The Politics of Cinema
Cinema in China is a political matter, and no one personifies that better than Zhang, who was born in 1951 and is therefore just two years younger than the People's Republic of China itself. His father fought as a soldier with the Kuomintang's army -- in other words, against Mao Zedong's Communists.
At first, the soldier's son wasn't allowed to attend university. For years, Zhang Yimou had to work in agriculture and at a textile factory. Not until 1978, after the Cultural Revolution ended and a cautious measure of liberalization began in China, was he admitted to university in Beijing. Artist Ai Weiwei was a fellow student but, Zhang says, "we studied in different departments, he in painting and I in film."
Zhang directed his first film in 1987. "Red Sorghum" told the story of a young woman living in rural China in the 1930s, who manages to maintain her dignity until the point when Japanese soldiers arrive, sowing death and destruction. "Red Sorghum" caused a sensation at the 1988 Berlinale. Zhang portrayed China as the West had never seen it before, strong-willed, creative and full of life -- the film was a celebration of the strength of the individual. Zhang also gave world cinema a new star, leading actress Gong Li, who became Zhang's partner when he left his wife for her.
Bans at Home
The Golden Bear for "Red Sorghum" was China's first-ever festival success in the West, and it caused unease on the part of some cultural bureaucrats in Beijing. After the regime's tanks crushed the 1989 student protests at Tiananmen Square, censors started making Zhang's life difficult. They suspected, and were not entirely wrong, subtle criticism of the regime. "Raise the Red Lantern," for example, the 1991 film that is perhaps Zhang's best work, presents itself as a marital drama, but hides a deeper study of a system of violence, an examination of assimilation, resistance and the resulting consequences. The heroine of the film ultimately goes insane.
At this point, Zhang was producing his films with financial backing from investors in Hong Kong and Japan. Often, filming took place in China, but the footage was developed and edited abroad, keeping it out of the reach of the Chinese authorities. The bureaucrats then took revenge in their own way, by banning "Raise the Red Lantern" and other of Zhang's films from Chinese theaters. Those bans "have never officially been rescinded," the director says. His films achieved popularity within the country as videos distributed on the black market.
In 1994, when Zhang wanted to travel to Cannes to receive an award, Chinese authorities refused to issue him a travel permit. They forbade him from giving interviews to Western journalists, or advised him not to comment publicly on certain topics.
Change in the New Millennium
The new millennium brought a radical change to Zhang's work. "Hero," nominated for an Oscar in 2003, is an action film that celebrates a despot, the King of Qin, who founded the first Chinese Empire more than 2,200 years ago. The king was responsible for the construction of the Great Wall of China, but also for the empire's transformation into a police state, as well as the assassination of countless political opponents. Mao Zedong liked to invoke the King of Qin to justify his own megalomania. "Hero" seems to express sympathy for the firm hand with which China's current leadership rules.