Whatever you think of his checkered oeuvre, Zhang Yimou is undeniably a maestro of modern Chinese cinema. Few could match the international acclaim or box office success earned by the 66-year-old director, whose artistic path mirrors the breathtaking steps made in Chinese history and film industry. While his early works helped catapult Chinese cinema to the global festival spotlight, his middle phase led the way in commercial blockbusters with Chinese characteristics.
Zhang will receive the Jaeger-LeCoultre Glory to the Filmmaker award in Venice ahead of the out-of-competition screening of “Shadow”on Sept. 6.
The allure of Zhang’s filmmaking often comes from the screen divas and captivating female roles he cultivates. Gong Li, who collaborated with him nine times, remains the most luminous presence. So good is he at plucking talent out of obscurity (Zhang Ziyi, Dong Jie, Ni Ni, Zhou Dongyu, Zhang Huiwen) that every time a new project is announced, the media eagerly awaits the next “Mou Girl.”
Born in 1950 in Xi’an, Shaanxi province, Zhang first burst onto the scene in 1985 as cinematographer for Chen Kaige’s “Yellow Earth,” which shook the world with its suggestive political allegory, and stunning cinematography of Shaanbei’s riverbanks of blazing ochre. Still, few anticipated Zhang’s directorial debut “Red Sorghum” (1991) becoming an enduring masterpiece. The film won the Golden Bear at the Berlinale as international audiences never saw rural China evoked with such stylistic bravura.
Together with Chen, Tian Zhuangzhuang and others, Zhang led the Fifth Generation in rewriting world cinema with startling film language and audacious critiques of Chinese history, tradition and government.
The 1990s saw Zhang at his most creative and prolific, refining his craft in storytelling, aesthetics and profundity of themes. In glorious departure from drab proletariat films churned out by state studios, sumptuous visual feasts like “Ju Dou” (1991), “Raise the Red Lantern” (1992) and “Shanghai Triad” (1995) evoked the beauty and barbarity of early 20th century feudal life. More importantly, his recurrent themes involving amour fou are subtle yet unflinching political allusions, centered on feisty protagonists rebelling against injustice and repressive hierarchies.
Despite garnering awards at top festivals and attracting European co-producers, Zhang suffered censure back home for “exoticizing” China’s social backwardness. “To Live” (1994), which chronicled a family’s harrowing struggle to survive in the New China, was banned. His response was a shift to earthy social realism with yarns like “The Story of Qiu Ju” and “Not One Less” (1999). Still depicting the problems of ordinary folk in backwaters, but in a contemporary setting, the critical sting is softened by gentler irony and less political subtext.
Zhang was raised in the fiery years of the Cultural Revolution. He was sent to work in the countryside and in a factory before attending Beijing Film Academy. Hence, his most intimate and moving works all dwell on this era, expressing nostalgia for his own lost youth. “The Road Home” (1999), “Under the Hawthorn Tree” (2010) and “Coming Home” (2013) are dedicated to the memory (and sufferings) of his parents’ generation.
In synch with the growth and commercialization of China’s film market, Zhang made “Hero” in 2002 (two years after Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”). A historical epic about the assassination of the Emperor of Qin, Zhang put his personal stamp on the Hong Kong-dominated wuxia genre. His flair for visuals, conveyed through Chris Doyle’s cinematography, soars to a new level with gorgeous, symbolic color schemes. It was nominated for best foreign language film at the Oscars, the third time for Zhang (“Ju Dou” and “Raise the Red Lantern” also earned noms).
Two years later, Zhang upped the ante with an even more extravagant show of martial arts in the Tang Dynasty espionage-romance “House of Flying Daggers” (2004). By the time he made the palace intrigue “Curse of the Golden Flower” (2006), he had come to outdo Baz Luhrmann in flamboyance and Cecil B. de Mille in ambition, flaunting production values of sinful opulence, epitomized by Huo Tingxiao gold-crusted production design and stylist Yee Chung-man’s gilded costumes.
Yet, despite the star-studded casts and dizzying plot twists, the trio of blockbusters are popcorn entertainment devoid of intellectual depth or emotional heft. And while they still reflect the helmer’s continual preoccupation with power struggles embedded in Chinese existence, they also disturbingly condone the rule of despots.
Not only has Zhang become one of the most bankable maker of megahits in China, his ensconcement in the establishment was demonstrated by his appointment to oversee the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
As the country is poised to overtake the U.S. as the world’s biggest film market, Zhang goes with the flow of Hollywood co-productions, casting A-list stars Christian Bale and Matt Damon in drama “The Flowers of War” (2011) and period monster-fantasy “The Great Wall” (2016, the most expensive China-Hollywood co-production ever). However, due to an attempt to bridge the tastes of East and West, critical and audience responses were lukewarm.
As he unveils his 23rd film, “Shadow,” in Venice, audience excitement is ratcheted up, as fans and cinema observers don’t know what to expect next.