13. Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (2005)
Being a Sino-Japanese co-production, the film premiered at the Tokyo International Film Festival on 22 October 2005 and was released in China on 22 December 2005.
The story revolves around Takata, an elderly angler who has been alienated for years from his son Kenichi. When he learns that his son is dying, he tries to revisit him, but his son refuses to see him. However, his wife gives him a videotape Kenichi has recorded, in order for him to get to know his son better. From the video, Takata learns that Kenichi is a passionate researcher of Chinese opera and in his travels, he has met the singer Li Jiamin, who has promised to perform the titular song in a year.
Takata decides to travel to Yunnan, where Li Jiamin resides, in order to record him himself and bring the footage to his son, as a token of his wish to heal the breach among them.
After his wuxia films, Zhang returns to his roots, and shoots a family drama that highlights life in rural China in contrast to the urban one. Once more, the images he presents are of utmost beauty, through a distinct simplicity that allows the audience to focus on the characters and plot. This time, however, realism is not present, particularly regarding the Chinese authorities, who are somewhat idealized. At the same time, the film becomes a bit too melodramatic at moments.
On the other hand, Ken Takakura gives a wonderful performance, in a laconic and measured fashion that counters the one by Li Jiamin, who plays himself with a rather entertaining hyperbole.
12. Shanghai Triad (1995)
The film is based on the novel “Rules of a Clan” by Li Xiao and takes place in 1930’s Shanghai, over the span of seven days. The story is viewed through the perspective of Tang, the 14-year-old nephew of a triad member, who has just arrived in the city to “work” in the same gang as his uncle. Through a series of unfortunate events, he ends up serving Xiao Jinbao, a cabaret singer and mistress of the boss, who also carries an affair with the number two man in the triad, Song.
As the gang warfare reaches its apogee, the true level of the triads’ infiltration in the city is revealed, with the police and the politicians being part of the game. Tang finds himself inside a world of violence and treacheries, where money and the thirst for power is everything.
Zhang directs another visually impressive film, with the scenes inside the club and the various action sequences highlighting the fact. However, the choice of having the story supplied by the boy’s point of view is unfortunate, since he has very little to do with the actual story. At the same time, the excessive focus on the club’s performances breaks the rhythm of the film.
11. Under the Hawthorn Tree (2010)
The film is an adaptation of the 2007 novel “Hawthorn Tree Forever” by Ai Mi, which was based on a true story set during the Cultural Revolution.
The story revolves around the romance of Zhang Jing Qiu, a high school student who has come to the small village in Yichang City to be re-educated, since both his parents were deemed capitalists, and the geology student Lao San, whose mother committed suicide after being accused as rightist.
The two of them fall in love almost immediately and their romance continues for the following year, with Lao eventually promising that he will wait for her to grow up. However, Zhang’s filial duties and a serious sickness have unexpected consequences for their relationship.
Zhang directs one of his simplest movies, with the strictly linear narrative being the highlight of this tendency. At the same time, quotations from Mi’s novel appear on screen, inducing the movie with a literary feel. The focus is on happiness, and the interaction with the collective good that usually leaves the former at a loss, with the film’s finale providing a heart-aching conclusion that justifies this concept.
Visually, the movie is magnificent, with the attention to detail at a degree that induces even the simplest object with symbolism. At the same time, the use of light is elaborate, as it highlights the beauty of the surroundings, but also of Zhou Dongyu, who plays the role of Jing Qiu.
10. Coming Home (2014)
Zhang adapts another novel by Geling Yang, this time “The Criminal Lu Yanshi”. The story revolves around Lu Yanshi and his wife, Feng Wanyu. Lu is a professor who is sent to a labor camp during the Cultural Revolution. Eventually, he manages to escape, only to see his daughter, Dandan, and his wife. His daughter, however, a teenage ballerina, is tempted to take the leading role in a play, in a series of events that result in her betraying her parents’ plan to meet with the police, and the arrest of Lu Yanshi.
Years later, Lu returns to his home only to find his family broken, Dandan working as a textile worker and Feng, who had a cruel fate after the events, suffering from dementia, not even remembering him. Lu tries to reawaken her memories.
Zhang makes another harsh comment regarding the Cultural Revolution and the catastrophic impact it had on the people of China. Furthermore, through Feng’s character, he symbolizes the collective unwillingness of the Chinese people to speak about this horrible period, as they are not able to bear the pain they endured. However, the deeper meanings and the symbolisms are put aside after a fashion, with the melodrama taking over, thus resulting in a very uneven film.
Gong Li is once more very good as Feng Wanyu, portraying her fragile character with accuracy. The one who steals the show, however, is Zhang Huiwen who magnificently portrays a spoiled girl who gradually transforms into an adolescent who is bitter and filled with guilt.
9. Red Sorghum (1987)
Zhang’s and Gong Li’s debut was a testament of what was to follow, with the film earning international acclaim and the Golden Bear award at the Berlin Film Festival. The script is based on the novel “Red Sorghum Clan” by Nobel laureate Mo Yan.
The film takes place in a rural village in China’s eastern province of Shandong, during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Jiu’er is sent to marry an elderly owner of a distillery. However, the owner dies and the distillery passes to Jiu’er, since he was without an heir. At the same time, a man appears in her life to repeatedly save her, and eventually having something to do with the first batch of liquor produced under her ownership. Eventually, the Imperial Japanese army invades the area and everything changes.
Having worked as a cinematographer before his directorial debut, Zhang focused on that aspect, presenting a number of outstanding frames, which manage to combine visual lyricism with a focus on realism. Through a distinctively melodramatic story, Zhang makes a tribute to the rural people, their everyday lives, and their resistance to the Japanese army.
The two parts of the movie, before and after the invasion, are a bit disconnected, but this is the only fault of an impressive debut.
8. House of Flying Daggers (2004)
By 859, the Tang Dynasty is approaching its downfall. The emperor is incompetent and the government corrupted. Uprisings occur throughout the country and many revolutionaries form teams to overthrow the regime. The most powerful among them is a hidden league called ‘House of the Flying Daggers’.
Their main tactic is to steal from the rich and give to the poor, an act that has made them very popular among the common people while infuriating the regime. Eventually the authorities manage to assassinate their leader, but the organization emerges even stronger.
Police officers Leo and Jin are tasked with eliminating the new leader, with their suspicions lying toward a blind dancer named Mei. However, a romance begins, which further complicates the situation.
Another visual masterpiece by Zhang, “House of Flying Daggers” is an epic dedicated to love, hate, passion, and revenge, in a distinctive Chinese combination.
The story actually revolves around the romance, which is in constant danger of becoming a tragedy. However, Zhang did not neglect the action elements, with some magnificent scenes occurring in the woods, where the film’s cinematography is astonishing.
7. The Road Home (1999)
Based on the novel “Remembrance” by Bao Shi, “The Road Home” also marked the debut of Zhang Ziyi, who took the place of Gong Li as Zhang’s muse for a short while.
The film begins in the present, when Luo Yusheng returns to his father’s village to bury him in the traditional way. Upon his return, he starts reminiscing about the stories he had heard as a kid about the idyll of his father with his mother in the 50s, in an era where marriage out of love was a very rare occasion.
Zhang uses his austere narrative style once more, in order to present an elegy to love, both romantic and through the relationship of teacher-student. He uses an unusual technique regarding the flashbacks presented in the film, since the present is photographed in black-and-white and the past in color. Furthermore, he uses mostly amateur actors in order to intensify the realism that permeates the film.
Zhang Ziyi showed the elements that would make her an international star later on, as the young girl who falls hopelessly in love with Luo’s father. Sun Honglei is impressive in a triple role.