Now that his first martial arts movie, Hero, has saturated the world, Zhang Yimou is finally a household name in North America. Where did he come from, though?
Well, China, yes. But when Hero opened in wide release this summer and Zhang’s name began appearing in print with the honorary prefix “Chinese master,” more than a few people felt guilty for never having heard of him. It didn’t quite register that he was the director responsible for Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern—both of which hold the unusual distinction of having been banned in China and nominated for an Oscar in the United States—because those movies, each of which intimately probes the Chinese cultural mores of the 1920s, were best suited to the modest enclosure of the art house. Hero, on the other hand, is a deliberately universal epic sensation of swordplay and exalted cinematography. Or, as I’ve enjoyed describing it recently, opera for video gamers and vice versa.
It’s a deceptively simple story, self-repeating with important variations and rapturous colour-coding, of how and why a nameless warrior in the third century BCE protected his king from would-be assassins. And of course it handsomely elaborates the martial-arts-movie convention of floating fight choreography, which, I confess, had begun to bore me a little. How swiftly cinema commands its methods and obviates them! But Hero’s self-consciously epic staging, its painterly hauteur and rhythmic precision are indeed masterly; it’s got to be the most dynamic pacifist action movie I’ve ever seen.
And, actually, it’s par for Zhang’s course. A good way to understand that is to track down Allan Miller’s documentary The Turandot Project, which follows Zhang’s extremely ambitious production of the Puccini opera Turandot from Florence to Beijing’s Forbidden City, the setting of both the story and this performance. The project lays out Zhang’s now familiar affinities for colour and movement, his penchant for crossing hemispheres and cultural thresholds, and his knack for choreographing the narrative dance between grandeur and close inspection. It also reveals the challenge of finding a shapely form, and a lyrical voice, with which to say something authentically Chinese to a world audience.
Turandot, about a Chinese princess whose suitors must answer three riddles to win her hand in marriage or be killed, was Zhang’s first work for the stage, and it’s a doozy. As conductor Zubin Mehta observes in the documentary, “Usually Turandot is full of Chinese clichés. It looks like a big Chinese restaurant. But I think this is different.”
The differences include an enormous replica of a Ming Dynasty temple porch; 900 gorgeous costumes, handmade to exacting specifications of the Ming style; and a cast of thousands, among them 300 Chinese soldiers who gradually train themselves to discern Puccini’s music from the moans of livestock. The company has to contend with five languages and many artistic differences. Lighting designer Guido Levi, for instance, believes that Zhang was hired only because of his (Asian) eminence, in order to raise opera’s sagging profile, and accuses him of paying too much attention to costumes and sets and not enough to characters.
In the eye of this hurricane is Zhang at work: often stoic, sometimes overwhelmed, but never in doubt about his vision, or its significance. “We have to win credit for the Chinese. This is all I care about,” he says. “That’s why I took on this project. To win credit for the Chinese.” As he coolly explains to a few stagehands, “If something goes wrong, it will be an international joke.”
No pressure. Zhang’s creative ardour has made him into this kind of cultural emissary, and he has accordingly emerged as a star of the so-called Fifth Generation, the first group of Chinese filmmakers to openly allow and acknowledge the influence of Western movies on their work. He attended the Beijing Film Academy and began working in the early 1980s, starting out as a cinematographer.
“At that time it seemed that with all my contemporaries the aim was to make artistic movies,” he has said. “The idea of making martial arts films was slightly beneath us.” But the genre was deeply ingrained. So, after the restraint, the formal exploration and the intimacy of his earlier films, and after Turandot, he was ready.
For a “must watch” art-house filmmaker, Zhang has become enormously entertaining, and that’s thanks to the breadth of his self-instruction. The Turandot Project was already well-made and illuminating, but in retrospect the documentary shows how mounting an opera and moving it across the world was Zhang’s perfect way of enlarging his craft to match his ambition. After Turandot, he went on to adapt Raise the Red Lantern for China’s National Ballet. When his new film, House of Flying Daggers, comes out in December, it’ll be interesting to see what more he’s learned and how he’s applied it.
Hero will likely still be playing somewhere then. It deserves to be. It cost more money, and has made more, than any film in China’s history. With it, Zhang wants to say something about the spiritual relationship between calligraphy and swordsmanship, both of which are pretty much doomed in our online age. Except maybe in the movies. But he also has a message about self-sacrifice for the sake of the greater good. Big-themed stuff like that, when well deployed, bears out and freshens up the old idea that movies are the opera for our era.
Maisonneuve contributing editor Jonathan Kiefer writes about the arts for various publications in San Francisco, where he lives. One of his cats is named after Preston Sturges. Film Flâneur appears every second Friday.