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Leidy Campo

Scarlet Cheng

Chinese Cinema


Zhang Yimou

After the end of Maos death, the Chinese cinema industry flourished since censorship

was slowly diminishing. However, it was challenging to produce films outside the boundaries of

communist ideologies, but thanks to the new generation of directors, the new films were more

attractive and different than the ones from the past. Many movies brought themes such as

oppression, political/social conflicts and criticism towards communism. Zhang Yimou is a

perfect example of how he uses these themes in his films. His themes were controversial and

many of his works were both praised and criticized, and despite the heavy criticism Yimou

received from China; Yimou persevered and continued producing movies that werent approve

in mainland china. In his earlier works rather than promoting a communist ideology, he produced

films that illustrated the China he lives and breathes, which shows the reality and difficulties that

communist government brought to the Chinese people. However, critics believe that some of his

recent work is presenting pro-totalitarian ideas and are going against his ideas of his initial work.

Nevertheless, Yimous films are a transition from depicting peasants life facing difficulties to a

more commercialized production of movies. Throughout the many films that he has directed, his

unique style and controversial themes are often represented in his creations. Yimous films stand

out from others works due to his incredible use of color and themes that always makes the

audience wonder if there is a second meaning behind it. Although he has produced many
different movies, his cinematic vision is fairly consistent where he depict strong women,

sensuality, oppression and political issues.

In order to understand more about Yimous films, one needs to learn more about his life

and how he became a master on producing films which capture the audiences attention. Yimou

was born in Xian in 1951 with a rough start due family background. According to Jonathan

Crow in Zhang Yimou biography, 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 (1). Moreover, during the cultural revolution, Zhang

spent his years in forced labor. Two years after the cultural revolution ended, Zhang applied to

Beijings Film Academy and his entrance to the Academy was almost deny because of age

requirement. He graduated as a Cinematographer and worked as a cameraman in Yellow Earth--

directed by Chen Kaige who is part of the fifth generation as well. Later on, Zhang was able

debut as a director in Red Sorghum (1987). The movie, was widely acclaimed, allowing Zhang

Yimou to continue filming historical drama movies with Gong Li, who was often cast to play

roles where a woman was under oppression and living in a male dominant world.

Yimou produced several movies where women were sexually repressed his movies

illustrated tragic outcomes when these women tried to defy men. For instance, Ju Dou (1990),

and Raise the Red Lantern (1992) are notable movies for this concept. Yimou expanded and

made films that depict the life of peasant people under Maos regime called To Live (1994.)

On the other hand, In the early 21st century Zhang Yimou took an interest in Wuxia martial art
which lead him to created one of the highest-grossing films in China called Hero (2002). He

directed movies with a similar style like in House of Flying Daggers (2004) and The Curse of the

Golden Flower 2006. These films show that Zhang Yimou is a versatile director who enjoys

exploring different themes which relate to todays issues as well.

Of Zhangs first films, Red Sorghum focuses on Chinas old society and human instinct.

For instance, he presents characters who are forced to do things against their will due to old

Chinese traditions. In addition, her female characters are always strong and determined. Even

though she is married to the lord of the house, she wants to be treated as equal and be able to

decide for herself. In the first part of the movie, her father forces her to marry and old, sick

person for money and begins to question her fathers love towards her. The film tells the story of

how the narrators grandmother and grandfather met and fell for each other after the

grandfather saves her from a bandit. According to David Neo in his article Red Sorghum: A

Search for Roots states that Red Sorghum return to grass roots also seems to be a celebration of

the carnal. The film invokes many ideas of Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtins notion of the

carnival; mostly a return to basic biological needs such as eating, drinking, defecating, making

love and rearing children (4). The celebration of the carnal is seen when her savior takes the

main character in the deeps of the Sorghum field to consummate their love. On the other hand,

the tone of the movie rapidly changes to a chaotic event. For instance, The beginning and mid

part of the movie displays a quiet and happy life at the Sorghum distillery, but this lifestyle

completely changes to horror and anger after the Japanese invasion. In a scene, Japanese people

are represented as inhuman when they force a butcher to peel the skin of his boss in front of

everyone. This scene is a strong representation of hardship and oppression. On the other hand,
Zhang uses a reddish color in this film is a symbolic element that invites the viewer to reflect the

passion, violence, and struggles against life and the Japanese invasion. This film doesnt seem to

take sides with a political view, but this changes after Zhang makes To Live 1994.

In To Live Zhangs films moves from domestic issues to a more broad and political

concern about recent events. This film is a perfect example of the tough reality of a period where

news rules were affecting the peasants than helping to improve their life. In the movie, we follow

a Chinese family that goes through several challenges and loses their kids because of the effects

of the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward. However, none of them blame their bad

luck on the government, but in themselves. Sadly, they blindly believe that everything will get

better and all they need to do is to live despite the adversities.On the other hand, this period

condemned wealthy people and was seen as the enemy of the new Chinese society. In the article

Chinese filmmakers overcome a wall of opposition written by Patrick McCormick Filmmakers

stories has shifted, moving from small intimate portraits of domestic patriarchal in the pre-

communist '20s to epic landscapes addressing the flow and impact of modern Chinese political

history. The author discusses that the film gives explicit criticism towards official doctrine and

authoritarian structures (Par. 18). An example of this is when the family realizes that they need to

keep their heads downs and forget about being landlords since they were executing and shaming

people for it. Since they were afraid that the new government would find out about their past,

they decided to frame a certificate that the communist people gifted to him after his service.

They even swore and convinced themselves that being poor isgood thing. The fact that they

have to beleive that living in poor conditions is fine, it is concerning since it questions the

governments efforts to improve the life of their people.

