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Zhang Yimou's Long Road Home
The personal and aesthetic odyssey of China's premier director

Alan A. Stone

The retrospective consideration of a filmmaker's work seems to demand a psychobiographical interpretation, even from those of us who have sworn off that practice. Such interpretation is particularly apt in the case of Chinese director Zhang Yimou, whose turbulent life has often matched the melodrama of his films. Political stigmatization, the triumph of his talents, a very public extramarital affair, personal and professional adversity, a struggle to find a new direction, and finally in his most recent film, The Road Home, a suggestion of artistic renewal. It takes a certain brashness to claim you have found the filmmaker in his films but to deny he is there at all is nonsense. Everyone who has written seriously about Zhang Yimou thinks he has found the man, and many believe Zhang's inspiration is principally political. I belong to a smaller school, we think Zhang Yimou is both an artist and a survivor, vacillating between those two sometimes conflicting projects.

His repeated successes at European Film Festivals made Zhang Yimou the best known of China's so-called "Fifth Generation" of filmmakers. His early films were breathtakingly beautiful. Zhang began as a cinematographer, and seemed to paint with his camera. Something about his colors and composition suggested the palette of ancient China in the form of modern, even abstract, art. Reds illuminate his screen and suffuse every scene of Raise the Red Lantern—a fiery sun setting over barren hills, the traditional red of the Chinese bride's silk wedding gown and draped sedan chair as her marital procession treks across the fields. He set his film Ju Dou in a cloth-dying factory (where he worked as a young man) and at a dramatic moment the bolts of cloth unfurl across the screen like strokes of paint across a canvas. It is a stunning and unforgettable moment, when the film medium achieves its original ambition as a visual art form.

But Zhang Yimou's early films were not intended to be mere painterly exercises. Instead he used his visual artistry to drive and heighten the narrative. His stories were enigmatic fables set in the past, and could be understood as veiled political criticism. And they were so understood both at home, where they caused trouble, and abroad, where they added to his cachet. Certainly those films were made in a period (1987 to 1995) of strict and sometimes arbitrary censorship and Zhang Yimou faced constant difficulties with the Chinese authorities. He has always been a marked man. Born into a family affiliated with the KMT (the—ultimately Taiwanese—National People's Party), he had been sent from secondary school out to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. Legend has it that he sold his own blood to purchase a camera and thus started his career as a photographer during ten years of hard labor.

After Mao's death, the new regime reopened the Beijing Film Academy in 1978 and Zhang was admitted as part of the first class. Three members of that class would put China back on the map of filmmaking. Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige (Yellow Earth, Farewell My Concubine) and Zhang Junzhao (One and Eight) were assigned to the distant and moribund Guanxi Studios to assist non-existent directors. They quickly constituted themselves as the "Youth Production Unit" and collectively directed their first film, One and Eight (1983)—later attributed to Zhang Junzhao alone. One year later, Zhang Yimou filmed Chen Kaige's Yellow Earth, the unexpected hit of the 1984 Hong Kong Film Festival, and the best thing about it was the cinematography. In 1987, Red Sorghum, the first film Zhang Yimou directed, was a critical and commercial success both in China and abroad. Zhang and his contemporaries were soon dubbed the "Fifth Generation," to single them out from the rest of China's filmmakers, who thereafter were unceremoniously lumped into four generations: the film pioneers, the realist tradition, the revolutionary film workers from Mao's army, and the first film-school-trained directors whose careers were interrupted by the Cultural Revolution.

At the Beijing Film Academy the Fifth Generation had been fed a steady diet of avant-garde European films: Fellini, Tarkovsky, the Nouvelle Vague. No surprise, then, that their films had a Western flavor and Western enthusiasts. By 1995 Martin Scorcese was calling the Fifth Generation directors "the best in the world."

