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Zhang Yimou on a film set
  • Zhang Yimou and the Fifth Generation Filmmakers

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    Posted on: 06/03/2015

    Senior Film Programmer Kristy Matheson traces the evolution of Zhang Yimou's cinematic style and his collaboration with actress Gong Li.

    Born in Shaanxi Province in 1951, Zhang Yimou came of age during the Cultural Revolution. Like many of his Fifth Generation filmmaking cohorts Zhang was raised as part of the zhiqing, or 'educated youth', and, as a result he was taken out of high school and sent to the country to learn and work amongst the peasantry. During his time as a labourer (on a farm and in a spinning mill) Zhang took a keen interest in painting and photography. In 1974 he purchased his first still photography camera and his work began appearing in local journals.

    When the Cultural Revolution came to an end, the government re-opened the national film academy in Beijing. Zhang has been quoted as saying that he never intended to be a film director, but in 1978 when chance took him to the Beijing Film School, he applied. He recalls, “like many other young people, I applied for admission to a tertiary institution because I wanted to change my life. When to go abroad was just an impossible dream, the only way out (was to) go to school so as to get away from my seven-year job in the factory. So I majored in film and was introduced into this field.”[i]1 Zhang graduated in 1982; he and his classmates were the fifth graduating class of the Directing Department and would go on to become known as the Fifth Generation filmmakers.

    Zhang had initially planned to stay in Beijing after graduation but without the relevant networks and connections in the capital, the government assigned him to the Guangxi studio in remote south-eastern China. What initially seemed like a snub soon turned into an advantage for him and his fellow graduates including Zhang Junzhao (One and Eight (Yige he bage), 1983). Away from the watchful eye of the Beijing authorities these young graduates were able to create their own films rather than spend years apprenticing under established directors. After a short time at Guangxi, Zhang convinced his former classmate Chen Kaige to be transferred to the remote studio and before long the group was working on their own productions.

    Chen Kaige's 1984 film Yellow Earth (Huang tudi) is widely considered to be the film that launched the Fifth Generation filmmakers. Released in 1985 at the Hong Kong Film Festival to huge critical acclaim, Yellow Earth was instrumental in the rebirth of Chinese national cinema both domestically and internationally. Zhang Yimou was a crucial element of this new wave, acting as cinematographer on Yellow Earth and on Chen’s 1986 follow up, The Big Parade (Da yu bing). Zhang also shot Wu Tianming's 1986 film, Old Well (Lao jing), as well as acting in the film in a performance that won him the Best Actor Award at the 1987 Tokyo International Film Festival.

    By 1987 Zhang Yimou was in the director’s chair. For Red Sorghum (Hong gao liang) he brought the full force of his talents as a cinematic craftsman to the screen. A film of enormous texture and coded colours, Red Sorghum tells the tale of a young woman sold to an old winemaker and her journey from innocent bride to collective landowner. The film gave audiences a glimpse into the future of Yimou’s cinema, a world of spectacular literary adaptations and fables of the everyday. It also marked the beginning of his creative collaboration with a then unknown drama student named Gong Li.

    Winner of the Golden Bear at the 1998 Berlin Film Festival, Zhang Yimou's directorial debut immediately solidified his place in world cinema as well as his star’s (and future muse), Gong Li. Red Sorghum also generated international excitement around the work of the Fifth Generation Directors and set mainland Chinese cinema back on the world stage with international film distribution and heightened interest from global critics, academics and audiences. In the following years, the artistic partnership between Gong Li and Zhang Yimou also went on to “cultivate the first Chinese film star to attain global recognition after the Maoist period [which] set the norm for the development of a Chinese and pan-Asian start system.” [ii]

    Gong Li was born in 1965 in Shenyang, Liaoning province. The daughter of academics, she originally wanted to be a singer but eventually turned to acting when she was accepted into the Central Drama Academy in Beijing. During her second year at school she was cast in Red Sorghum. From this first feature the careers of Gong Li and Zhang Yimou grew alongside each other until the couple’s personal and professional split after the 1995 film Shanghai Triad. A decade after this parting, Zhang reunited with his muse for the 2006 Tang dynasty epic The Curse of the Golden Flower and, most recently, for a stirring drama about a family torn apart by the Cultural Revolution in Coming Home (2014).

