turning to Zhang Ziyi in 1998 when she was studying at the Central Academy of Drama. Zhang Ziyi starred in The Road Home, which won the Silver Bear Prize at the Berlin Film Festival in 2000. She went on to star in Zhang’s film Hero which was critically acclaimed and became a huge success internationally. It received nominations for an Oscar and a Golden Globe in the Best Foreign Film category. 

Zhou Dongyu, is another of “Yimou’s girls,” handpicked to star in his film Under the Hawthorn Tree (2010). Like Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi, Zhou had no prior professional acting experience, having only recently graduated from the Beijing Film Academy. The film was a smash hit, with Zhou winning Best Actress at the 56th Valladolid International Film Spain Festival, Best New Performer at the 20th Shanghai Film Critics Awards and Outstanding New Actress at the 14th Hubiao Awards.

Since then, she has gone from strength to strength, starring in a string of box office hits and piling up the awards. In 2019, she starred in the film Better Days, which won her the Best Actress award at the 39th Hong Kong Film Awards. 

Girls on Film: Zhang’s Portrayal of Women

Zhang’s use of female “muses” is not surprising, considering a common denominator across many of Zhang’s films is stories told from the perspective of a central female character.

Although there is an eroticism to many of the shots in his films, with much of his visual imagery focusing on sexual power and the female body onscreen, the women in his films often portray strong female characters. In his early films with Gong Li, she plays characters that have the ability to make their own choices and realize their own destinies. In a piece on women in his films, Jeannette Delamoir writes: “since the melodramas tell their story, since their actions move the story along, these women are both spectacle and narrative.”

Women often carry the story in Zhang’s films, allowing the audience into their worlds.

Gong Li Zhang Yimou Raise the Red Lantern Radii China

Focusing on women also allows for Zhang to explore issues behind Chinese patriarchy and modernity. Women have agency in his movies, while their ability to choose a man is often seen as the catalyst for social change. This notion is visible in his films Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern, and Ju Dou

In Under the Hawthorn Tree, we see a different portrayal of a female lead. The film is innocent and simple, with the promotional tagline touting it as “the cleanest romance in history.” In comparison to the sexually-charged undertones visible in Raise the Red Lantern and Ju Dou, Under the Hawthorn Tree looks at a love story between two teenagers in the midst of the Cultural Revolution through a nostalgic lens. It focuses on Zhou Dongyu’s character and the struggles she experiences as she navigates her first love and familial duties against the backdrop of the period’s tumult.

In the martial arts epic Shadow, Zhang again defies the traditional stereotype that women play in period dramas. Actress Sun Li, who portrays a noblewoman in the midst of “a deadly game of deception,” gave her thoughts on the character she played to Screenanarchy. “In this role, I was really caught between not just the great Commander, who is my husband, but a situation where very complicated decisions have to be made, and choices have to be made. It gave me a lot more opportunity to have volition, and to have ideas, and power, and reactions. And so, it was just a very non-stereotypical role that was offered to me, and I really liked the idea of playing it.”

His Own Cinema: The Changing Seasons of Zhang Yimou’s Career

Throughout Zhang’s career, he has gone through numerous periods of filmmaking, marked by experiments with different styles. 

During the 1980s and 1990s, his films were categorized by his signature visual imagery and stunning cinematography — relying on the use of intense color. This period was when he produced many of his most critically-acclaimed films. Titles such as Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern and Red Sorghum feature imagery that heavily focused on the sexual power, reproductive continuity and spectacle of the female body onscreen.”

Between 1997 and 2000, Zhang went through a period of making films that strayed from his traditional style as he decided to “test new waters” after he stopped working with Gong Li. In an interview with The Guardian, he said, “After Gong Li, I wanted to do something different. Sometimes you miss what you have not been eating. I decided to make films about little people: ordinary, common people.”

Related:

Back from Exile: How the Martial Arts Genre Made a Triumphant Return to China’s Mainstream

He had also “begun to tire of his recurring problems with the Chinese government over historical and political references in his films,” hence the decision to adopt a new style made sense.

During this period Zhang made Keep Cool, Not One Less, and Happy Times.  He focused more on themes surrounding prosperity — or lack of it and the effects that this had on society. For example, he said about Happy Times that, “China is a very political society and you can read the political situation through various stories. ‘Happy Times’ is not a political story, but rather a story about life. However, there are many details that can reflect today’s society. Such as everybody trying to make money. Money is very important in our lives today.”

Zhang Yimou Hero Radii China

During the early 2000s, Zhang crossed over into martial arts — with his wuxia epic Hero. This film enchanted audiences around the world and was nominated for an Academy Award. It also garnered the support of Quentin Tarantino, who helped to get it released in the US. Zhang’s venture into the genre was a success and he continued to make period dramas throughout the 2000s, adding films such as House of Flying Daggers, Curse of the Golden Flower, and Flowers of War to his repertoire. 

He even combined his penchant for wuxia with fantasy in 2016, in the Matt Damon-starring monster blockbuster The Great Wall.

Red Sojourn? Zhang Yimou Today

Since his direction of the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremony, Zhang Yimou has faced criticism from some quarters that he is too eager to please the Party. 

This year, he helped to produce the hit movie My People, My Homeland, a follow-up to patriotic movie My People, My Country released in 2019. The film is composed of five stories, each directed by a famous Chinese director, that tell of ordinary people’s affinities to their hometowns. It was a box office smash, making over 147 million USD since its release in October. 

Related: 

Why Are Nationalistic Themes Translating Into Box Office Success in China?

Yet despite his alleged closeness to the authorities, Zhang has continued to fall foul of censorship in recent years. (His private life has not been completely immune from tangles with the powers that be either; in 2014 he was hit with a large fine for reportedly circumventing China’s birth control policies.)

The most recent example is now One Second, which was slated for release on November 27 but now appears in some doubt. Set during the Cultural Revolution, the film charts the strong bond formed between a central trio of main characters. It was due to be screened at the Berlin Film Festival in 2019, however at the last minute it was abruptly pulled from the lineup. “Technical reasons” were cited, however as Variety points out, that is “a common euphemism for state censorship in China” and “the incident stands as the highest profile case of censorship of Chinese cinema abroad in recent years.” One Second was also set to open this year’s Golden Rooster Awards, but has also been removed from its slate there too, due to what appears to be political sensitivity over its subject matter.

He is currently working on a new film, The Coldest Gun, centered around the Korean War. It focuses on the story of a 22 year old sniper who is fighting US forces in the conflict. The story is based on the real life experience of Zhang Taofang — a Chinese sniper who reportedly set a record of 214 confirmed kills with 442 shots in 32 days during the war — and comes amid renewed tension between China and South Korea.

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Guan Hu’s “Sacrifice” Joins Rush of Korean War Films Invading the Chinese Box Office

That film, along with his involvement in My People, My Homeland, have stirred fears that Zhang, along with the likes of Guan Hu and Chen Kaige, has been taken into a fold of a group of highly successful and artistic Chinese directors who are making nationalistic films.

Only time will tell how true that is, but whatever he does next, there’s no denying that Zhang is one of China’s greatest ever filmmakers.

Chloe Yorke
    Chloe was born in Hong Kong and grew up in Shanghai and San Francisco. She is currently studying Chinese at Durham University in the UK and is passionate about Chinese art and culture.