A Question Of Orientalism: Zhang Yimou And The West
Zhang Yimou is now a major name in the world cinema market. His status as one of the few Chinese directors to reach not only the international art cinema audience, but further into the Western mainstream conscious, has helped Chinese cinema gain international stature. Yet what has been the cost of this fame? Has he sold himself and his country to win worldwide acclaim?
The question of whether Zhang Yimou is self-Orientalising within his films is a continuing debate that stretches his entire directorial career. It questions whether Zhang specifically heightens the cultural symbology and iconography of his country in order to appeal to the Western sense of exoticism and win international acclaim. For many world cinema audiences, watching films from different cultures is a method of learning about the people and the traditions of that culture. It is a way of exploring people and places unknown without leaving the comfort of their living room. This is one of the brilliant and important aspects of world cinema. If a Chinese audience watches a British period piece of a time and place with which they are unfamiliar, they have no reason to doubt its authenticity. Similarly, if a British audience watches a Chinese film set in 1930s China with a limited understanding of the time and setting, then they also have no reason to doubt the historical accuracy.
The criticism originates from the fact that Zhang invents rituals, traditions and places that have no basis in fact, as well as imbuing scripts and source material with a vast array of cultural symbology and icons that would not necessarily appear within reality. In Red Sorghum, the sedan chair sequence and the beautifully-shot wine distillery equipment were designed and created for the film (ironically two moments that were initially most celebrated for their realism). Similarly, the foot massage ritual of Raise The Red Lantern is also fictional, to name another example. On top of this is the cross-border filming highlighted in House Of Flying Daggers, which showcased the deciduous forests of Ukraine next to the bamboo forests of China. Many of his earlier films were loosely based on literary sources and it is clear when comparing book to film that changes have been made to allow greater chance of cultural symbology. Major changes were made in Ju Dou that allowed her to change from a peasant (in the book) to a dyer, and likewise in To Live that changed Fu Gui from a peasant to a shadow play performer. It is this lack of historical and spatial truth that has been attacked by Chinese and, later, Western critics as submissively acting up to the Western views of China.
To some extent, one could question whether Zhang decides who to target before he makes his films. Some of his work seems to relate closely to social problems of the period within China, tackling the Chinese judicial system in The Story Of Qiu Ju, and the education of children in China in Not One Less. This suggests a focus on the Chinese audience with a realist filmmaking style, especially due to the fact that both these films won Golden Rooster Awards, raising their profile within their home country. Other work, such as his more controversial martial arts trilogy, pulls away from the realism of these films into epic historical worlds which, as mentioned before, don’t even stay true to the Chinese landscape. Zhang’s most recent film, The Flowers Of War, is his biggest push into the Western audience as it is half in the English language and contains well-known Western star Christian Bale. Focusing more on the international audience means that Zhang can exaggerate cultural symbology further and does suggest an element of self-Orientalisation.
On the other hand, Zhang has never made it clear that he is trying to create a truthful representation of China. It could be that his main aim is not to present China to the world, but instead to reflect and highlight certain aspects of reality in order to make the audience think and react to his intended message. After all, the cultural elements of the films not only enhance the visual impact of the film but also bring a deeper meaning to the story. The protagonists of many of his films are women who feel trapped by the traditions of their culture and so exaggerating these cultural moments brings more weight to the message that the director is giving.
Even if the rituals and equipment in Red Sorghum are not fully accurate, they must be close enough to the truth to be recognised by the Chinese audience, as the film became a Chinese box office sensation. But maybe even this doesn’t matter; this British writer couldn’t tell you detailed historical (in)accuracies of recent British box office sensation The King’s Speech, a British film about Britain in the 1930s. For me though, this is close enough to the truth to give its intended morals or messages but I imagine that the beautifully shot film probably took some artistic liberties. Does it bother me that other nations are possibly getting a slightly skewed view of 1930s Britain? Not really.
Within his work, it is clear that Zhang Yimou takes a few liberties when it comes to adding cultural iconography. The question to whether he is self-Orientalising lies in whether he intends his films for local consumption and uses this symbology to enhance the story and impact of the film, or for Western consumption and uses the symbology to exotically appeal to the audience’s curiosity for the unfamiliar. It would seem the answer lies with which specific film you are referencing.
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