Filmmaker Retrospective: The Tragic Cinema of Zhang Yimou


Anger, jealousy, passion, and love are common emotions to all human beings, and this is perhaps why Zhang Yimou’s films appeal to audiences over the world. The universality of the characters and situations he portrays has earned him recognition in the Western film industry. However, he remains loyal to the context in which he places his films: in every one he depicts parts of Chinese history and culture, varying from the Tang Dynasty during the first century AD, to the Cultural Revolution during the 1960’s, or addressing stories that go from the hardships of life in rural parts of China, to the family dramas of ancient emperors.

Zhang himself lived through an important part of his country’s history. He was born in 1951, and while the Cultural Revolution took place from 1966 to 1976, he witnessed during his adolescence how Mao Zedong, the Chairman of the Communist Party of China, imposed communism and fought capitalism in the whole nation. This influenced his later works and inspired him to discuss topics like fate, suffering, and human relationships, all under harsh circumstances.

When the Cultural Revolution ended and the Beijing Film Academy reopened, he was one of the first to apply. However, at 27, he was over the age limit for admission and therefore was rejected several times. After various appeals and showing a portfolio of his work as a photographer he was finally admitted, becoming a part of the first class to graduate since the Cultural Revolution, in 1982.

Many of these graduates, including Zhang Yimou, became part of what is known as the Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers. Even though their films are very different in both themes and styles, they shared their desire to make critical statements that reflected their experiences during the Cultural Revolution, and their rejection towards the ideological traditions worked by cinema during the Communist era. They also popularized Chinese cinema abroad.


Zhang Yimou’s first films weren’t well received in China and didn’t reach audiences locally, for they became targets of censorship. Yet they were very well-received internationally, and worthy of the various awards they garnered. He continued to explore the adversities of life in small Chinese rural communities through his work during the 90’s. His later films then turned into a different direction. He adopted the genre of wuxia, or martial arts films, and these evidenced his meticulous and breathtaking use of color, launching him as a more commercial director and a huge international success.

This director, so restless, curious and meticulous with color, shows throughout his filmography a particular interest in the color red, as it is clearly evidenced in two of the film titles presented in this retrospective. In these, as well as in many others, red is a protagonist, as well as a strong mark that contrasts with other cooler colors, giving the images an almost surreal aspect that transcends the narrative of the films. Zhang Yimou is a filmmaker that worries about tradition and history, and about how the combination of these two affects the fate of the characters in his tragedies.


1. Red Sorghum (1987)

Red Sorghum (1987)

Based on two books by Mo Yan (Nobel Prize in 2012), titled Red Sorghum and Sorghum Festival, this became the first Chinese movie to ever win the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival. The leading role is played by Gong Li, who started her career in acting as Zhang Yimou started his career as a director, thus building a very significant working duo that would prevail for years, up until 1995, with Shanghai Triad.

The story takes place in the village of Gaomi, located in the province of Shandong, during World War II. A woman is forced to marry the owner of a sorghum distillery, but she falls in love with one of the men in her wedding party who is in charge of taking her to her new husband. Their grandson, who is never shown but who seems to know everything through the tales of his father and grandfather, narrates the story.

As the plot moves forward, the theme of woman and her place in society, especially regarding traditions, becomes evident for the first time, but definitely not the last, in Zhang’s films. Also, one of the visual stamps identifies this director is already present: the image of a figure that moves in front of a strong backlight, allowing it to filter intermittently towards the camera, as a red tint floods the screen.


2. Ju Dou (1990)


The formula “oppressed woman who falls in love with someone she shouldn’t” repeats itself on this occasion, but it acquires more complex themes. In the rural China of the 1920’s, Ju Dou marries the violent owner of a dyeing mill, who beats her night after night. Yang Tianquing, the owner’s right hand and nephew, realizes what is going on and tries to help her. He ends up having a romance, and eventually a child, with her.

Some time after that, the mill owner suffers an accident and looses his ability to walk. He then discovers that the child he thought to be his is actually his nephew’s, and the drama gets more complicated when they all decide to pretend that the kid is the mill owner’s son for the sake of appearances.

This film pretends to expose two planes of reality, which, through ironic situations, never cross. The first one is tradition and what it forces each character to be in front of society. It clashes with the second one, the real story of what is going on inside that mill.

There is the owner, who is tortured by the new couple after his accident; there is a woman who rebels against the feudal patriarchy imposed on them; and there is the child, who grows with a hate that is only explicable by the ancestral responsibilities he was born with, being a bastard child. This last character struggles between what others tell him he should be as the son of a miller who should not allow his mother to have affairs with other men, and what he really is as the result of a love outside marriage.

Due to its apparent disturbance to the ideal of tradition, this film was banned in China, and only years after it’s release was the ban lifted. Just as in Zhang Yimou’s first movie, Ju Dou was internationally successful, becoming the first Chinese film to be nominated as Best Foreign Language Film in the Academy Awards.


3. Raise the Red Lantern (1991)

Raise the red lantern

Set in the 1920’s, a time when the control of China’s land was divided amongst warlords, this film tells the story of a young woman who becomes the Fourth Wife of a wealthy man. She then has to live and compete with the other three wives for the attention of their husband, as well as the respect of their servants. This film was adapted from the novel Wives and Concubines by Su Tong, and even though Chinese censors approved its screenplay, the final film was banned from China for a while.

