[Marxism] Lisa Stokes on Zhang Yimou

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Dec 21 11:35:22 MST 2004

Michael Hoover forwarded my review of Zhang Yimou's "Hero" to Lisa Stokes, 
his writing partner on "City on Fire," a definitive study of Hong Kong 
cinema. Lisa is now working on a Chinese cinema encyclopdia. These are her 
most interesting comments.


Re. Zhangs Yimou's career...

I think he is definitely one of the most important chinese filmmakers 
ever.  Period.  Certainly one of the most important contemporary ones; I 
won't say 'the most' important because of his 5th generation comrades-- 
Chen Kaige (farewell, my concubine, yellow earth, temptress moon, and 
emperor and the assassin-- the latter covering the same history as hero, 
but in a much different fashion) and Tian Zhuangzang (the blue kite, 
springtime in a small town, the horse thief)...

They are the top three of those 5th generation/new wave mainland filmmakers 
who both, from a current perspective, bridge the gap between tradition and 
the new (they didn't just abandon tradition--family remains as important in 
their films as any challenge to ideology) as well as break with the past by 
making films critical of the Chinese system, exploiting the visuals of film 
with sophisticated technique, and appealing to an international audience*

All of them were urban intellectuals growing up in 1950s and experiencing 
first hand the cultural revolution and its aftermath.  As a consequence, 
they have been, as you know, if not overtly, subtextually, political in 
their films.  Those dealing with feudal era, with a castelike class system 
and repression of women, draw an equivalence between that system and the 
post-mao republic*

Hence, the censorship of Zhang's films in the mainland-- i don't believe 
'to live' has ever been released in the prc... The others have, eventually, 
but only after international recognition and the unthawing in china... 
Still, he's been punished, having to write letters of self-criticism, 
prohibited from seeking overseas investors at times, denied travel to 
international film festivals, etc...

With Zhang, there definitely is an intimate relationship between politics 
and film, that is, in the way he depicts the lives of Chinese people, as 
well as the aesthetic beauty of what he puts onscreen and how he tells the 

So, looking at his work, definitely important to consider*perspective of 
the story... So many of them are from the perspective of peasants, 
proletariat, subjugated women (gong li)... Which creates empathy and 
usually criticism of feudalism or post-mao government....

Also, period, setting, time frame... While earlier films addressed 
pre-revolutionary times (raise the red lantern), feudal countryside (ju 
dou, red sorghum), 20s-30s gangster in Shanghai (shanghai triad), country 
to city (story of qiu ju), living through the revolution (to live), later 
ones are post-mao...

Not one less (still country to city), road home (a reminiscence, bringing 
past story and present one together), happy times and keep cool (both 
contemporary, but keep cool is the only one i haven't seen)... Happy times 
is as close to a comedy as he's done, although it's bittersweet... Anyhow, 
point is, Zhang's body of work is about as varied as you'll find... From 
epic history to small personal drama, large and small budgets, etc...

Also important, unlike Chen Kaige, Zhang has chosen to remain in China as a 
filmmaker, to work through its system (as much as he has been unfairly 
treated by it)...

Re. hero-- unlike Zhang's other films, this one was celebrated by mainland 
government, as is his current release there, house of flying daggers... 
here's why-- unlike Chen Kaige (whose emperor and the assassin portrays 
first emperor shi huangdi as a ruthless tyrant), Zhang portrays a 
sympathetic figure who is cruel to be kind...

Zhang's perspective here is uncharacteristically from those with power, not 
from his usual perspective from those who are powerless... Since mao was 
the first in recent history to celebrate shi huangdi for unifying china 
(the warring kingdoms) and building the great wall... The film ends with 
the characters 'tian xia' onscreen, meaning 'all under heaven.'... And its 
politics supports stability through the good of the whole over any 
individual rights, basically supporting the party line as well...

To add fuel to the fire, actor Tony Leung Chiu-wai made some comments in an 
interview about the importance of stability after the youth movement in 
beijing, and the necessity of a crackdown to restore order... He later said 
he was speaking as the character he played in the film...

However, it's tricky, because also with the color symbolism this movie is 
more like Kurosawa's rashomon, you get numerous characters' perspectives 
and visual narration of the events... So there's another level of subtext 
here at work that may deconstruct the prevailing one (that is causing some 
people to say he's kowtowed to government, sold out, etc.)...

I'd have to watch it more closely to explore this, and obviously, no time 
right now!  Probably a paper there...

While hero did extremely well in China, Hong Kong audiences weren't as 
thrilled (neither were they with crouching tiger, hidden dragon)... Why? 
Well, they've seen these stories in various shapes and forms from 
childhood... They've also read the serialized novels (written most of this 
past century) that the movies were based on, or they've read or are 
familiar with the classic literature and myths that's drawn from... and, as 
you know, some of the movies are classics and much loved by them...

Zhang's latest is house of flying daggers... Now his second martial arts 
period piece, stars Zhang Ziyi and Andy Lau (although a big cantopop star 
in hong kong who has acted in hundreds of movies of all genres, he's also 
done his share of period action too)... Of course, I haven't seen it yet, 
obviously, hope to soon... but what I'm hearing and reading is that it's 
also receiving the red carpet treatment in china...

But audiences are laughing through it in hong kong... It's similar to hero 
in terms of the approach, but less political, at least on the 
surface...  we'll see... but Zhang himself has said hero was the test trial 
and this one is the real thing...

So he's made two martial arts action period pieces now... I don't think 
it's selling out, to either the Chinese government or with an eye to an 
international audience... I can't speak as to his personal experience, 
because the Chinese government disapproved of escapist films when Zhang was 
growing up... But surely he saw his share of those old movies and loves 
them as many Chinese do, from Taiwan to Chinese diasporic communities 
throughout the world... those kinds of memories hold us all (just like 
westerns for us?)... and Zhang, even though much of this stuff was banned 
and discouraged as elitist, would know the Chinese opera stories, myths and 
classic lit, and probably read his share of serials...

There was a problem there for revolutionaries... how celebrate china's rich 
history but dispel feudalism and confucianism of the classics?... So for 
Zhang, this is probably something he'd thought about doing but never 
imagining it'd be possible to do, until the international success of 
crouching tiger...

Re. what he'll do next, he told a friend in Boston who interviewed him when 
he was there that he'd like to do a comedy... But there's fertile ground 
there for more martial arts, of course... He may mine it for awhile as he 
did the feudal stories earlier, especially since it would remain a 
challenge to him to keep an audience interested as the action moves the 
story along, which is what martial arts movies must do, consistently, 
upping the ante as it proceeds ...

With Zhang's intellectualism and creativity, despite the more practical 
considerations of financing, government sanction, etc., I think the bottom 
line for him is challenge, whether its working through what he'll put on 
the screen, or the challenge of simply getting the movie made working 
through the system...

Again, i really think actions speak louder than words and that he remains 
there making films despite the system is significant.



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