No matter what the genre, one thing distinguishes every Zhang Yimou feature: attention to detail. A trained cinematographer, Zhang is particular not just about camera angles and film stock, but also about costumes, props and locations. He demands no less from his production designers and art directors than he asks of his actors and d.p.’s.
“My requests are very specific and detailed,” Zhang says through a translator during a recent interview at the Beverly Wilshire, “so when I first meet with art directors and production designers, we discuss what we’re trying to accomplish through visual imagery. We set the tone of the film, and that will determine what we’re doing for the next six to eight months.”
Like Chen Kaige (“Farewell My Concubine”), Zhang is a so-called Fifth Generation director — a Chinese filmmaker who began his career after the repudiation of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. And like his colleagues, he often films material set well in the past.
Such efforts are a boon to production designers, whose compatriots in the Art Directors Guild will present Zhang with its Cinematic Imagery award at the Beverly Hilton on Feb. 12. Org prexy Thomas Walsh calls Zhang “a consummate artist” and “one of the few directors who really understands film as a visual medium.”
The proof is in the pudding: think of the Peony Pavilion in “House of Flying Daggers,” the emperor’s palace in “Hero,” the nightclub in “Shanghai Triad” or the concubines’ quarters in “Raise the Red Lantern.” But Zhang says that more than the sheen of silk and the translucence of jade is at play here.
“You have more space, more room for making decisions when you set things in the past,” says Zhang, looking fit, relaxed and younger than his 53 years. “History can help induce the imagination. And that will continue to be true of my films, most of which will be set in the past.”
Zhang’s striking use of color also defines his work. The fertile greens of the countryside in “Daggers,” the potent blues, reds and whites setting off the fight scenes in “Hero” and the drab ochre of the stifling housing compound in “Lantern” all enrich the stories this director is telling.
“People ask me why, and I can’t seem to find a reason myself,” he says of his obsession with color. “I think it goes back to my childhood. It’s also in my stage plays, operas and commercials; I always use strong colors. So whenever I meet with art directors, they know which choices I’m going to like: the ones with the reds and other strong colors.”
Yet despite his perfectionism, the director is not a cinematic martinet, says Huo Ting Xiao, production designer on “Hero” and “Daggers.” “Zhang is quite easygoing and very willing to listen to others’ opinions,” says Huo. “He is always happy to exchange ideas, and only after digesting his collaborators’ thoughts does he make his decisions. He combines all the elements, including art design, acting and cinematography, to achieve his vision.”
And what is that vision? The answer lies in Zhang’s roots as a cinematographer. “I want each image to be like a painting,” he says.
That notion finds further expression in one of the traditional sayings the director likes to quote. Fittingly, the remark originally described traditional Chinese landscape painting, where there is both density and near-emptiness. But Zhang adopted the words as a personal mantra and applies them to his work.
“It should be so tightly constructed that not even the wind can penetrate it,” he says, “and yet it should be something so wide and open that a group of horses can run through it. It must be both at the same time. That’s what I’m going for. It’s a tradition that’s existed for thousands of years.”