Zhang is the Renaissance man of that remarkable group. He began his career as a cinematographer and actor, and in one film (The Old Well), was able to do both and earn a prize for his acting. At the height of his European acclaim in 1997, someone had the idea of inviting him to Florence to direct a production of Puccini's Turandot, an opera set in the Forbidden City of Beijing. Zhang collaborated with Zubin Mehta in a successful production and then convinced the Chinese authorities to allow a new version to be staged in the real Forbidden City. (The production process has been captured on film in a Canadian documentary, the Turandot Project.) It was an extraordinary spectacle with hundreds of soldiers and scores of dancers decked out in Ming Dynasty costumes, and all of it conceived by Zhang Yimou. Foreign visitors paid $1,500 a ticket to attend, and the event was the launching pad for the subsequent Three Tenors concert and China's successful efforts to prove it could host the Olympics. More recently Zhang Yimou has, with critical success, created a ballet based on his film Raise the Red Lantern.

Zhang Yimou's rise to fame as a filmmaker was fuelled by his discovery of the student actress Gong Li, a woman of extraordinary beauty. With distinctive high cheekbones and stature associated with Northern Mongolia, Gong Li was a far cry from the classic doll-like beauty traditionally prized in China. She was, however, an instant success, embodying the new woman, stronger and more independent. Gong Li would be the "star" of all of Zhang's most notable films: Red Sorghum, Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern, The Story of Qiu Ju, To Live, and Shanghai Triad. Zhang Yimou's camera lingered over her face; her body was discretely covered but nothing could obscure her radiant sexuality. The director filmed her reacting to tragic events with a luminescent flow of feelings. Her face could register the gamut of human emotions without ever fully revealing her inner nature. She has been aptly described as the Chinese Greta Garbo. Even when she played a rich man's unwilling concubine in Raise the Red Lantern, Gong Li drew the camera's attention to her face, not her body. And in her proud resistance to male oppression, Western audiences and Chinese authorities sensed an undercurrent of political opposition.

Zhang Yimou was a married man when he met Gong Li at the Beijing Acting School but they were soon living and working together. She became his muse and his mistress. They had both found, I believe, the great love of their lives. In his most compelling films, Zhang seeks to capture the full range of Gong Li's human possibilities. Sartre famously asked what one can know about another person and his long biography of Gustave Flaubert was a literary answer to that question. Zhang Yimou is preoccupied with the same question and his answer is elaborated through close-ups of Gong Li.

In The Story of Qiu Ju (Zhang's first film to be set in contemporary China), Gong Li plays a rural peasant wife outraged that the village chief has kicked her husband in the groin. Her obstinate search for justice, despite her advancing pregnancy and the opposition of her husband and his family, takes her to the bewildering hubbub of the city. Her husband, a mere shadow of a man, is left behind in the village and Gong Li is the story. Behind that story—and all the plot lines of these films—is the love affair between the director and his leading lady.

Of course, one can't say that Zhang was never tempted to reduce the range of Gong Li's human possibilities to predictable stereotypes. Code Name Cougar (1989) was an unexpected but informative failure. Zhang Yimou, who was being paid the equivalent of $100 a month by his studio when he made Red Sorghum, wanted to make some quick money. With Hong Kong backers the director made a crude attempt at a Hong Kong adventure film about a plane hijacking. He crammed Gong Li into a tight stewardess's uniform and high heels. Dressed as a conventional Hollywood sex symbol, she looked out of place and ill-used: an object rather than an engaging protagonist. Ironically, her sexuality was lost in the Hollywood stereotype, and the film fell far short of its commercial ambitions.

While the world of art house films knew Zhang Yimou as the maker of Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern, he saw himself as very much a creative experimentalist. Zhang's signature story—a beautiful fable set in the pre-communist past and shot with fixed cameras—had evolved and he left it behind with Qiu Ju. His next film, To Live, chronicles the Cultural Revolution and depicts a family surviving both its own dysfunctions and those of the political regime. Although Zhang Yimou does not write his own screenplays, he obviously selects and adapts stories that have meaning for him. He is, in my reading, first and last a pragmatic survivor who pushes his artistic project—imagination reinventing experience—as far as possible in a country where his family's KMT background made him a pariah.

To Live is a family story with epic, comic, and tragic elements. Gong Li's husband in the film is a compulsive gambler who loses everything his family owns and survives under both the old and the new regime by his art and his wit. The film spelled political disaster for Zhang Yimou, though in retrospect, the message seems more autobiographical than political. The authorities were furious that he had sent it to film festivals without their prior approval. The filmmaker was told he would not be allowed to make films for five years and they condemned the film for presenting a decadent and negative picture of China's past and its present. The film—perhaps Zhang Yimou's grandest—was banned in China. It was not the first of his films to be banned.

