Zhang Yimou

Active - 1983 - 2021  |   Born - Jan 1, 1950   |   Genres - Drama, Epic

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Biography by Jonathan Crow

Zhang Yimou is one of the best-known directors of the Chinese Fifth Generation and one of the most influential and widely respected filmmakers working today. Zhang was born in 1950, in the city of Xi'an in Shaanxi Province, to a future in Communist China that seemed unpromising; his father was an officer in Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang Army and one of his brothers was accused of being a spy, while another fled to Taiwan. During the 1950s, his family's background was suspect and during the convulsive tumult of the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, it was criminal. Zhang was pulled out of high school and sent to toil with the peasants. Later, he transferred to a textile factory. While working there, Zhang reportedly sold his own blood to buy his first camera. In 1976, the Cultural Revolution came to an abrupt end with the death of Mao Zedong. Deng Xiaopeng, his eventual successor, began reopening the many universities that were closed during the final chaotic decade of Mao's reign. In 1978, at the age of 27, Zhang passed the entrance exam for the Beijing Film Academy but was rejected on account of his age. After an appeal to the Ministry of Culture, however, he was enrolled in the B.F.A.'s class of 1982. His classmates included Chen Kaige, Tian Zhuangzhuang, and Zhang Junzhao, filmmakers who would eventually form the core of the Fifth Generation. Zhang, along with three others from among his cohorts, was assigned to faraway Guangxi Film Studio after graduation, ostensibly to work as director's assistants, but they soon learned that there were no directors to assist. With government permission, they formed the Youth Team and began making their own films. Zhang worked as a cinematographer on a number of significant films, including Zhang Junzhao's groundbreaking One and Eight (1984) and Chen Kaige's masterpiece Yellow Earth (1984), which took the Hong Kong Film Festival by storm and brought worldwide attention to Chinese cinema. Later, Zhang was transferred to his hometown of Xi'an and served as both cinematographer and lead actor in Wu Tianming's Old Well (1987), which won him a best actor award at the Tokyo International Film Festival. After this initial success, Zhang's fortunes improved significantly when he was permitted to direct his first film, Red Sorghum (1987), which won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and achieved critical and commercial success, both internationally and domestically. An earthy account of sex and oppression against the backdrop of Japan's bloody invasion of China, the film seemed to be a conscious repudiation of the contemplative, detached style of Yellow Earth. Red Sorghum crackles with dynamic edits, striking close-ups, and gorgeously photographed images. But Zhang's biggest stroke of luck turned out to be his discovery of a vivacious 21-year-old named Gong Li at the Central Drama Academy in Beijing. Their professional and well-publicized personal relationship would shape Chinese cinema for the better part of a decade. His movies made her an international star and her presence gave his films an exoticism and feminist-edged sex appeal that pulled in audiences. After the thoroughly forgettable Codename Cougar (1987), Zhang made Ju Dou (1989), which won Best Film at the Chicago Film Festival and garnered an Academy Award nomination. Zhang's first film after the Chinese government's bloody 1989 crackdown at Tianamen Square was a thinly veiled political allegory about a young woman who is forcibly married to an abusive, sexually impotent old man who runs a dye-house. His next film, Raise the Red Lantern (1992), widely considered his finest, also concerned a woman married into a controlling, abusive patriarchal world. Both movies were seen everywhere but China, thanks to government censors. Both were set in the 1920s before the Communists came to power; and both featured sumptuous photography and a formal, controlled style that made heavy use of montage. In each film, Zhang meticulously explored the interiors that these women are forced to inhabit, creating settings that radiated repressed sexuality as much as oppression. Just as critics seemed to have identified a specific Zhang Yimou style, he released The Story of Qiu Ju (1992), about a pregnant peasant women seeking legal justice after her husband is beaten by a village leader. Instead of rigidly framed images featuring carefully modulated color, this film, set in modern-day Shaanxi province, adopted a gritty quasi-documentary look that used long tracking shots. Although setting a film in contemporary China was a significant political risk, the government approved of The Story of Qiu Ju, largely because it coincided with an anti-corruption campaign. Zhang's previous masterpieces were taken off the blacklist and the director was hailed as a hero. But Zhang's fortunes dissipated after Shanghai Triad (1995). The Chinese government pulled the film from the New York Film Festival after it learned that Gate of Heavenly Peace (1995), a scathing documentary about the Tianamen Square massacre, was also programmed. More distressing was the announcement that Zhang and Gong Li had severed both their personal and professional relationships. He directed Puccini's opera Turandot with an international cast in 1996 and released the comedy Keep Cool in 1997, featuring Jiang Wen, who starred in Red Sorghum. In 1999, though, Zhang caused some controversy at the Cannes Film Festival when he suddenly withdrew his two most recent films from competition. His film Not One Less (1999) won the coveted Golden Lion at the 1999 Venice Film Festival. Zhang's other 1999 effort, the poignant drama The Road Home, also took home numerous film awards including the Grand Jury Prize at the Berlin Film Festival and the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival. A touching tale of a city-dwelling young man who returns to his home village for his father's funeral, The Road Home offered the sort of visually sumptuous, character driven drama that fans of his films had come to cherish. Zhang's next film Happy Times lightened the mood a bit with its humorous tale of an ageing bachelor who transforms a schoolbus into a no-tell motel in hopes of gaining the funds to marry his true love. A historic, period action film dealing with an assassination attempt on the powerful ruler of China's Northern Province, Hero teamed the acclaimed director with such notable onscreen talent as Jet Li, Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung. Of course for Zhang fans it likely goes without saying that the film is undeniably gorgeous thanks cinematographer Christopher Doyle's masterful eye for detail, and the beautiful landscapes combined with remarkable costume detail placed the lavish action epic towards the top of Zhang's cinematic oeuvre. Regardless of the fact that the film was both an Oscar and Golden Globe nominated for Best Foreign Film in addition to sweeping the Hong Kong Film Awards with an impressive seven wins (it was nominated in fourteen categories) and becoming the highest grossing film in Chinese history, American distributors Miramax inexplicably sat on the major release even though the rest of the world had seen the 2002 film by early 2003. By the time Miramax's tentative April 2004 release date rolled around, it would be nearly two-full years since Hero's original 2002 release date in mainland China. As if to add insult to injury, Miramax subsequently announced plans to edit the film for American distribution, which -- combined with Miramax's similar treatment of such Asian imports as Shaolin Soccer -- resulted in a notable "Appeal to Disney for Respectful Treatment of Asian Films" campaign by concerned online film buffs.

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