Chinese director Zhang Yimou was long considered a critic of his country's regime. Lately, though, he has focused on sumptuous period pieces -- and Beijing hopes his new film, "Flowers of War," will establish the country as a cultural world power.
Zhang Yimou has seen just one German film, viewed on a pirated DVD. "The wiretapping film," he explains, placing his hands over his ears to resemble the headphones worn by actor Ulrich Mühe in his most famous role: as an agent of the Stasi, or East German secret police, in the 2006 German feature film "The Lives of Others." "Many Chinese people like that film," Zhang says with a smile.
What he leaves unsaid: "The Lives of Others" is a portrait of a dictatorship persecuting and corrupting its best artists.
Director Zhang, 60, is in his offices in a high-rise in southern Beijing. Outside, the city is mired in smog; inside, next to an IKEA couch, stands an air purifier, the new status symbol for wealthy, urban Chinese. The Chinese edition of the Steve Jobs biography is lying on a conference table and the walls are decorated with posters of Zhang's films, such as "Raise the Red Lantern," "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers."
Zhang Yimou has been making films for 25 years. He's China's best-known director in the West and a star here at home. Zhang's career can be seen as an allegory for China's ascent to world power status, but it can also serve as an example of the toll that ascent takes.
A Unique Career
Zhang made his directorial debut in 1988 with "Red Sorghum," which won him a Golden Bear, the highest award at the Berlin International Film Festival, or Berlinale. Some of his subsequent films were banned in his home country, yet he was tapped to direct the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. His is a unique career, even by Chinese standards.
This week, Zhang will be back in Berlin, where his new film "The Flowers of War" will show at the Berlinale, although this time as an "out of competition" selection, meaning it's not in the running for the festival's Golden or Silver Bears. The main objective is to get the film into global distribution, and to that end, an agency in Los Angeles is overseeing its marketing. The film's presentation at the Berlinale marks the high point of a global publicity campaign, with China stepping up to challenge Hollywood.
"The Flowers of War" is the most expensive Chinese film ever made, with production costs of $94 million (€72 million) and a Hollywood star in the leading role: British Oscar winner Christian Bale, famous for his portrayal of Batman. Bale, too, is expected in Berlin this week.
In "The Flowers of War," Bale plays a fictional American who becomes entangled in a real life tragedy -- the 1937 Nanjing Massacre, also known as the "Rape of Nanking," one of the worst war crimes of the 20th century, in which Japanese troops murdered or raped hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens when they occupied the city, then the capital of the Republic of China. That period strains relations between China and Japan to this day.
"China's younger generation doesn't know much about the events in Nanjing," Zhang says, something he noticed while working on the film. "But almost everyone here knows 'Schindler's List.' Hollywood movies have a big influence on us in China. What we need to do now is further develop our own film industry. We need to produce films that Chinese people want to see -- and, of course, foreign audiences as well."