By Henry Sheehan
Since Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum first hit the international festival circuit in the late 1980s, the director has gone through three distinct periods of notoriety. The first began when his third and fourth features, Ju Dou (1990) and Raise the Red Lantern (1991), were banned from Chinese theaters by the government, despite nearly unanimous worldwide accolades (the bans were eventually lifted).
After that period, which also included limitations on Zhang’s trips abroad (but not on his filmmaking), the director entered the phase where he was acknowledged at home as the “leading” Chinese filmmaker. Movies as divergent as the period gangster romance Shanghai Triad (1995) and the warm rural drama Not One Less (1999) showed a filmmaker both restless in his choices of subject and comfortable in a variety of stylistic settings.
Now, though, the 60-year-old filmmaker is finally and solely, simply Zhang Yimou, and with a sumptuous period action film, House of Flying Daggers (2004) and a deceptively simple love story, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (2005), he has made a convincing claim to greatness in China.
Zhang even established a benchmark for live spectacles by directing the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, an awesomely delightful show broadcast around the world.
The Olympic ceremony is one of those politically freighted occasions that confuse Zhang’s observers. Is he no longer the young rebel? Has he reached some sort of accommodation with China’s rulers? The answer is that nothing in China is ever as simple as it appears to be, that there is a difference between the Chinese people and the Chinese government, and that the fields of art and politics intersect but don’t overlap. Certainly Zhang has continued to make the cruel treatment of the powerless by the powerful his central theme.
Now Zhang is caught in a trend—or perhaps the hint of a trend that might or might not be there. You can blame it on Hollywood’s Christian Bale and Japan’s Yohei Taneda, respectively the star and production designer of Zhang’s most recent movie, the intimate epic The Flowers of War. Their presence highlights the production’s global status, with cast, crew, and money garnered from around the world. So, the invariable question arises: Does Zhang’s movie herald a new era of international co-production for China?
On a rare visit to Los Angeles, Zhang advises people not to jump to conclusions. Yes, his new film boasts an international cast and crew and a large budget, but that’s simply because that’s what he needed to tell the story.
As with any of his films, “[The Flowers of War] is unique,” he says, “because it all comes down to its story. This movie needed a foreign actor; it needed an international crew. But not many Chinese movies require East-meets-West collaboration. It depends on what kind of story you’re telling.”
Zhang’s interest in the project, based on a novel by contemporary writer Geling Yan, was, in fact, the opportunity to deliver a twist on a familiar story. The Nanking Massacre, during which hundreds of thousands of Chinese were systematically raped and murdered by occupying Japanese forces, has been a frequent subject in Chinese cinema.
“This kind of topic has been done in China many times before,” Zhang explains. “But it’s always done the same way, which is very serious and very propaganda-like. The book takes the perspective of a 13-year-old girl; it stands out from all the other work out there.”
EAST MEETS WEST: Rather than a calculated international move, Zhang Yimou, working with Christian Bale, says The Flowers of War just required a Western actor. “It depends on what kind of story you’re telling.”
The movie tells the story of a money-hungry American mortician (Bale) who ends up masquerading as a Catholic priest and protecting, to his own surprise, a group of prostitutes and schoolgirls against the Japanese. Although not strictly subjective, the movie largely adopts the perspective of one of the schoolgirls.
“The movie does portray the brutality of the war, but my goal was to create a romance and poetic-ness within the film,” says Zhang. “So that’s why I like the perspective of the 13-year-old girl. When I chose that topic, I wanted to create whatever she sees through her eyes, to create a great contrast between the momentary beauty and emotions and the big epic of brutality and violence. It’s not an easy process because there are so many characters. I worked on that for almost four years, just thinking about it and fine-tuning everything.”
The big epic style is probably what nudges The Flowers of War onto the international stage. Although no one will say for sure, the budget has been estimated at as much as $94 million, making it the most expensive Chinese production ever. But Chinese cinema has dipped more than its toes into epic filmmaking with, for instance, John Woo’s two Red Cliff films in 2008 and 2009. Taking on productions of that scope requires a reliable supply of equipment, planning savvy, and, as far as money, at least start-up funds. That, says Zhang, is no problem.
“Budgets weren’t a problem for me because I have a really good record of always coming in a little under budget. I would never waste anyone’s money, I’m very efficient in everything I do. So in terms of budget, it was never a problem. In terms of equipment, I had six cameras total: three film cameras and three digital cameras. Sometimes I used them at the same time, especially for the war sequences. Renting them is actually pretty easy, too, because China right now has opened all these rental equipment stores; they have tons of equipment. So that’s not a problem.”
Zhang is a big believer in digital filmmaking, both as a matter of production and of distribution, and it sounds as if he represents a consensus within the Chinese film community. “My previous two movies [2009’s A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop and 2010’s Under the Hawthorn Tree] were shot 100 percent on digital,” he says. “The biggest benefit of digital is that actors don’t have as much stress as shooting on film. For example, during Under the Hawthorn Tree, because the actors were both new, I had more than a hundred takes for one scene all in one day. But I could not do that with film; it’s way too wasteful. In terms of performance, I’m definitely for digital rather than film now.
“In terms of postproduction and color correction, I have a really good DP, Zhao Xiaoding. I’ve worked with him since Hero (2002) and he knows exactly what he’s doing. He learns everything very fast, so I’m always pleased with the result.”
