Filmmaker Retrospective: The Tragic Cinema of Zhang Yimou

7. Not One Less (1999)


This is an optimist film, as few others in this retrospective are. It is based on A Sun in the Sky, the story by Shi Xiansheng, and it represents one of the most successful points in Zhang’s career.

It follows the story of Wei Minzhi, a thirteen-year-old girl who has to look after a small rural class because their teacher has to leave for a month. The mayor of the town tells her that she will receive 60 yuan if, by the time the teacher comes back, there isn’t one less child in the class. However, Zhang Huike, the mischievous boy from school, eventually has to leave to the city looking for a job to help pay family debts. With an incomplete class, Wei decides to go look for him and bring him back to the classroom. Therefore, illiteracy and rural poverty become important themes in this film.

Just like in The Story of Qiu Ju, the vulnerability of a country girl in the chaotic city is portrayed. The camera witnesses how innocence transits a hostile space in modern times where rules and protocol are still so present. When Wei goes to a television station to ask for help in finding her student, the receptionist denies her access because the girl has no documentation. This is when a typical Zhang Yimou character reveals itself: she resists by remaining at the door for one day and a half asking every man with glasses if he is the boss of the place.

Not One Less approaches Neorealism in its use of natural actors and in its camera use, which seems to be registering a documentary in certain moments of shakiness. This film won the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival in 1999.


8. The Road Home (1999)

The Road Home (1999)

Just like in Red Sorghum, the main characters’ son narrates this film. However, this time the director shows both moments in time: the present, where the son meets his mother who is mourning his father’s death, and the past, where the story of how his parents met and fell in love is told. In the former, Zhang chose to use black and white with a very subtle blue tint, while in the latter he uses full color, where once again red is given a special meaning in the mother’s red jacket.

The conflict revolves around the mother’s wishes to bring his father’s body back to their town, for he died in a snowstorm on his way back home, but she wishes to do so as the old tradition commands: by foot. The themes of love, family, and traditions are conveyed in this sentimental romance. Music is used to reinforce the emotionality of this love story in key moments.

Yet another film based on a novel, this time Remembrance by Bao Shi who also wrote the screenplay for the movie, it was shot immediately after Not One Less and was well received both in China and abroad. It also served as the debut of the actress Zhang Ziyi, who plays the young mother in the past portion of the story.


9. Hero (2002)


For the first time in his filmography, Zhang Yimou works with a story outside of the 20th century. With an original screenplay, Hero is based on a legend about the birth of China as a nation. It used to be divided into seven states, each with a different king, and the ruler of state of Qin aspired to conquer and unify all the states. He eventually achieved his goal, thus becoming the first emperor of China.

In the film, the King of Qin lives secluded in his palace in fear of three powerful warriors whose intentions are to kill him and restore balance between states. Nameless presents himself in the palace with the swords of these warriors as proof of his victory over them. This causes different versions of the events to be told throughout the film, only to find the true version in the end. The structure and form in which the action unfolds is very similar to the one in Rashomon by Akira Kurosawa, where one event is narrated from different perspectives, until the truth is finally discovered.

Each version narrated in Hero illustrates the tragedy that is to love, sacrifice and fight in times of war. The film as a whole discusses the concept of what it means to be a hero, and how far he or she will go in order to achieve his or her mission. It applies to every main character in the film, each with a complex background, motivation and final goal. This film is from the genre wuxia, or martial arts film, which focuses on martial arts heroes.

Regarding the aesthetics, an aspect that has given the film most of its prestige, the director carefully chose a different color to represent each version of the story. There is red, of course, blue, white and green, and each one completely takes over the screen when its time to shine comes. They play a role that is not just merely decorative, but also symbolic and echoing to each version’s emotionality. This provokes the spectator to be continuously dazzled by the light, the color, and the movement, all carefully measured and creating an overall delightful visual piece to watch. It was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2003.


10. The House of Flying Daggers (2004)

The House of Flying Daggers (2004)

After his success with Hero, Zhan Yimou continued to explore the genre of wuxia, but this time with a new story of love and tragedy that are more emphasized than the actual martial arts. Set during the decline of the Tang Dynasty, when rebel groups like the House of Flying Daggers form, the film lends itself to a complex storyline involving various schemes from both the local authorities and the Flying Daggers in order to fool the opposite side. The result is a love triangle that ends in disaster.

