Zhang Yimou Essay, Research Paper
In conclusion it can be said that personal and political factors have shaped the films of Chinese film-maker Zhang Yimou and caused him to come under the close surveillance of the Chinese censors. Zhang s family’s opposition to the ruling Communist Party prevented him from being able to join the Youth League which was the stepping stone to the Communist Party.
During the Cultural Revolution he had to work as a labourer in a spinning mill. The enforced ”rustication” undergone by those who, like Zhang, were teenagers when the Cultural Revolution was launched in 1966 brought him face to face with facets of modern China. It made him distinguish between ‘the peoples party’s ideology and the reality of the hard and unromantic peasant life. In order to improve his situation Zhang decided to start a career in film making. Being rejected at first for a place at film school he learnt to find a way around that difficult situation by appealing successfully to the highest relevant authority.
At film school he and his colleagues didn’t want to learn the established rules of socialist cinema. They were the first class after the Cultural Revolution in a more liberal political climate and they wanted to invent and discover their own film grammar. This group of film graduates is widely known as the Fifth Generation, sometimes used synonymously with “New Wave” – those who have made a clear break with Socialist – Realist cinema.
Although Zhang proves his rebellious character in his first three films he must also learn to make ‘artistic compromises’. He adds the political theme of resisting foreign invasion after the script of his first film Red Sorghum hadn’t satisfied Chinese censors. In his next film Ju Dou Zhang moves the time of the story to the pre-communist 1920s. In Liu Heng’s original novella the story was set in the 1940’s. Ju Dou only became a censorship problem when China tried to withdraw the film from the Best Foreign Film Oscar category. Chinese authorities deemed the movie unsuitable for a Chinese audience mainly because it dealt with China’s problematic past. This film was forbidden to be seen by a Chinese audience as was his next film Raise the Red Lantern. All three films show the oppressiveness of pre-communist feudal China.
With two of his films being banned and the Communist Party changing to a Maoist hard line the pressure on Zhang increases. Moreover, Zhang’s off-screen relationship with his leading actress Gong Li is the object of heated moral censure. “Zhang desperately needed his new film to restore his personal, political and moral standing.” The Story of Qiu Ju does exactly that. Again, Zhang manages to find a way around a very difficult censorship situation. Moreover, the Chinese authorities praised The Story of Qiu Ju “as a film worth advocating through government propaganda channels.” At the same time the Chinese authorities lifted the ban on his earlier Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern.
Although Zhang doesn’t portray the very sensitive issue of China’s recent history in as challenging a way as Chen Kaige’s Farewell my Concubine or Tian Zhuangzhuang’s The Blue Kite the censorship troubles start again with his next film, To Live. It’s production company was criticised for allowing it’s sale and distribution without the censor’s approval.
In his latest film Shanghai Triad Zhang proves again his cautious character by setting his film in pre-communist Shanghai of the 1930s. This is so that his scenario couldn’t possibly be accused of misrepresenting the Party’s role. The pressure of the Chinese censors on Zhang drastically increased. Nowadays, Zhang hardly gives Interviews anymore and if he does they are very ‘politically correct’.
Chapter Two lists Zhang’s ’standard of reference’, his characteristic features throughout his films that are hallmarks of his body of work. First of all his use of Gong Li, his female star. Gong Li has brought sensuality and eroticism to serious Chinese cinema. That was new and unseen in Chinese cinema. Zhang divorced his wife for her and was heavily criticised for that. By the end of filming Shanghai Triad Zhang and Gong split up and now it seems uncertain whether Gong is ever going to star again for Zhang.
Another of Zhang’s ’standard of reference’ is his use of bright colours, especially the colour red. Although red is celebratory, the Chinese symbol of joy, Zhang uses it to make his films look sombre, even bleak. Zhang explains: “While red is the colour of life, it is also the colour of death” The Chinese authorities don’t like this bleak interpretation of Chinese history.
Another of his characteristic features is his use of allegories as nasty men represent oppressive old order. Zhang avoids showing these old men clearly in his films. Hardly recognisable, poorly lit, and with little screen time given these old men represent the archetypal patriarchal oppressor: faceless, distant, but ever-present in mind even when not in sight. By employing those techniques Zhang is also able to focus more on the victims of the system and their suffering.
All those characteristic features have made Zhang Yimou’s films a history of censorship. To Live, was shown at Cannes without the authority’s permission and pre-sold before it could be censored which also happened to Tian Zhuangzhuang’s The Blue Kite. The Blue Kite focuses on China’s problematic past. As a result Tian Zhuangzhuang landed on a black list. Chinese citizens and companies are not allowed to work with him anymore. However, these incidents have increased the pressure on critical film-maker.
To Live focuses more on the good humour that Chinese people have kept while going through difficult times. This focus on good humour shows again that Zhang was able to find a way around a very difficult censorship situation.
Since To Live was shown at Cannes the Chinese authorities have shown their power by delaying the production of Zhang’s latest film, Shanghai Triad, by six months. Furthermore those events have resulted in the government introducing new regulations to prevent them ‘losing face’. From now on the authorities demand that future ‘joint-venture’ productions must be principally financed in China, and then the negatives of those films must be processed and kept in China.
In future, if the Chinese authorities don’t like the finished film, they will keep the negative of it themselves. And no co-producer will want to invest into films with Zhang under such conditions. The question whether Zhang Yimou will again manage to find a way around this difficult situation, as he has done so often in his career, or whether the pressure of the nationalist Chinese authorities is too powerful to make meaningful, world class movies remains open.
Chapter Three explores why Zhang’s films have been accused of “selling oriental exoticism to a Western audiences.” Drawing on own experiences I show that people in general are very sensitive ‘to their own images’. Chinese people, however, have for a long time being looked down at as being a ‘primitive race’. Zhang continues to be accused of feeding “his Western audience’s image of exotic, primitive, timeless China.”
Exploring whether Zhang is “exoticised by the West” or whether he is “exoticising China for the West” it is shown that Zhang was able to watch Western films at film school, unlike any other Chinese film generation before him. His strong storylines, characterisations and concern with the reaction of audiences could possibly result from those experiences which are rather unusual for Chinese films and more a Hollywood (Western) approach towards films.
However, Zhang denies Western influences by stressing that he doesn’t watch many foreign films and therefore doesn’t understand a Western audience’s taste. Moreover, he never considered living or working outside China as authenticity would be impossible for him to achieve anywhere else. In a country that sees democratic Western influences as a threat towards their ideology it is not surprising that Zhang denies Western influences.
Then I show that Zhang is benefiting from a Western sympathy towards his films. By giving him the opportunity to collect prizes at foreign film festivals Zhang was able to attract foreign investors. Zhang admits that he couldn’t have shot his films without overseas money. .
Furthermore the Chinese authorities accused Zhang of “the act of showing, brandishing and exhibiting (to the outside)” By arguing that Zhang’s exhibitionism is in fact “a way of problematizing the state’s all pervasive gaze” I show that the accusations, in fact, ‘reflect back’ on the Chinese authorities and other moralistic critics such as Dai Qing. She is criticising Zhang’s inaccurate use of the red lantern.
Showing that this ‘inaccuracies argument’ has also been brought forward by critics of Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins it is argued that film-makers such as Zhang use their rights as visual artists to alter facts in order to make a comment on today’s politics.