And Zhang has held to that course. More recent films such as "House of Flying Daggers" and "Curse of the Golden Flower" are sumptuous period pieces, no longer set among everyday Chinese citizens, but at the courts of dynasties from the distant past. Intricately choreographed crowd and battle scenes have become more important than psychology.
The development in this direction reached its peak with Zhang's opening ceremony for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. The director used thousands of extras to form majestic, geometric patterns, a triumph of the masses over the individual. The New Yorker magazine compared Zhang to Leni Riefenstahl, the notorious director of propaganda films for the Nazi Party. 'True to Myself'
The charge that he's transformed from dissident to propagandist offends the director. "A lot of people think I'm close with the regime, but that's not true," he says. "On the contrary, because I'm so well known, the authorities watch me particularly closely."
So, is Zhang Yimou a member of the Communist Party? The director gives a booming laugh. "No," he says. "The considerable progress in this country consists of the fact that I can answer that question at all, and that I can talk about the fact that my father was in the Kuomintang. That wouldn't have been possible 20 years ago."
Still, the question remains: Which has changed more since Zhang began his career -- China, or the director himself?
"I believe I've remained true to myself," Zhang says. "Under a variety of circumstances, I've shot a variety of films. That shouldn't be confused with political views." In choosing his subject matter, he adds, he's always dependent on his financial backers. "The producers do the negotiating with the film authorities over approval," he explains. "I, myself, am not allowed to contact the authorities. No one can predict whether censorship will be abolished in 20 or 50 years. No one knows that, it's not even something we dream about. We simply hope it will ease somewhat."
It's generally considerably easier to get approval, Zhang adds, if the story takes place in the past.
Tackling the Taboo
Zhang's new film, "The Flowers of War," is based on "The 13 Flowers of Nanjing," a novel about the massacre. In the film, more than 20 young Chinese women hide from Japanese soldiers on the grounds of a Catholic church in Nanjing. These include female students from the convent school, as well as uninvited guests in the form of a dozen high-class prostitutes in slinky silk dresses. An American mortician named John Miller (Christian Bale), likewise stranded at the church during the fighting, becomes the women's reluctant protector. "This is not a film the government would normally approve readily," Zhang says. "Foreigners, religion, World War II, these are all complex topics. But it's also a film about the willingness to help others, which is why the government lent it its support."
It's true that the Nanjing Massacre was long a taboo subject in China, all the more so because the Kuomintang ruled the city at the time it occurred. Zhang's slow-motion, dramatic portrayal of courageous Chinese people dying in their attack on a Japanese tank serves first and foremost to aid China's reconciliation with its own past. Zhang also follows the official version of history, in that he seems to know only two types of Japanese: the evil and the really evil.