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Zhang Yimou (born November 14, 1951) is an internationally acclaimed Chinesemarker filmmaker and former cinematographer, and one of the best known of the Fifth Generation of Chinese film directors. He made his directorial debut in 1987 with the film Red Sorghum. One of Zhang's recurrent themes is a celebration of the resilience, even the stubbornness, of Chinese people in the face of hardships and adversities, a theme which has occurred from To Live (1994) through to Not One Less (1999). His works are particularly noted for their use of colour, as can be seen in his early trilogy (like Raise the Red Lantern) or in his wuxia films such as Hero and House of Flying Daggers.

Early life

Zhang Yimou was born in Xi'anmarker, Shaanximarker. As a child he suffered prejudice and derision because of his family's association with the Kuomintang (Nationalist party). His father had been a major under Chiang Kai-shek and an uncle and an elder brother had followed the Nationalist forces to Taiwanmarker after their 1949 defeat in the civil war.

When the Cultural Revolution erupted in 1966 he was forced to suspend studying and worked, first as a farm hand, and then, for seven years, as a labourer in a cotton textile mill, much like the one he portrayed in Ju Dou. During this time he took up painting and amateur still photography. He had to sell his blood for five months to get enough money to purchase his first camera when he was 18.

Early career

When the Beijing Film Academy reopened in 1978, Zhang was already 27, over-aged and without the prerequisite academic qualifications. He wrote a personal appeal to the Ministry of Culture, citing "ten years lost during the Cultural Revolution" and offered a portfolio of his personal photographic works. The authorities finally relented and admitted him into the Department of Cinematography.

As a result, Zhang graduated from the Beijing Film Academy in 1982 along with compatriots Chen Kaige and Tian Zhuangzhuang (the latter two from the Directing class). They are often referred to collectively as the Class of 1982. The students saw films by European, Japanese and American art directors, as well as Chinese—far more than any of their predecessors—including the works of Tarkovsky, Antonioni, Scorsese, Truffaut, Fei Mu, Wu Yonggang, Kurosawa, Kubrick, Malick and Alain Resnais.

As was the norm, Zhang and his co-graduates were assigned to small inland studios, and as a cinematographer, he began working for the Guangxi Film Studio. Though penciled in to work as director's assistants, they soon learned there was a dearth of directors (owing to the Cultural Revolution), and appealed successfully to make their own films. Zhang's first work, One and Eight (as director of photography), was made in 1984 together with director Zhang Junzhao. Zhang Yimou's input was telling: he shot from obscure angles, and positioned actors and actresses at the side, rather than center, to heighten dramatic effect, using a “unique and emphatic visual style, based on the asymmetrical and unbalanced composition of the shots and the shooting of color stock as though it were black and white".

Zhang's next collaboration, under director and fellow graduate Chen Kaige was to be one of the defining Chinese films of the 1980s: Yellow Earth (1984). The film today is widely considered the inaugural film for the Chinese Fifth Generation directors that were a part of an artistic reemergence in China after the end of the Cultural Revolution.

Along with his work in One and Eight, Zhang's contribution to Yellow Earth signaled a cinematic departure from the propagandist films of the Cultural Revolution. Local critics immediately sat up and took notice of this new cohort of daring artists who were defying conventions of Chinese cinema.

Zhang continued to work with Chen for the latter's next film, The Big Parade (1986). Their collaboration was one of the most fruitful of the Fifth Generation period.

Directorial period


In 1985, in appreciation of his talent, Fourth Generation director Wu Tianming invited Zhang to Xi'an Film Studio for his upcoming project Old Well. Filming of Old Well was completed in 1986, with Zhang as both cinematographer and actor — a role that won him Best Actor at the Tokyo International Film Festival. In return for his participation in Wu's project, Zhang made Wu promise logistics support for his own first directorial effort, a project that he had envisioned for some time.

In 1987 Zhang embarked on his directorial debut, Red Sorghum, starring Chinese actress Gong Li, handpicked by Zhang, in her first leading role. Released to widespread critical acclaim, Red Sorghum catapulted Zhang into the forefront of the world's art directors, winning him the Golden Bear for Best Picture at the 1988 Berlin Film Festival. Its rich, earthy visual style of narrative storytelling came to be the hallmark of Zhang's early films.

Codename Cougar (or The Puma Action), a minor experiment in the political thriller genre, was released in 1989, featuring Gong Li and eminent Chinese actor Ge You in major roles. However, it garnered less-than-positive reviews at home and Zhang himself later dismissed the film as his worst.

In the same year, Zhang began work on his next project, the period drama Ju Dou. Starring Gong Li as the titular main character, along with Li Baotian in the male leading role, Ju Dou was an early example of Zhang's unique use of colors and lush cinematography and female-centered films. The picture garnered as much critical acclaim in film circles as his Red Sorghum and became China's first entry to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.


Fresh after the success of Ju Dou, Zhang began work on what has been considered by many as his magnum opus, Raise the Red Lantern. Based on novelist Su Tong's book Wives and Concubines, the film depicted the realities of life in a rich family compound during the 1920s. Gong Li was again featured in the leading role, her fourth collaboration with director Zhang. With a unique filmmaking style characterized by highly intense scenes through controlled, formalized color photography, Raise the Red Lantern was Zhang's most personal effort to this point.