Although the censors at home and China watchers abroad find obvious (if veiled) political protest in his films, a compelling argument can be made that Zhang does not intend to criticize or protest the Chinese government but is simply pursuing his own personal sense of artistic truth. To be sure, one can see all sorts of political messages in any story that seriously explores the moral adventure of life, particularly when censors are looking over your shoulder. But that exploration—not a specifically political ambition—provides the most fundamental impulse in Zhang Yimou's films. For example, Ju Dou, one of his best films, produced immediately after Tiananmen Square, was described in the American media as "[a] thinly veiled political allegory about a young woman who is forcibly married to an abusive impotent old man who runs a dye factory." The old man is indeed awful, so the woman has an illicit affair with an equally tyrannized worker (who is her husband's nephew), and they produce a son who is even more awful. But what exactly is the allegory and what does it have to do with Tiananmen Square?

Nevertheless, Zhang's political troubles seriously hurt his filmmaking career. But perhaps most destructive was Gong Li's departure. Zhang had refused to divorce his wife, the love affair was over and so was their special magic. At the same time, ironically, the Chinese government changed its approach to filmmaking: officials told the studios to pay more attention to the bottom line and less to ideology. The people in charge took a new look at Zhang Yimou, this time with dollar signs in their eyes. They helped him to make Shanghai Triad (1995), a big-budget film with Gong Li cast as the kept showgirl of a Shanghai racketeer in the 1920s. She had always wanted to be a singer and this film has her singing and dancing in scanty costumes. But the showgirl character she played was spoiled and willful, not the sympathetic figure she had been in the love affair days, and here the camera's presentation of her bordered on sexual exploitation. The role reveals her limitations as an actress and for the first time one can sense that she is playing a part rather than living it. The plot suggested that it was the racketeer's influence and not the showgirl's talents on stage that made her the star.

Read biographically, Shanghai Triad represents the end of a love affair. It was the last film they made together. Gong Li had become an internationally celebrated movie star, better known to the public than the director. She began cashing in on her fame with commercial contracts, married a rich Singapore businessman, and moved on to Hollywood. She has already made a film with Jeremy Irons, Chinese Box, and reportedly will make her next film with Richard Gere. Gong Li has wealth and celebrity, but she seems aware that she has lost the distinctive artistry of her collaboration with Zhang Yimou.

Zhang Yimou, of course, could also have taken the money and run, as did his friend and Fifth Generation colleague Chen Kaige. But despite all of Zhang Yimou's political troubles, he somehow feels bound to China—to the language, history and traditions that he believes are the ground of his creativity. Despite these commitments, the Chinese at home and abroad have been his harshest critics, coming after him from all directions. Critics argue that his work is not subversive, that he is just pandering to Western stereotypes of China, that he is not really a Chinese filmmaker, that he is either uglifying or prettifying China—and, the deepest insult, that he is an unoriginal filmmaker churning out melodramas.

This last criticism comes from the younger generation of underground and independent filmmakers—the Sixth Generation, who specialize in portraying slices of the gritty reality of urban China. They may have gotten under Zhang Yimou's skin. In 1997, he decided to try his hand at an entirely different kind of film, a low-budget urban comedy, Keep Cool. In a radical departure he used hand-held cameras that bob and weave in an attempt to capture the frenetic energy of the Beijing cityscape. It is the kind of fad cinematography that seems to fascinate avant-garde directors while giving their audiences motion sickness. With art once more imitating life, Keep Cool is about a man whose would-be girlfriend leaves him for a millionaire. The basic premise is that the people of Beijing are now too busy to talk to each other (although the Chinese censors forced him to add a pat, conciliatory ending). Keep Cool was a success in China and with Chinese audiences everywhere, but Zhang Yimou conceded that for Western audiences more than half the humor was lost in translation.

