Zhang Yimou

Zhang Yimou
b. 14 November 1951, Xi’an
Film director, cinematographer, actor
Perhaps the ‘Fifth-Generation’ filmmaker best known in the West, Zhang Yimou spent ten years at manual labour during the Cultural Revolution: a significant influence, since he developed an intense dislike for the effeteness of China’s coastal ‘sophisticated’ culture. Zhang graduated in cinematography from the Beijing Film Academy in 1982, along with classmates Tian Zhuangzhuang and Chen Kaige. His earliest work was as cinematographer for One and Eight (Yige he bage, 1984), Yellow Earth (Huang tudi, 1984) and The Big Parade (Da yuebing, 1985). Returning to Xi’an in 1987, he was both cinematographer and male lead for The Old Well (Laojin), which won Best Film and Best Actor awards at the Tokyo Film Festival. That year, Zhang directed his first feature, Red Sorhum (Hong gaoliang), featuring actress Gong Li in her debut. It won the Golden Bear award at the Berlin Film Festival—China’s first. Code Name Puma (Daihao meizhoubao, 1988) was a commercial effort that Zhang would prefer to overlook, but his films since then have assured him an international following. Judou (1989), a visually gorgeous film about sexual torture and illicit love, was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film, while Raise the Red Lantern (Da hong denglong gaogao gua, 1991), about intrigues in a household of four wives under one manipulative man, won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Both films, however, were panned at home for ‘exoticizing and eroticizing China’. The Story of Qiuju (Qiuju da guansi, 1992) was Zhang’s response to his critics. The story of a simple rural woman, it was filmed in a more realist style, using hidden cameras to shoot a number of public scenes, and won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. The epic To Live (Huozhe, 1994) won the Grand Jury and Best Actor awards at the Cannes Film Festival, and is perhaps the best-loved of Zhang’s offerings domestically. The gangster film Shanghai Triad (Yao a yao, yao dao waipoqiao, 1995) was the last made in collaboration with Gong Li, who had held the female lead in all the other films Zhang had directed. The 1995 Hawaii International Film Festival honoured Zhang with a Lifetime Achievement Award, which he accepted in person. Keep Cool (You hua haohao shuo, 1997), Zhang’s first post-Gong Li offering, was a frenetic urban comedy, shot largely with a hand-held camera, that failed to make an impact on audiences anywhere. His subsequent two films returned to his rural roots: Not One Less (Yige dou bu neng shao, 1999) focuses on the educational needs of China’s poorest regions, and The Road Home (Wode baba mama, 1999) pays homage to Zhang’s own parents. Following a brief hiatus, he returaed to directing with a star-studded martial arts feature called Hero (Yingxiong, 2002).
Although Zhang has visited cities in Europe and the USA on many occasions, he insists that he is a simple-minded Chinese man who does not cater and has never catered to Western sensibilities, citing as proof, for example, that he cannot and will likely never learn to speak English, or any foreign language.
Chow, Rey (2003). ‘Not One Less: The Fable of a Migration’. In Chris Berry (ed.), Chinese Films in Focus: 25 New Takes. London: BFI, 144–51.
Farquhar, Mary (2002). ‘Zhang Yimou’. In Senses of Cinema: Great Directors—A Critical Database. Available at http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/directors/02/zhang/html
Gateward, Frances (2001). Zhang Yimou: Interviews. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.
Lu, Sheldon (2002). ‘Zhang Yimou’. In Yvonne Tasker (ed.), Fifty Contemporary Filmmakers. London: Routledge, 412–17.
Yue, Mingbao (1996). ‘Visual Agency and Ideological Fantasy in Three Films by Zhang Yimou’. In Wimal Dissanayake (ed.), Narratives of Agency: Self-Making in China, India, and Japan. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 56–73.
Zhang, Yingjin and Xiao, Zhiwei (1998). Encyclopedia of Chinese Film. London: Routledge.

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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