The film was released in its home country in 1991 to immediate political controversy, due to officials fearing that the story would be taken as an allegory against Chinese communist authoritarianism. Although the screenplay had been approved by censors prior to shooting, the film itself was initially banned from theatrical release in China.

On the other hand, international reaction to Raise the Red Lantern was almost unanimous acclaim. Film critics such as Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times noted its "voluptuous physical beauty" and sumptuous use of colors. Gong Li's acting was also praised as starkly contrasting with the roles she played in Zhang's earlier films. Raise the Red Lantern was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 1991 Academy Awards, being the second Chinese film to earn this distinction (after Zhang's Ju Dou). It eventually lost out to Gabriele Salvatores's Mediterraneo.

The Story of Qiu Ju (1992) marked a significant change in direction for Zhang. Employing a far lighter tone and generous touches of everyday humor, Zhang used non-professional actors together with his long-time collaborator Gong Li to achieve a neorealist effect in telling a tale of Chinese peasantry waddling through ineffective bureaucracy. It was also released to critical praise, winning the Golden Lion for Best Picture at the 1992 Venice International Film Festival.

Subsequently, Zhang directed To Live, an epic film based on an acclaimed novel by Yu Hua. To Live highlighted the resilience of the ordinary Chinese people, personified by its two leads, amidst three generations of historical upheavals throughout Chinese politics of the 20th century. The longest of his films to date, it was released at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival and won the Grand Jury Prize (the second-highest accolade behind the prestigious Palme d'Or), as well as a Best Actor prize for Ge You.

Having received international recognition for his earlier works, Zhang completed a major phase of his directorial work with the period gangster drama Shanghai Triad. The film, which was released in 1995, featured leading actress Gong Li in her seventh film under Zhang's direction. The two had a romantic as well as professional relationship, but this would end during production of Shanghai Triad. Zhang and Gong would not work together again until 2006's Curse of the Golden Flower.

1997 saw the release of Keep Cool, a small-scale film about life in modern China. After its release, Zhang found a new leading lady in the form of the young actress Zhang Ziyi. His 1999 film The Road Home, featuring Zhang Ziyi in her film debut, is a simple throw-back narrative centering around a love story between the narrator's parents. As in The Story of Qiu Ju, Zhang returned to the neorealist habit of employing non-professional actors and location shooting for the companion piece in Not One Less (1999), which won him his second Golden Lion prize at Venice.


Happy Times, a relatively minor film by Zhang, represented his second foray into modern Chinese city life. A seriocomic drama starring popular Chinese actor Zhao Benshan and actress Dong Jie, it was an official selection for the Berlin International Film Festival in 2002.

Zhang's next major project was the ambitious wuxia drama Hero (2002). The film was a major change in direction for Zhang, as it represented his first foray into epic filmmaking. Boasting an impressive lineup of Asian stars, including Jet Li, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Zhang Ziyi, and Donnie Yen, Hero introduced a fictional tale revolving around Ying Zheng, the king of the State of Qin (later the first Emperor of China) and his would-be assassins. The film became a huge international hit and, with the intervention of Americanmarker director Quentin Tarantino, was released in North America two years after its Chinese release after being shelved by American distributor Miramax Films. Hero became one of the few foreign-language films to debut at #1 at the U.S. box office, and was one of the nominees for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2003 Academy Awards.

Zhang followed up the huge success of Hero with another martial arts epic, House of Flying Daggers, in 2004. Set in the Tang Dynasty, it starred Zhang Ziyi, Andy Lau, and Takeshi Kaneshiro as characters caught in a dangerous love triangle. House of Flying Daggers received universal acclaim among critics , who noted the splendid use of color that harked back to some of Zhang's earlier works.

Released in Chinamarker in 2005, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles was a return to the more low-key drama that characterized much of Zhang's middle period pieces. The film stars legendary Japanesemarker actor Ken Takakura, who wishes to repair relations with his alienated son, eventually led by circumstance to set out on a journey to Chinamarker. Zhang had been an admirer of Takakura for over thirty years.

Zhang's most recent film, 2006's Curse of the Golden Flower, saw him reunite with leading actress Gong Li. Taiwanese singer Jay Chou and Hong Kong star Chow Yun-Fat also starred in the period epic based on a play by Cao Yu.

Zhang's recent films and his involvement with the 2008 Olympics ceremony has not been without controversy; critics of Zhang claim that his recent works contrary to his earlier films has received approval from the government. However, Zhang in interviews has stated that he is not interested in politics, and it was an honor for him to direct the Olympics opening ceremony because it was "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

Stage direction

Beginning in the 1990s, Zhang Yimou began directing stage productions, as well as continuing his film career. In 1998, Zhang directed an acclaimed version of the music opera, Puccini's Turandot, firstly in Florence and then later at the Forbidden Citymarker, Beijing, with Zubin Mehta as conductor.