The director's next experiment was still more extreme. He embarked on an even lower-budget project, Not One Less, a film with neither professional actors nor intellectual depth. The film is about a thirteen-year-old-girl (played by a thirteen-year-old girl) who is put in charge of the rural one-room schoolhouse when the teacher is called away to care for his sick mother. She is barely older than her charges and she is told that her pay depends on making sure that when the teacher returns he will find "not one less" student. Soon one of the boys runs off to the city. With no knowledge, money, or other resources, she pursues him and begins a single-minded, seemingly impossible search. The idea of the film is that the city folks (all played by themselves) cannot help but respond to the girl's urgent desperation. She is put on local television, the boy is found, and all return triumphantly to the village schoolhouse. The film left me with the feeling I had just watched a long infomercial for a Chinese government "Save the Children" drive, and I expected to be told where to send my donation. I later learned that in China and Europe the hat was actually passed around and funds collected for rural schools in China. The film sparked a new kind of political criticism from the West: Zhang had been co-opted and was making propaganda for the Chinese government. Whatever he was doing, Zhang Yimou the artist was absent from this film, nor was there any sign of his powerful mind or moral concern. Making the film may well have been an act of political pragmatism by Zhang the survivor, but it strikes me that the explanation may once again be psychological, rather than political, and there seems to have been a psychological remedy.

Zhang Yimou was making a shampoo commercial when he met a student actress named Zhang Ziyi who was auditioning for a part. It was not a promising beginning. She was young enough to be his daughter and when he decided to star her in his next film, she immediately became "little Gong Li" to the Chinese media. Whatever the details of their relationship may be, beauty has come back into Zhang Yimou's films, and in 1999 he filmed his first real love story.

The Road Home is another low-budget film about a rural one-room schoolhouse. And it would probably never have been released by commercial distributors in the United States had not the director Ang Lee seen Zhang Ziyi's performance. He gambled on the young actress for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the most commercially successful foreign language film ever made. Ang Lee's Zhang Ziyi—the young star on display at the Oscars and other award shows, now transformed by Hollywood into another sex object—is a quite different person from the one we see in The Road Home. In any case, it is her overnight fame and not Zhang Yimou's reputation that convinced commercial distributors to release The Road Home in America this year.

The film begins with heavily filtered blue-gray images on a white background. It is a bleak wintry scene as an SUV makes its way down an unpaved road to a rural village. The passenger is a man whose father—the teacher in the village's one-room schoolhouse—has recently died. The son, an only child, works in a distant city and is coming home to console his mother and to bury his father. The problem is that the mother has her own ideas about the funeral: she insists that the village honor an old, and logistically impossible, mourning ritual. As the son grapples with his mother's seemingly irrational demand, he begins to remember the story of his parents' courtship in the 1950s and the monochrome of the present gives way to the familiar colors of Zhang Yimou's palette and his characteristic reds. There before us in place of the wizened elderly mother is the lovely Zhang Ziyi—a cherubic village girl in a red jacket with as much determination then as now. The bulk of the film tells the story of this young girl falling in love in a small village during the Cultural Revolution.

In the present, the old woman insists that the men of the village must carry her husband's body the long distance from the city morgue where it lies, so he will not forget the road home to the village and to her. Ignored since the Cultural Revolution, this tradition is also impractical, since most of the men who would carry the coffin have long since left the village for work in the cities. But there is more to this old woman's urgency than tradition. She wants the village to show the proper respect for this schoolteacher, who was her husband. Respect is central to the film and to Zhang Yimou's version of a love story. The Cultural Revolution dispensed with one of the great Chinese traditions, respect for learning. The educated were sent out to the countryside to be purged of their bourgeois learning and Zhang Yimou was sent with them. He now suggests that the "free market" culture of China is once again breeding disrespect for education and for personal attachments. This time his allegory is clear: the one-room schoolhouse and its teacher constitute a sacred temple of learning and love. Here the great keeper of this faith is the beautiful and illiterate Zhang Ziyi. And Zhang Yimou is, I believe, that beloved teacher, asking for love and respect.

The Road Home tells a love story of a very special kind. In the West, love is a romantic refuge from an alienating community. And in a Western love story the man (of chivalry) takes the initiative and makes himself vulnerable to the possibility of rejection.