It depicts ancient traditions that families have followed strictly for centuries, including the treatment of women as nothing but objects of pleasure destined to serve a man. The whole spectacle is based on a red lantern. Every evening the wives have to wait by their door. A servant then places a red lantern in front of the wife that the husband wishes to spend the night with. The chosen wife gets all the red lanterns of her house lit, a foot massage, and the privilege to pick the next day’s menu.

The main character and Fourth Wife, played by Gong Li, is the only one who seems to question the ways of the household. Through her, a bold critique is made towards the established rules of a male-dominated society, rules that must be followed and can’t be broken for the sake of tradition. She wonders, “what are we really, those who live here? We are less than nothing. We are like dogs, like cats…or like rats. We aren’t human.”

The art direction in this film looks more carefully chosen than Zhang’s previous ones. Red is still present in the title as well as in strong pieces of scenography and costume design, such as the lanterns, the wives’ rooms, and occasionally their dresses and lips. It isn’t as present in the overall tint of the film as it was in his previous films, except for a few shots when Songlian, the Fourth Wife, is in bed with her husband.

In other moments light blues and whites dominate, but always with a little red to contrast. Aesthetically, this film is astonishing, and it serves as a peek into what some of his future films like Hero and House of Flying Daggers would look like. Raise the Red Lantern won various awards, including a Silver Lion for Best Director in the Venice International Film Festival, and many other nominations including Best Foreign Film in the Academy Awards.


4. The Story of Qiu Ju (1992)


This time the defiance of authority is presented through a smaller struggle. Winner of the Golden Lion in the Venice International Film Festival in 1992, The Story of Qiu Ju stands as a visually simple film and with an art direction that is a lot less sophisticated than in Zhang Yimou’s previous films.

It tells the story of Qiu Ju, a pregnant woman who asks for a compensation for the harm done to her husband by the town’s mayor during a fight. The mayor gives her a sum of money by throwing it to the floor, telling her that she can have it if she kneels in front of him as she does. She refuses and from that moment onward, makes a series of journeys to the city trying to take the case to higher powers until the mayor admits he was wrong.

Based in the novel by Chen Yuabin, The Wan Family’s Lawsuit, this movie highlights the Chinese contemporary situation, in which there is an abysmal difference between the countryside and the city, the bureaucracy prevents quick solutions to problems, and the multiplicity of voices everywhere overwhelm an individual. The director exposes all of these in a specific scene, where Qiu Ju exposes her case to the authorities in an office full of many other people who wait for their turn: the conversations of these people have a volume level almost as loud as her interview with the man in charge.

Once again, women’s status in China is discussed by another one of Zhang’s films, but this time the main character is more decided, able to surpass adversities, and make a difference. She doesn’t surrender to the imposed rules, but instead fights them. These values are interpreted by Gong Li, who received various international awards for her roll, including Best Actress in the Venice International Film Festival.


5. To Live (1994)

To Live (1994)

An adaptation from a novel, this time the book of the same name by Yu Hua, the film follows a family in China from the 1940’s until after the Cultural Revolution is over in the 1980’s.

Gong Li stars in it and she plays the wife of Xu Fugui, interpreted by Ge You, who loses everything he owns at a gambling game at the beginning of the movie. From that moment on, his family undergoes hardships in the context of various Chinese historical moments such as the Civil War between the KMT government and the Communist Party of China, and later on the Cultural Revolution, when Communism was imposed. However, Master Fugui keeps reassuring the rest of the family that what’s really important is to be alive, and that life will get better and better.

However, in spite of the constant reiteration of various characters that all they want is a quiet, peaceful life, they struggle with fate, tragedy, and every political and social change that China was going through at the time. The narrative is episodic, for it recounts different moments of the family’s history, as well as different moments in Chinese history, divided by titles that mark as decades pass by. Overall, it is a fascinating testimony of ordinary human lives dealing with whatever life throws at them.

This film takes place in a small city, rather than a rural setting like most of Zhang Yimou’s previous films. Therefore, landscapes are not as present and neither is the color red. Although it still shows a few moments where red is present, the film’s photography is dominated by a gray palette. Music, used until then in his other work to highlight only important parts of the plot, is now used in a much more emotional way. The whole spirit of the story seems to be optimistic, due to its apparently hopeful and happy ending, but it is actually quite tragic taking into account what the film shows as a whole.


6. Shanghai Triad (1995)

Shanghai Triad (1995)

The topics of servitude and power strike again in Zhang Yimou’s filmography. This time in a gangster movie that recreates the decade of the 30’s. A country boy named Shuinsheng comes to the city of Shanghai to work with his uncle, who serves a dangerous group of gangsters. The young boy is commanded to look after the famous singer Xiao Jiabao, interpreted by Gong Li, who happens to be the mistress of the gang’s leader.

This film exposes a different hierarchical dynamic where protocol and rules are indispensable to maintain order, and therefore survive. The story, full of traditions and complots, presents the emotions and aspirations of different characters, which vary depending on the position they have in the social structure imposed by this dangerous world.

As a period piece based on a novel by Li Xiao, Shanghai Triad holds a very elaborate photography characterized by a delicate use of light, in which the juxtaposition of different shots with different shades of red, and sometimes blue, reaffirm the tendencies of the director’s previous films: images in which saturated colors give the story a supernatural air.

Camera movement is elaborate and in occasions highlights the feelings of expectancy and suspense created by the constant danger in which Shuinsheng lives. This is achieved with slow takes and subjective shots that describe the spaces through which the boy transits.