It is important to realize that a lot of promotional images of the leap forward and Maos

face everywhere, which made it seem as if the people were worshiping Mao as a god. There is

also a scene where a man gives a portrait of Mao as an apology and present. This may tell the

viewers that their current society was brainwashed by the promises and believed in their social

ideology blindly. The film was internationally praised for its honest depiction of this era.

However, it was banned because the Chinese government believed that the film was attacking

Chinas system and their politics forbidding Zhang to make films for over two years.

After several films, Zhangs interest shifted towards action movies due to the recent

increase in popularity in Wuxia films, which lead him to produce one of the most beautiful

movies ever made, Hero (2002). This time Zhang chooses to make a movie set in the Qin

dynasty and its base on the story of the attempted assassination of Emperor Qin, Similar to his

earliest movies Zhangs work is characterized by its large use of saturated and soft color. This

style was even more notorious in Hero where he uses four different colors to illustrate different

versions of an intriguing story. Compare to the film To Live where it seems to criticize

despotism, in Hero, the film takes side with Emperor Qin who is known for being a ruthless and

inhuman governor. Critics believed that the film is suggesting ruthless leadership justifications

and is agreeing with the way on how Qin is trying to bring people together.

The film received extremely favorable reviews in mainland China and internationally.

However, it caused criticism around whether or not Zhang was approving despotism in chinas

history. In the article Hero: Chinas response to Hollywood globalization by Jenny Kwok Wah

Lau The script's complacency towards a brutal dictatorial leader created much disturbance
among critics, especially since the Chinese government, under the then Prime Minister Jiang

Zemin, had given its support to the film project (24). Nonetheless, Zhangs work also focuses

on bringing a unique artistic version of a story where he creates a new world, therefore, it can not

be judged solely on Chinese politics and issues from the past. In The Imagery of Zhang Yimous

Films of Social Criticism and his Humanism by Man Hung et al., states that It is grossly

unfair to expect Zhang to draw an analogy between the Chinese Communist Party and the Qin

Empire. After his previous critical films, he needed no apology to defend himself against the

accusation of being a politically compromised director. He made those films just to demonstrate

he was a commercially successful director. In other words, the film combines historical Chinese

landscapes and architecture and martial art together, which bringings a new style, and different

from the melodrama movies in Chinese cinema. As a result, it is perhaps one of the reasons why

Zhang Yimou produced a similar movie with commercialized themes and elements, but this time

he brings back one of his first subjects, such as women oppression, sexual repression, and man


The Curse of the Golden Flower is one of the most ornate Films of Zhang Yimou so far.

The details in the costumes, the lavishing colors, and beautiful shots make every scene a piece of

visual art. This time the film focuses on sexual repression and incestuous desires with a touch of

oppression and of course a portrayal of man dominance. This movie is set in the Tang dynasty

and the film tells a fictional story of an emperor slowly poisoning his empress after discovering

that she has been sleeping with the crown prince for three years. In the movie, it is revealed that

the empress tried to develop a relationship with the emperor, but he never notices her since he

already had someone else in his heart. All of this is combined with betrayal, vengeance, and
secrets revolving around this family. According to Christopher Orr in The Movie Review:

'Curse of the Golden Flower' it states that Zhang lets the competing machinations unfold in high

operatic style, with the characters alternating between venomous stares and wild, emotional

outbursts. Less an action film than Hero and (much) less a romantic adventure than House of

Flying Daggers, Curse of the Golden Flower instead fashions itself a kind of Shakespearean

melodrama." In other words, the film centers it more in the drama and tragedy with a subtle tone

of Wuxia art. Therefore, this movie is a different exploration of themes that focuses it more on

the drama and dark secrets of the royal family and how none of the main characters (the empress

and the emperor) seem to be the archetypal hero of the movie.

Movies such as, The Red Sorghum, To Live, Hero and the Curse of the Golden Flower

are important to recognize because it shows the evolution and exploration of his cinematographic

vision and his distinct way of telling stories throughout his films. For instance, Although these

films tell different stories, his movies often keeps many elements from his first film such as

women being independent human being who fights against male oppression. Moreover, we also

see a transition from use of color and isolated shots to a more long and vast landscape shots. In

his first movies, the color was an essential element to his film, but it was moderated unlike his

recent films such as in Hero and The Curse of the Golden Flower. Moreover, another difference

is that in his first movies he would often illustrate the life of the peasants, but he expanded and

put royal family in challenging situations. Although Zhang Yimou has become more

commercial, his films are always intriguing and with many meanings. He always brings back

characteristics from his old movies to the recent ones in a new style which makes his films and

himself a master of the filmmaking.

Works Cited

Crow, Jonathan. "Biography by Jonathan Crow." Allmovie. N.p., n.d. Web.


Man Hung, Sze1, and Chang2 Lien-ya. "The Imagery of Zhang Yimou's Films of Social

Criticism and His Humanism." International Journal of the Image, vol. 2, no. 2, July 2012, pp.


McCormick, Patrick T. "Chinese Filmmakers Overcome a Wall of Opposition." ["Chen

Kaige and Zhang Yimou"]. U.S. Catholic, vol. 60, Aug. 1995, pp. 45-48. EBSCOhost,
Neo, David. "Red Sorghum: A Search for Roots." Senses of cinema. N.p., Oct. 2003.

Web. <>.

Orr, Christopher. "The Movie Review: 'Curse of the Golden Flower'." The Atlantic.

Atlantic Media Company, 16 Apr. 2007. Web. 23 Apr. 2017.



Wah Lau, Jenny Kwok Wah Lau Kwok. "Hero: Chinas Response to Hollywood

Globalization." JUMP CUT A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA. N.p., n.d. Web.