The theme of a beautiful woman as the downfall of men is recurrent in this movie, and it is reinforced by the repetition of a song (originally a Chinese poem written around the year 80 BCE) that translates to something like:

A rare beauty in the North…
She’s the finest lady on earth
A glance from her, the city falls
A second glance leaves the whole nation in ruins
There is no city or nation that has been
More cherished than a beauty like this.
This vision of women is different than the one evidenced in Zhang’s first films, where his main concern was to depict and criticize women’s status in a Chinese patriarchal society.

Once again, strong color is a very important part to this film. Green is the protagonist for most of the film, with abundant scenes shot in bamboo forests. However, in the final portion of the movie snow takes over, creating a perfect canvas for the color that has proven to be the director’s favorite: red, this time in the form of blood that stands out against the white snow. Camera movements are also very intelligently used in order to highlight the beautifully choreographed fighting scenes. This film was nominated for Best Cinematography in the Academy Awards.


11. The Curse of the Golden Flower (2006)

The Curse of the Golden Flower (2006)

Still interested in the ancient history of China, Zhang Yimou brings a film that is based on a 1930’s play by Cao Yu titled Thunderstorm, but makes a few changes to set the narrative in the Imperial court during the Tang Dynasty. This time, however, the plot is entirely fictional and is not loyal to history. It shows the internal situation of the Royal Family, where the decadent marriage of the emperor and empress leads them to plot each other’s death. The story turns out to be worthy of a Shakespearian tragedy for it involves fights for power, intrigues, and incest, all of which are surrounded and heightened by the extravagant splendor of the palace and its servants.

The art direction of this film is unlike anything seen before by Zhang. Gold is everywhere, from the walls of the halls and columns to the details in every costume, and from the Gong Li’s lips to the thousands of chrysanthemums that give the film its name. An interesting analysis is made in The New York Times by stating that “energy and excess — of color, symbolism and emotion — are [Zhang Yimou’s] antidotes to memories of uniformity and repression”, referring to the director’s past experience with the Cultural Revolution.

Even thought his films have stopped reflecting his inconformity with the Communist era in China, the quote previously mentioned suggests that his newer films could also be an indirect way of protest.


12. The Flowers of War (2011)

The Flowers of War (2011)

So used to turning novels into movies, Zhang Yimou takes to the big screen 13 Flowers of Nanjing by Geling Yan. During the Japanese invasion to Nanjing in World War II, a group of convent girls take refuge in a church. John, a mortician from the United States, arrives to this place and becomes in charge of the situation. Soon after, a group of prostitutes that are looking for a place to stay safe from the attacks manage to get inside the church, even against the will of its occupants.

After these two very different ways of seeing the world meet, the war tests the courage and will to sacrifice of this particular collective who, above all, will fight death. This production, being the most expensive in the history of Chinese cinema (costing 94 million dollars), is outstanding not only in its special effects and technical performance, but also in its screenplay. It explores complex characters with enriching backgrounds that are cohesive and fit perfectly into the plot of the story.

Even though some spectators and critics didn’t approve of the main character interpreted by Christian Bale, the only Hollywood star in the cast of a Chinese movie, because of his role as the humanitarian American who represents hope and salvation, his presence is well justified in the plot. In addition, some critics from the international press rated The Flowers of War as propagandistic and pro-government. However, Zhang Yimou has claimed to be apolitical for years.

In 1999 he declared to the Beijing Youth Daily:

“I cannot accept that when it comes to Chinese films, the West seems for a long time to have had just the one ‘political’ reading: if it’s not “against the government” then it’s “for the government”. The naïveté and lack of perspective of using so simple a concept to judge a film is obvious.”

The Flowers of War goes accordingly to the process that this director started over two decades ago. The theme of the individual, especially women, as a victim of her context persists. This time it is approached through the contrast between the innocence in childhood and the suffering in adulthood. A scene that summaries this mixture is when Shu, a girl from the convent, watches through a stained glass window how the group of prostitutes walks towards the church: innocence and adulthood, the sacred and the profane, all in one image.

The art direction and photography of the film are very carefully chosen. Even though gray and desaturated colors dominate, Zhang Yimou manages to locate pops of color in specific objects, which make the art direction very unique. Additionally, the film shows an amazing sequence shot that successfully creates the sensation of being in war. It takes place when John is looking for two of the prostitutes in the middle of a destroyed building.

Overall, even if it would seem as if Zhang Yimou was succumbing to the Hollywood ways due to his use of a Hollywood star and a more commercial aesthetic, it is important to note that this director never fails to stay loyal to the history of his country.

Author Bio: “Salvana” is composed by two people, like a chemical compound. Two different views of the world and the moving pictures. Both study Film and Television in the National University of Colombia.