In 2001, Zhang Yimou adapted his 1991 film Raise the Red Lantern to the stage to direct a ballet version.

Zhang Yimou also directed a folk musical, "Impression, Liu Sanjie." It began on 16 August 2003 is presently still running most weeks of the year. It is performed in an outdoor scenic setting on the Li River with a background of mountains in Yangshuo Countymarker of Guilin Citymarker in south China. In June 2006 Zhang Yimou continued his 'Impression' series with "Impression Lijiang" set at the bottom of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in Lijiang, Yunnan province. It is still in production performing twice a day most days of the year. In late 2007 Zhang Yimou premiered "Impression West Lake" set on the West Lake in Hangzhou, China, and in 2009 Zhang Yimou completed his 'Impression' tetralogy with "Impression Hainan" set in Hainan province. Before the end of 2009, Zhang Yimou will complete his fifth "impression" named "Imprssion Da Hong Pao" in Wuyishan, Fujian province. All five performances are co-directed by Wang Chaoge and Fan Yue.

Zhang also led the production of Tan Dun's opera, The First Emperor, which had its world premiere at the Metropolitan Opera on 21 December 2006.

2008 Beijing Olympics Opening and Closing Ceremonies

Zhang was chosen to direct the Beijing portion of the closing Ceremonies of the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athensmarker, Greecemarker, as well as the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, Chinamarker alongside co-director and choreographer Zhang Jigang. He directed the Closing Ceremony with Zhang Jigang as well.

Zhang was a runner-up for Time Magazine Person of the Year 2008. Steven Spielberg, who withdrew as an adviser to the Olympic ceremonies to pressure China to help with the conflict in Darfur, described Zhang's works in the Olympic ceremony in the Time magazine, stating: "At the heart of Zhang's Olympic ceremonies was the idea that the conflict of man foretells the desire for inner peace. This theme is one he's explored and perfected in his films, whether they are about the lives of humble peasants or exalted royalty. This year he captured this prevalent theme of harmony and peace, which is the spirit of the Olympic Games. In one evening of visual and emotional splendor, he educated, enlightened and entertained us all."


As director

Year English Title Chinese Title Notes
1987 Red Sorghum 紅高梁 Golden Bear winner in the 1988 Berlin International Film Festival
1988 Codename Cougar 代號美洲豹 (co-director)
1990 Ju Dou 菊豆 (nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards)
1991 Raise the Red Lantern 大紅燈籠高高掛 (nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards)
1992 The Story of Qiu Ju 秋菊打官司 Golden Lion winner in the 1992 Venice International Film Festival
1994 To Live 活着
1995 Shanghai Triad 摇呀摇,摇到外婆橋 (nominated for Best Cinematography)
1995 Zhang Yimou Segment of the anthology film, Lumière and Company
1997 Keep Cool 有話好好說
1999 Not One Less 一个都不能少 (一個都不能少) Golden Lion winner at the 1999 Venice International Film Festival
1999 The Road Home 我的父亲母亲
2000 Happy Times 幸福時光
2002 Hero 英雄 (nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards)
2004 House of Flying Daggers 十面埋伏 (nominated for Best Cinematography at the Academy Awards)
2005 Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles 千里走單騎
2006 Curse of the Golden Flower 满城尽带黄金甲 (nominated for Best Costume Design at the Academy Awards)
2007 Movie Night Segment of the anthology film, To Each His Cinema
2010 Amazing Tales: Three Guns 三枪拍案惊奇 In post-production

As cinematographer

Year English Title Chinese Title Notes
1982 Red Elephant 红象
1983 One and Eight 一個和八個
1984 Yellow Earth 黃土地
1986 Old Well 老井
1986 The Big Parade 大阅兵

As actor

Year English Title Chinese Title Role
1986 Old Well 老井 Sun Wangquan
1987 Red Sorghum 红高粱
1989 Fight and Love with a Terracotta Warrior 古今大戰秦俑情 Tian Fong
1997 Keep Cool 有话好好说 Junk Peddler

See also


  1. Tasker, Yvonne (2002). "Zhang Yimou" in Fifty Contemporary Filmmakers. Routledge Publishing, p. 412. ISBN 0-4151-8974-8. Google Book Search. Retrieved 2008-08-21.
  2. Memoirs from the Beijing Film Academy: The Genesis of China's Fifth Generation. Ni Zhen, translated by Chris Berry. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002, pp. 44.
  3. Memoirs from the Beijing Film Academy: The Genesis of China's Fifth Generation. Ni Zhen, translated by Chris Berry. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002, pp. 45-6.
  5. Kleid, Beth (September 14, 1992). "MOVIES." Los Angeles Times, p. 2.
  6. Director Zhang Yimou Fine Tunes 'Red Lantern' Ballet

Further reading

  • Gateward, Frances (editor): Zhang Yimou: Interviews (Conversations With Filmmakers) University Press of Mississippi, 2001. ISBN 1578062624.
  • Colamartino, Fabrizio & Marco Dalla Gassa : "Il cinema di Zhang Yimou" Le Mani, 2003, ISBN 978-88-8012-244-9. (Italian)

External links

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