"With every cinema screen awash with violence these days, how was I to handle the story of a powerful gang which dominated the city of Shanghai in the 1930s? Obviously, I could have taken the conventional approach and put the violence on the screen, but that was not what I was after. Instead, I took the opposite line. In the midst of the mortal struggle between the Shanghai Triad gang bosses, I wanted to bring out the generous nature of human beings. To my mind, this is what we need most in the World we're living in."
--- ZHANG Yimou (Director)
Born in X'ian in 1950, ZHANG Yimou is the most internationally acclaimed filmmaker in China. His films have twice been nominated for Academy Awards (for JU DOU and RAISE THE RED LANTERN); his first film, RED SORGHUM, was a prize-winner at the Berlin Film Festival in 1988; RAISE THE RED LANTERN won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1991; and THE STORY OF QIU JU won the Golden Lion in 1992; last year, TO LIVE shared the Grand Prix du Jury at Cannes and Ge You was named Best Actor in the same film.
ZHANG Yimou was in secondary school when the Cultural Revolution broke out in 1966. As the son of a former member of the Kuomintang (nationalist) army and a woman doctor, his background was considered politically questionable; he was forced to suspend his studies and, like so many of his contemporaries, go to work in the countryside. For 10 years, between 1968 and 1978, he worked on farms in Shanxi province and subsequently as a laborer in a spinning mill. During this time he developed his talents as a designer by drawing portraits of Chairman Mao and discovered an innate love of photography. He sold blood to earn enough money to purchase his first camera.
During the Cultural Revolution, the Beijing Film Academy, the prime teaching institution for anyone aspiring to a career in the cinema, remained closed. It reopened in 1978 in makeshift premises, offering courses in direction, scriptwriting, photography, design and acting. ZHANG Yimou took the nationwide exam for a place at the Academy and passed with honors. Initially however, he was disqualified because, at age 27, he was five years too old. After two unsuccessful appeals against the decision, he wrote directly to the Ministry of Culture, pointing out that he was over-age for the course only because he had wasted 10 years during the Cultural Revolution. The strategy paid off and, two months later, he was accepted in the Cinematography department, from which he graduated four years later.
After graduation, these first post-Cultural Revolution students (who came to be known as the "fifth generation" of Chinese movie-makers) were posted to regional films studios. ZHANG Yimou was assigned to the Guanxi studio, which had been founded in 1974, towards the end of the Cultural Revolution. Lacking any clear production policy, the studio was open to suggestions from its new recruits who, in 1983, advocated the establishment of a Youth Production Unit.
This recommendation was readily accepted, and a young production crew, including ZHANG Junzhao as director and ZHANG Yimou as photographer, embarked on their first picture, ONE AND THE EIGHT, based on a narrative poem set during the war against the Japanese. The film ran into considerable trouble with the authorities and had to be amended in terms of plot and characterization before securing a release. The look of the film, however, remained intact, and it was the striking photographic quality achieved by ZHANG Yimou that attracted most acclaim. ZHANG has explained that they consciously reacted against the uniform lighting of most contemporary Chinese films and sought a harsh, monochromatic appearance appropriate to the story of prisoners offered a "DIRTY DOZEN style" opportunity to redeem themselves. This was achieved by using natural light and shooting on full aperture on very fast film stock.
Following ONE AND THE EIGHT, ZHANG Yimou acted as director of photography on the first two films of his contemporary at the Beijing Film Academy, CHEN Kaige. The first of these, YELLOW EARTH (1984), effectively launched the fifth generation outside China and was much commended for its innovative camerawork, in which small figures were photographed against vast expanses of sky. CHEN Kaige's second film, THE BIG PARADE, underwent extensive censorship and revision but again ZHANG Yimou's camerawork, capturing the agonies of "square-bashing" in the grueling sun - this time in widescreen - was much admired.
ZHANG Yimou had long wanted to direct himself and was able to do so by transferring in 1985 from Guanxi studio to the X'ian studio, then run by the imaginative and entrepreneurial WU Tianming. WU initially invited ZHANG to join him in X'ian (where he had been born) to photograph his own upcoming production OLD WELL. ZHANG agreed on the understanding that he could then direct his own first film. In the end, ZHANG Yimou not only photographed OLD WELL, but played the lead role himself, winning Best Actor Award at the Tokyo International Film Festival. (Though acting is only a subsidiary pursuit of ZHANG Yimou's, he has also played the lead in the 1990 Hong Kong costume drama A TERRA COTTA WARRIOR, opposite GONG Li).
ZHANG Yimou's first film as director, RED SORGHUM, won the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival in 1988 and launched his international career. A rural drama of the war years, with the Japanese as the enemy, it also marked the acting debut of the young actress GONG Li, whom ZHANG had discovered while she was a student. She has since appeared in all his films, winning the award as Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival in 1992 for THE STORY OF QIU JU.
ZHANG Yimou followed up RED SORGHUM with a more conventional action picture, OPERATION COUGAR, depicting the hijacking of an airliner, but returned to form with JU DOU and RAISE THE RED LANTERN, both intense and beautifully shot period pieces that were nominated for Oscars as Best Foreign Language Film in 1990 and 1991. Raise the Red Lantern won for Best Foreign Film in 1991 at the New York Film Critics Circle. Also in 1991, the movie won for Best Cinematography at the LA Film Critics Association.
THE STORY OF QIU JU marked a conscious change of direction for ZHANG Yimou - away from the ornate style of his previous two films towards a more realistic and even humorous manner. In particular, he made use in this film of hidden cameras to capture the gestures and reactions of real Chinese peasants photographed unawares. It was rewarded with the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, while Gong Li's performance was also recognized at the closing awards ceremony.
Last year, ZHANG Yimou's TO LIVE won a Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, where Ge You's performance the film was also rewarded.
ONE AND THE EIGHT (1984)
YELLOW EARTH (1984)
THE BIG PARADE (1986)
OLD WELL (1987)
A TERRA COTTA WARRIOR (1990)
RED SORGHUM (1988)
OPERATION COUGAR (1989)
JU DOU (1990)
RAISE THE RED LANTERN (1991)
THE STORY OF QIU JU (1992)
TO LIVE (1994)
SHANGHAI TRIAD (1995)
Last modified 1-December-1995.
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