Zhang believes digital is also a plus when it comes to reaching the masses. “Right now in China the majority of theaters are digitalized. It’s very easy to send out 3,000 digital prints because every theater wants a digital copy. As far as film prints, maybe we’ll make only like 200. So in distribution, digital is an advantage.”
ART OF WAR: (above) Jet Li plays a defender of the ancient kingdom in Hero; (below) Yimou directs Zhang Ziyi as a blind warrior on the set of the historical epic House of Flying Daggers.
If it’s easy to send out 3,000 digital prints, it’s probably not that much harder to send out 6,000, which is Zhang’s estimate of the number of screens that will play The Flowers of War. Within five years, China could boast 20,000 screens—if not more. Zhang says the country is averaging two new screens per day. Numbers like that whet Western appetites for profit and reawaken long-term business fantasies. During the 19th century, books about selling to the Chinese abounded; three successive sales manuals were entitled 500,000 Customers, 750,000 Customers, and One Million Customers. Hollywood’s version—in widescreen, of course—would be One Billion Ticket Buyers, the pot at the end of the Asian rainbow.
But China is not so sure that’s such a great idea, at least for now. There’s a domestic market to be nurtured and an industry that feels it deserves a foothold in its own country. No doubt there is also some resentment over the U.S. market, which, though it might be an open one in theory, is not so open once it comes down to foreign films being welcomed. Zhang is too polite to say so, but this universally praised filmmaker could well have pointed to Under the Hawthorn Tree (2010) as an example of a Chinese movie that couldn’t find American distribution.
At the time of this interview, late last year, the quota for all foreign films allowed to play in China sat at 20. Neither Zhang nor anyone else knew that in February a deal would be reached to allow in 14 additional “special format” movies, i.e., 3-D and IMAX, into China—and that some of the prints of these “special format” films could come in standard format. From his remarks, one could assume Zhang would be chary of the increase.
“There are two reasons for the quota,” he says. “One is that China still has censorship and you can’t show just anything that’s out there. The other is to protect the domestic market. This protection is good, because China is still no match in competing with Hollywood. If everything was diluted by the ‘Hollywood style,’ then China won’t have its local market anymore. It’s a good thing, actually.”
As an example of what could happen, Zhang notes that “China has witnessed the examples of Taiwan and Hong Kong. They are open markets and have always allowed foreign movies to come in.” And look what happened there. As with many other small- and medium-sized countries, Taiwan and Hong Kong didn’t have the financial wherewithal to compete against unbridled, international distribution giants. So their domestic market was rendered useless when native product was denied access to local screens.
“Because of that, right now Taiwan is in trouble with its domestic market, because not a lot of good movies come out of there; the same with Hong Kong,” explains Zhang. “So China has seen these examples and learned from them. There still aren’t that many Chinese directors who can make big-budget international films, so of course they must mainly rely on the Chinese market. Then, once they’ve made their money back, they can move overseas.”
This loss of market share—or at least the fear of it—animates the attitudes of many foreign directors when it comes to discussions of piracy. If Internet and physical theft of content is rampart in China, no one suffers more from it than Chinese filmmakers.
“Of course, I hate piracy,” says Zhang. “Every director does. My films are especially pirated because I’m such an influential director in China. In China, three days after a film is released, there will be a pirated HD version online to download for free. The law is there, but there are always going to be illegal copies—it’s very hard to control. It seems to be a problem everywhere in the world, not just in China.”
There are, however, other matters that are uniquely Chinese which loom large over Zhang’s life and career. He was born in the ancient capital of Xi’an, and as a teenager was sent out to perform farm labor for more than a decade. Both Zhang and Geling Yan were caught up in the tumult of Mao’s China in the 1960s. Zhang is part of China’s so-called Fifth Generation of filmmakers, directors who began making films after the Cultural Revolution. Zhang’s film Under the Hawthorn Tree does not just represent an advanced use of new technology, it’s a heartbreaking love story between two people whose romance clashes with the needs of the Cultural Revolution.
“Poverty is part of my personal experience,” says Zhang. “Unlike most of the students who graduate from high school or college and go directly to film school, I experienced 10 years of the Cultural Revolution first. Because of that historical background, I saw so many things that really touched my heart. I didn’t graduate from film school until I was 32 years old, so the order was very different compared to the other students and how they go to school here.”
And it is that experience that informs who he is as an artist. “You can do a thousand things, but it all comes down to basic things, which is the understanding of humanity, the understanding of the human experience, and of emotions. I’m sure there are a lot of excellent young filmmakers out there, but there are probably some who are not good because they don’t understand that part yet. They have to learn about the basic things, the human experience. That’s why there’s so much copying of other people’s films and not [work from] their own personal selves.”
Zhang could not have predicted that the experiences depicted in his films would find a universal audience. Yet, from his first feature he has occupied the world stage, his films eagerly anticipated, seen, and discussed. “I was very surprised, actually,” Zhang says of his quick international success. “At the very beginning, when I first started making films, I never thought that they would be so well accepted in the West. To me, the Western world was always so far away. I’m so local, I’m so Chinese, and my way of thinking is completely Chinese. That made me unique. I could only think in a Chinese way, I could only make Chinese movies, so maybe the more local I was, the more interested the Western audience was in my movies. But I was really surprised by the results.”