Top 5 Zhang Yimou Films
With the release of The Flowers Of War (Jin ling shi san chai, 2011), Zhang Yimou has reached his twenty-second directorial work. Now one of China’s best known and celebrated directors, Zhang’s films have changed much since the early ‘red’ trilogy. Before his first (half-)English language film, here is a list of the Fifth Generation director’s very best work…
Receiving the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and the Golden Rooster at China’s Academy Awards, Zhang’s directorial debut shines as a classic example of the filmmaker’s talent. Using all his own and Gu Changwei’s cinematography skill and prowess, he creates a visually stunning style that would become his trademark. Zhang cleverly interweaves the Fifth Generation’s emphasis on visuality with the narrative style of the Chinese traditional socialist-realist genre to make both a national box office hit and gain international recognition on the festival circuit.
Celebrating the raw energy of life, the film boisterously follows Jui’er, played by Gong Li in the first of many collaborations, as the unwilling wife of a winery owner. When her husband mysteriously dies, she tries to take over the distillery and the men who work there.
An adaption of Mo Yan’s novel of the same name, the colour red is evident in all moments of the film and fits the piece perfectly, reflecting the fiery nature of rebellion, love and the characters themselves. Anyone looking to be introduced to Zhang Yimou’s work should look no further than the masterpiece Red Sorghum.
An underrated yet thought-provoking film, Zhang Yimou’s fifth work, The Story Of Qiu Ju, is small in scale compared to his later epics, such as House Of Flying Daggers, yet in terms of message, it packs a powerful punch that stays with you long after the final, lingering shot.
Similar to the later Not One Less, Qiu Ju follows the stubborn attempts of the title character to gain what she sees as justice after her husband has kicked in the groin by the village chief. Despite being given compensation, Qiu Ju seeks an apology, and goes to higher and higher authorities in search of it.
Hidden camera and non-actors playing themselves give the film an edge of reality, while borrowing heavily from the Chinese tradition of melodrama for the storyline. Despite this, the director’s trademark sweeping rural landscapes, deep colours and beautiful compositions are still in evidence, but toned down to suit the reality of the film.
The brilliance of the piece, and something that the Fifth Generation is especially good at, is the neutral view of the camera. The people in the legal system aren’t bad, they are generally kind and helpful to varying degrees, and, at times, you question whether Qiu Ju is pushing her case too far. The Story Of Qiu Ju is a great example of the diversity of Zhang Yimou’s work.
Featuring Zhang Yimou’s classic mix of epic visual mastery and engaging storyline, House Of Flying Daggers is a love story that has wandered into an action film. Where the action sequences are highly stylised and engaging, they do not take precedence, and are easily equalled by the impressive performances by Zhang Ziyi and Takeshi Kaneshiro.
Often seen as a follow-up to his earlier martial arts epic, Hero, House Of Flying Daggers is a martial arts film of a completely different sort – and shines all the brighter for it. Where Hero concerns giving up the personal for the greater good of the nation, Flying Daggers is very intimate, focusing on the love triangle between the three principal characters.
While the backdrop is essentially rulers vs. rebels, the film doesn’t care about who wins – it cares about the emotions of the people caught up in this conflict, right down to the passion-filled finale. This focus on personal emotions in face of the maelstrom of historical events is why House Of Flying Daggers climbs to the top of the martial art genre, and becomes a Zhang Yimou masterpiece.
As with House Of Flying Daggers, To Live focuses on the tribulations of a small number of characters in the face of major historical events. Only this piece is closer to reality.
Zhang tracks the challenges faced by a single family in China between the ‘40s and ‘70s – a time period that starts just before the communist takeover and finishes just before the end of the Cultural Revolution. It shows, in harsh detail, the hardships and the will of the Chinese people ‘to live’. A little too close to the truth for the Chinese authorities, who banned it within its home country.
As with all his work, Zhang’s attention to the visual aspect of the film is beyond measure, even within the realist style of filmmaking that this film falls into. This only encourages the emotional power of the piece, set out by inspired performances by Gong Li and Ge You.
To Live beautifully captures the ups and downs of life in a intimate and touching manner. It is first a story of a family and, through them, the story of a nation. A ‘small’ epic that is essential viewing for any fans of world cinema.
The finale of Zhang Yimou’s early ‘red’ trilogy (the other films being Red Sorghum (1987) and Ju Dou (1990)), won a 1993 BAFTA and cemented his reputation internationally as a master filmmaker.
The film tells the story of Songlian (Gong Li), the fourth wife to a rich landowner, as she learns to be as cold, cunning and cruel as the other mistresses to attract the attentions of the husband, and have the red lanterns outside her house lit.
The hard, uncompromising space is used to highlight the four mistresses’ feelings of loneliness and lack of self-worth, and the inherent struggles to gain the master’s attentions and gain a sense of purpose. As always, the cinematography and lighting is textbook and the performances deep and convincing, perfectly capturing the strong emotions and power struggles that play out through the story.
Behind the much-commented-on critique of Chinese society is a purely emotional struggle between four people, pitted against each other by powers they cannot control. That is what makes this film speak to audiences across cultures and top this list. This film has all the trademarks of a Zhang Yimou classic – it’s another one not to be missed.
Zhang’s reputation grew from his bold visual style and emotion-filled storytelling, and while having a large and diverse filmography, this continues to serve him well, making an impact on audiences around the world.
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