There were legitimate, if niggling, complaints about the Olympic opening ceremonies in Beijing: the little lip-syncing girl who stood in for the child deemed not pretty enough to appear on camera; the computer-generated (as opposed to real fireworks) footprints marching across the city toward the National Stadium; the revelation that the guys inside those astonishing pop-up blocks were wearing Depends, just in case. But, really, what a spectacle of mass precision, color and control!
These are just the qualities one would expect from Zhang Yimou, China’s most successful film director and artistic director for both the opening and closing ceremonies. The regime asked, and Zhang delivered: four hours of hyper-choreographed action by 15,000 performers – $100 million worth of big-time cinematic triumphalism.
Fans of the Telluride Film Festival will remember that Zhang Yimou was given a festival tribute (Telluride’s highest honor; there are no film prizes) in 1995, and that the youthful, buzz-cut director was a decidedly more controversial figure then.
Not that Zhang’s films were overtly political. But many of them from the 1980s and 90s were banned in his home country, while at the same time they were celebrated, even revered, in the West. Telluride screened his first feature, Red Sorghum, in 1988. Its gorgeous color, sensuality and earthy, woman-centered story also won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival that year. In 1991, Zhang’s Raise the Red Lantern premiered at Telluride and went on to win the best director prize at Venice and garner an Oscar nomination.
Both starred the luscious Gong Li, Zhang Yimou’s lover and muse. And both were prime examples of a new Chinese cinema that rejected the old socialist-realist tradition. Watching him up on the Opera House stage, beaming and bowing, we knew we were lucky to see him and his films. Zhang’s father, you see, had been an officer in the Nationalist Kuomintang Army, which lost the civil war to Mao’s Red Army. During the Cultural Revolution young Zhang had been forced to work as a farm hand and a laborer in a textile mill. The story goes that he sold his own blood to get the money for his first still camera.
Somehow, when the Beijing Film Academy opened it doors in 1978, Zhang talked his way in. And with the stellar graduating class of 1982, he became part of what is known as the Fifth Generation directors, China’s New Wave. Having studied the masters of Western cinema, the Fifth Generation made artful allegories that were often critical of communist authoritarianism.
But then, Zhang Yimou began making hugely successful wuxia movies, that is, philosophical (and fantastical) martial arts movies. First came Hero with the Korean star Jet Li. Then House of Flying Daggers in 2004 made piles of money and won another Oscar nomination. As technically and visually brilliant as they are, you’d have to strain to find any social or political commentary therein. Zhang’s genius, minus the edge, was now safe for the Olympic Games, for the carefully crafted reality Beijing wanted to convey.
Telluride, meanwhile, never lost its edge. The programmers kept finding new Chinese eyes and ears. In 2001 they brought Wang Chao’s unsentimental Orphan of Anyang to the festival. It told the story of a desperate prostitute and a fatally ill gangster in the “New China,” where money was beginning to dominate. Then in 2004, we saw the sexually frank and MTV-hip Baober in Love, which chronicled the lives of savvy young materialists as disaffected and overstimulated as any American.
Last year, the festival showed Blind Mountain, which was filmed secretly in China and will likely never be allowed in cinemas there. It dramatizes a problem China doesn’t want the rest of the world to know about. Because of the one-child policy of past decades, and the preference for boy babies, there are too few women available for Chinese men to marry, especially in the less prosperous countryside. And so, young women – often urban, educated women – are being promised fictional jobs, lured to the hinterlands and sold into marriages that are essentially slavery. Li Yang’s movie seduced and horrified everybody who saw it.
I’m not saying that Zhang Yimou has sold out or will never again make films that challenge the existing order. But if he does come back, back from his commercially and ideologically safe perch, you can bet his re-emergent movie will play first at Telluride.