Friday, September 10, 2010

Modern Maestros: Zhang Yimou

Robert here, with another entry in my series about great contemporary directors.

Maestro: Zhang Yimou
Known For: films about the lives of women in China and more recently wuxia epics.
Influences: American Noir, Chinese fantasy and mythology
Masterpieces: Raise the Red Lantern
Disasters: none
Better than you remember: If you're among those who think his recent films aren't as good as his older ones, you might be right, but if you think they're bad, then I'd say they fall into this category.
Box Office: 53 mil for Hero
Favorite Actor: the beautiful, ravishing, talented Gong Li

It's entirely possible that Zhang Yimou's greatest achievement of the past ten years had nothing to do with film. He garnered his largest audience and highest place on the world stage for directing the Opening Ceremonies to the Olympic Games. Those who saw the spectacle were blown away by the beauty and artistry. Those who knew of Zhang Yimou's work in the cinema, were also blown away, but not surprised. For over twenty years, Zhang has been making films with light and color and human passion and emotion as his cornerstones. Audiences who've discovered Zhang lately have found a series of gorgeously staged wuxia epics. Anyone quick to dismiss these films as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon clones or less substantial than Zhang's earlier films should take another look. Hero and House of Flying Daggers are among the most beautiful films of all time. Their produciton designs and cinematography are at times simply jaw dropping.

Has any director turned on a dime like Zhang Yimou has? Could his early films been any different from his recent ones? Well, "yes" to answer my own question. While there is indeed a gap between those films thematically, they all adhere to Zhang's powerful aesthetic. Consider 1992's Raise the Red Lantern and how its use of color to evoke emotion is really no different from Zhang's recent movies. Yes, the film has less color overall, but that simply sets up the amazing pop of red that accompanies the joy of the lanterns' arrivals (at the house of whichever wife is in the husband's favor that night). Zhang loves color and finds uses for it everywhere in his filmography. And just in case you worried that while his use of color has flourished, his penchant for emotionally evocative films has faded, right in the middle of epics, Zhang released the little seen Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, proving that he can still tug a heart string or two whenever he wants.

After a long break after the Olympic Ceremonies, Zhang returns with his latest film, A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop (a remake of the Coen's Blood Simple) and proves quite adept at noir influence as well. He is a man of many trades and faces, Zhang Yimou, all saturated in beauty and meaning. His next film The Love of the Hawthorn Tree will be released this month in China. It's another period drama/romance to continue to quell the fears of those who think Zhang's serious work is behind him. Although any lover of cinema will tell you, it doesn't matter what kind of movie Zhang is making next, whether it be a drama or adventure, noir or romance, or all four, it's release will be colored with excitement and anticipation.


Seeking Amy said...

Zhang Yimou is quite a fantastic filmmaker. He's not one that immediately comes to mind when I think of "favorites" but I've loved a number of his films and I've never outright disliked or hated one.

I think To Live should also be considered one of his masterpieces. One of the most heart wrenching films I've seen. You Ge and Gong Li make for such a dynamic pairing. Ju Dou, Red Sorghum, and Raise the Red Lantern are also standouts among his great early works, though the first of those three needs a proper DVD transfer, stat.

I do love Hero as well, so breathtaking and I found it deeply moving. House of Flying Daggers while a little thin narrative wise, is highly entertaining and visual scrumptious. All of his films, to me, have a high re-watchable quality to them.

Blinking Cursor said...

What, no mention of Zhang Yimou's Curse of the Golden Flower? Sacrilege! Not only does it star Yimou's muse, Gong Li (Goddess!), it stars the God of Cool himself, Chow Yun Fat!

As to be expected from Yimou, it's a visual feast for the eyes. Yimou is a master of composition and color, and paints with his camera the way some of the old master painters painted with their brushes. There is such vibrancy with coloring coda, such a lushness that all but pops from the screen and into your brain.

As for Hero, though I didn't enjoy it as much as some of Yimou's other works, I can't deny that it's another visually enticing film. Can anyone forget the gorgeous fight amongst autumn leaves between two Asian goddesses - Maggie Cheung and Zhang Ziyi? Or how about the battle between Tony Leung and Donnie Yen at the lake? One visual feast after another, a veritable banquet for the eyes, Yimou's films are.

Andrew R. said...

Excellent director. He deserved the Oscar for his three best films.

Best Films: House of Flying Daggers (his best), Raise the Red Lantern, Hero

Worst: Not One Less, which I only saw part of and was not impressed with. (His Golden Lion award for that of all films is ridiculous.) Not a disaster at all, though-it's just meh.

I'm not sure about Woman, Gun, Noodle Shop...the reviews have been mixed to negative.

Alison Flynn said...

Raise the Red Lantern is without a doubt a masterpiece. And Hero is one of my favorite movies.

I also loved The Road Home, which I thought was a lovely film.

Wonderful write-up on one of my favorite directors.

Blinking Cursor said...

"Or how about the battle between Tony Leung and Donnie Yen at the lake?"

Oops! That should read, 'Or how about the battle between Tony Leung and Jet Li at the lake?" Due to hunger (hadn't yet had dinner while at the time of making that post) I momentarily confused Li with Yen.

Glenn said...

My favourite is probably Shanghai Triad. Whatta director!

Rebecka said...

My favourites are without a doubt To Live and Ju Dou. I love Hero as well, but for completely different reasons.

And perhaps I'm a minority here but I really did not care for Flying Daggers at all, and I thought Curse of the Golden Flower was an utter disaster. Looking forward to his next film, but my expectations are cautiously low.

Dimitra said...

I've watched Hero and The House Of Flying Daggers. I remember I enjoyed them, but it's been a really long time, I should revisit them.


i loved CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER when i first saw it but so many people hate it that I have begun to doubt my own reaction. Like was i that bowled over by eye candy and just in the right mood? HERO always struck me as a bit stiff and cold despite all the eye candy but it had so much sticky staying power that I ended up loving it in retrospect.

JU DOU though. GAH. way too few people talk about that movie. so brilliant.

Blinking Cursor said...


Stay true to your convictions, brother. Curse of the Golden Flower doesn't deserve the hate it gets. It's an asian re-working of a shakespearean type tragedy. It may not be the best film of Yimou's oeuvre, but it is still a solid film, with lush visuals and great acting by Gong Li and Chow Yun Fat (the rest of the cast wasn't bad, either), so all in all still better than a lot of the other dreck out there.

Tams said...

He is quite masterful at orchestrating beautiful visuals. Add to the list his directing of the Beijing Olympic Opening Ceremonies. I also recently visited China and saw a production in Yangshuo of "Impression on Sanjie Liu" which he also directed. It was a performance with 600 local villagers on the banks of the Li River with lighted Karst peaks in the background. Sure it was a touristy show but beautiful use of color, lighting, and choreography.

buy cheap generic viagra said...

I also like The Road Home too much,Amazing movie,good creation.

Darren said...

He made his best films with Gong Li.
Ju Dou
To Live etc

She was is/was the actress for Him. I hope they work together again.

Ziyi Zhang is "Gong Li lite".
But she is a decent actress.

Anonymous said...

"":I'm not sure about Woman, Gun, Noodle Shop...the reviews have been mixed to negative.""

It got crappy reviews in China.

More Gong Li flicks please.

CCA said...

Although I like "Hero" very much, I prefer his rural dramas to his Wuxia films... "Ju Dou", "Raise the Red Lantern" and "Not One Less" being my favorite ones... Perhaps my less favorite films of him are "Keep Cool" and "Curse of the Golden Flower" (which I've always seen as a dress rehearsal for the Beijing 2008 opening ceremony)