    For each of the Fifth Generation directors, the Cultural Revolution would prove an unshakeable marker to draw on in their future filmmaking. Zhang Yimou has said, “The Cultural Revolution was a part of our history. It was an unforgettable experience not only to me, but also to all people in my generation. I don't deliberately call upon this memory, but it is so deeply rooted in me that it has become a starting point for comparison and contrast in our life.”[iii] The pervasiveness of this shared experience also acted as a force to push against, which the Fifth Generation filmmakers did primarily with aesthetics. In her essay “The Fifth Generation: A Reassessment”, Wendy Larson explains that these directors “marked their departure from the past with new themes, plots and characters, but they were most successful in establishing a radically different aesthetic style, which spoke to a new politics and, eventually, a global perspective.” She continues, “directors partook of a modernist aesthetics of alienation... The purpose was to disable to monotonous representation of the Socialist Realism, create a modern cinematic language and dispense with what socialist realism had designated as real, now thought to be supremely hypocritical, forcing an engagement with a deeper and hidden reality solidly located in history, language and place.”

    However, not all the aesthetic and thematic elements of social realism were lost on this new generation of filmmakers who  infused the personal struggles of characters with a larger allegorical meaning, drawing on rural settings and working classes. So too does the overt representation of colour in Zhang Yimou's cinema mirror social realism. His early films, Red Sorghum, Ju Dou (1990) and Raise the Red Lantern (1991) are often called the ‘Red Trilogy’ and are so infused with this single colour that the passions depicted in these films be they sexual, political or patriotic, are simply unavoidable. On the colour red, the director himself has said, “I'm from Shaanxi Province, the soil is rather red, and its people are fond of this colour. All kinds of affairs held in the provinces of Shaanxi and Shanxi are likely to make use of the colour red. Such customs have influenced me and have caused me to be fond of red. I then turn around and display this same colour.”

    Many of the aesthetic and narrative freedoms enjoyed by the Fifth Generation filmmakers were short lived, however. In the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square tragedy, the government entered into a phase of political tightening with art forms such as cinema again becoming the mouthpiece of morality and political education. During the intervening years, Zhang Yimou and Gong Li found themselves on the wrong side of the party numerous times and while films such as Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern and The Story of Qui Ju (1992) were winning international accolades and awards, they were banned from release in mainland China. Zhang’s epic 1994 family drama, To Live (Huo zhe) won the Best Foreign Language BAFTA and the Grand Jury Prize and Best Actor awards at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival. Initially banned in mainland China, it was later released due to its international success. However Chinese authorities placed a two-year filmmaking ban on both Zhang and Gong Li . 

    Since Red Sorghum, Zhang Yimou has directed over twenty feature films.   He was the official director of the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympics, has directed television, documentaries, live theatre and operas in mainland China and in the United States. Together with his cinematic muse, Gong Li, he has produced some of mainland China’s most enduring imagery and arresting tales. A leading light of the Fifth Generation filmmakers, Zhang’s creative legacy has endured over three decades. His latest film, Coming Home, signals a return to domestically scaled melodrama that carries with it all the emotion and skill of one of modern cinema’s great storytellers and his leading lady.

    - Kristy Matheson

    Epic Intimacy: The Cinema of Zhang Yimou & Gong Li begins Friday 6 March.


    [i] Kwok-Kan Tam , Cinema and Zhang Yimou, 1996, Zhang Yimou Interviews (2001 University Press of Mississippi)

    [ii] Song Hwee Lim and Julian Ward (eds), The Chinese Cinema Book (2011 Palgrave Macmillan for BFI) p. 119

    [iii] Kwok-Kan Tam , Cinema and Zhang Yimou, 1996, Zhang Yimou Interviews (2001 University Press of Mississippi)

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Epic Intimacy: The Cinema of Zhang Yimou & Gong Li