Director Zhang Yimou chosen to stage event

The international focus for the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing Olympics on Aug. 8 is on who will attend the gala event and in what condition the Olympic torch will be when it arrives, but the Chinese are more concerned with how native son Zhang Yimou will fit 5,000 years of Chinese culture into 50 spectacular minutes.

They expect no less.

But Zhang is practical. “It is absolutely impossible to display the culture of our 5,000-year history,” the helmer says. His task is also to make this glorious heritage simple enough for youngsters and foreigners to understand.

The Olympics are tipped to become the first sporting event to attract more than 1 billion TV viewers.

The first dress rehearsal of the 3½-hour Opening Ceremony will be June 10 at the National Stadium. Zhang will be assisted by Australian Ric Birch, director of the opening and closing ceremonies at the Sydney Games in 2000, and Yves Pepin, president of French company ECA2.

Ang Lee has also been named as an adviser, despite official anger at his last outing, the erotic thriller “Lust, Caution.”

Steven Spielberg was supposed to be on the credits, but he stepped down over China’s role in backing the regime in Sudan, which is held responsible for the massacres in the Darfur region. The pressure on Spielberg was intense — thesp Mia Farrow threatened to label him the Leni Riefenstahl of the Beijing Games if he went ahead with his plans — and he ankled the role, angering the Chinese.

Generally credited with almost single-handedly bringing Chinese cinema to the outside world with stunning pics such as “Red Sorghum” and “Raise the Red Lantern,” Zhang’s bold arthouse favorites weren’t shown in his home country. Only “Hero” was a huge success with auds, even though many emerging helmers see the pic as a betrayal for being very pro-government.

Zhang has experience in managing these kind of extravaganzas — two years ago, he staged a spectacular outdoor opera called “Impression Lijiang” at two scenic spots in southwestern China, and he also put on Tan Dun’s “The First Emperor” at Gotham’s Metropolitan Opera as well as a massive 1998 staging of Puccini’s opera “Turandot” in the very place where the story was supposed to have taken place: the Forbidden City.

As the titles of his movies suggest, red features strongly in his pics, and the Opening Ceremony is likely to feature the odd splash of red — after all, it’s the national color in China, where the Red Flag of the Revolution still flies proudly.

Zhang is coy on details about what to expect: “If you know all the details about a movie, you will lose interest before the preview.”

There have been rumors Zhang could be sent to jail for seven years if he reveals anything about the ceremony — the Beijing Olympic organizing committee is effectively a branch of the government and can enforce confidentiality clauses with the kind of muscle that would make a Western lawyer green with envy.

Zhang dismisses the speculation, saying he doesn’t think the Intl. Olympic Committee is in the business of jailing folks.

For sure, Zhang’s task will be a whole lot easier if the weather gods play ball and it doesn’t rain on the event. The awesome Olympic stadium — designed by avant-garde architects Herzog & de Meuron, and which looks like a bird’s nest that can seat 100,000 people — is open-air: It was originally designed to have a sliding roof, but spiraling steel costs meant the plan was abandoned.

“Rain is the No. 1 concern,” Zhang says. “Obviously we hope God will bless us and give us good weather. If it rains, it must be a lower-grade performance. Some performances in the air or some high-tech and mechanical arrangements will have to be canceled for safety reasons.”

Organizers have promised to “seed” the clouds well before the ceremony; i.e., silver iodide rockets will be fired at the sky to break up any clouds and ensure the heavens are clear for the event, but that is an inexact science.

Rain or shine, the event will be spectacular — rehearsals involving more than 10,000 performers have taken place in secret locations around the Chinese capital, and the government will ensure that the gala runs without a hitch, Tibetan protesters notwithstanding.

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