Zhang Yimou's love story runs counter to these stereotypes. Zhang Ziyi, as the young Zhoa Di, falls in love with the schoolteacher the moment she sees him, or rather the instant she hears his incomparable voice as he teaches his students. She is the prettiest girl in the village but he is an educated man from the city and too much for her to hope for, as her blind mother warns her. In most of this film, Zhang Yimou revisits his original aesthetic project with Gong Li. His camera patiently and lovingly studies Zhang Ziyi's face. Zhang Ziyi has the traditional doll-like Chinese beauty; indeed the camera captures a kind of child-like vulnerability. There is no glamour, no sexuality, on display, only the innocent emotions of a young girl in love. Her heart and mind have decided entirely against the tradition of her village, where marriages are meant to be arranged; hers will be the first love-marriage. Zhang Yimou shows us this young woman's desperate attempts to get the schoolteacher to notice her and at the same time her embarrassment at how forward she is being. Her cheeks redden before our eyes and we see her delight when their eyes meet.

Here there is a striking contrast between big and little Gong Li. From the very moment she appeared on the screen there was something erotic about Gong Li that could not be entirely hidden. What one sees in Zhang Ziyi is the pigtailed innocence of a child's love: there is not an erotic moment in this entire love story, not a kiss, not a touch. It is a love story as fairy tale. It is the antithesis of the gritty reality favored by China's new rebellious Sixth Generation directors and independent filmmakers everywhere. And the music score pushes it toward cloying sentimentality. What saves the film is the visual portrait of Zhang Ziyi running up and down hills in hopes of meeting the teacher, her red jacket against the changing seasonal landscapes. Hurrying along all bundled up in her winter clothes, too girlish to bend her elbows and really run—the body language is both eloquent and endearing. The colors of the actress's emotions and of Zhang Yimou's palette make the film as they made Gong Li's early films. And the wondrous feature of the love story is that it brings the entire village together as they recognize the miracle taking place in their midst. Not only does the whole community unite to root for the prettiest girl in the village, but the courtship always comes back to the school and to the respect and love that the teacher inspires in the village and in Zhoa Di. When she gets her man despite the supposed social-class distance between them and despite the barriers put in their way by the Cultural Revolution, it is not merely a private triumph.

When the son's memories are completed, the screen returns to its monochrome and to the present dilemma. But having recalled the personal and communal significance of his mother's love, the son accedes to her demand and pays the village chief to hire men from nearby villages to help carry his father's body.

There are many things that Zhang Yimou's camera does brilliantly—one of them is filming processions. The red bridal procession in Red Sorghum became an instant archetype in cinema lore. Here the funeral procession, muted in blue-black as it is, nonetheless has the same kind of psychological and aesthetic impact. Down the long road home comes the funeral cortege through the snow and the wind. Unexpectedly, a crowd of the father's old students have turned out to help. Men keep rushing up to take their honored turns carrying the coffin. The mother and son walk arm-in-arm behind the coffin. The mayor approaches them, returns the son's money and explains that all the pall-bearers have refused their pay. The mother—determined in grief as she was in love—has again renewed the miracle of community for her village. The film ends with the son teaching one day in the schoolhouse to honor his father's vain hope that he would replace him. The lesson he reads is one his father had composed himself and we have heard it several times in the films. It is a hymn to the virtues of education, that concludes with the imperative: "Know your past. Know your present."

There is sadness in this film despite its tale of love and solidarity. Perhaps because we know Zhang Ziyi has already left China and Zhang Yimou behind, we cannot help but imagine the director standing outside in that bleak wintry landscape with memories of love. But Zhang Yimou seems to have come out of his funk. No longer a pariah in his own nation, he was called on to make the film that was part of China's successful submission to the Olympic Committee. One can imagine him choreographing and directing the opening day ceremonies that will be seen around the world. The media reports all sorts of new projects: a Magic Flute in Germany, a Kung Fu movie, etc. It comes as no surprise that Zhang Yimou has also announced that one of his next projects will be The Great Empress of the Tang Dynasty, starring Gong Li. Both seem to know that they are much less apart than they were together.


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Alan A. Stone is Toureff-Glueck Professor of Law and Psychiatry at Harvard Law School.

Originally published in the October / November 2001 issue of Boston Review



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