The Exquisite Muse of Zhang Yimou

By Stu Kobak

     One of the most exciting experiences for a film lover is discovering a major new talent. Sharing your discovery amplifies the experience. In China, during the last decade, a directing cadre of visual stylists have blossomed despite the usually oppressive artistic atmosphere. Though he has shared the limelight with his compatriot director Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou has produced the most intensely passionate films this side of cineaste Nirvana.
    Beginning with Red Sorghum(1987), Zhang’s first directing effort, the cinematographer turned director has benefited from glorious Gong Li as his star. Not that this has been an unequal partnership. Experience any of Zhang’s films and you will quickly understand how the director makes love to his star with the camera. All of Zhang Yimou’s films feature astounding camera command coupled with exquisite set design. Whether spying on the passions of forbidden love amidst the blazing colors of a dye factory in Ju Dou or documenting a simple peasant woman’s the search for justice in The Story of Qiu Ju, the films of Zhang are visual feasts.
      Ju Dou(1989)was the first Zhang film I had the pleasure of watching. The director takes the Hollywood noir concept and stamps it with his own astounding visual explosiveness.

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Gong Li at the dye factory in Ju Douİ Pioneer

     You could can easily see the comparisons between Ju Dou and Hollywood’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. There is a clear line of heritage in the storytelling. But while the typical noir film uses black and white images, shadows and hi key lighting to provide a dramatic visual fabric, Zhang works with startling color to convey embellish emotion. And there is an abundance of emotion on display within the restrictive confines of the rural Chinese dye factory in this story of passion set in the 1920's.
      Jinshan, the aging and childless owner of the dye factory, enters into marriage with a beautiful young woman hoping to produce an heir. Instead, he releases a stream of lava flow from a volcano of sexual passion that must explode between his younger nephew and his unfulfilled wife. The resultant screen sensuality is intense.
     Gong Li is perfection itself in the role of Ju Dou. You can feel her blood flow hot with passion under the hot lens of Zhang’s camera. This exquisite actress combines innocence and beauty with a desperate practicality as the linchpin to the unusual triangle. Li Baotian plays her lover with a strangely affecting combination of restraint, fear and hunger. All of the actors seem a natural part of this world.

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Passions ablaze in Ju Dou. İMiramax

     Ju Dou stands as a testament to the masterful camera vocabulary of the director. Though compromised significantly by a cropped laser disc transfer, the compositions of the simple mechanical structures of the traditional dye factory make fascinating subject matter for the camera. Many of the erotic scenes unravel in these close quarters as Zhang’s camera records the passion with consummate power. Just as he uses color to enhance the sexual intensity, the sudden release of bolts of fabric from their rolls provides added impact as lovers embrace. This is one of the most visually powerful films I can recall seeing.
     There are many unexpected turns to the script. The film is at times a romance, a thriller, a chiller and even comes close to the supernatural as the eerie chords of Xia Ru-jin's musical score reverberate through the rafters of the wooden structure where this tragic tale unfolds. The many startling images will stay with you long after the film's fiery finish.
     Ju Dou is available on laser disc a very sharp transfer, with the intense bolts of color clean and stable. There is an absence of grain in the picture. The surround sound is involving, while not overly aggressive. There are no chapter stops and a repressing in the proper 2.35 Panavision aspect ratio is certainly in order.
      After watching Ju Dou three or four times, I couldn’t wait to see Zhang Yimou’s next film, the internationally acclaimed Raise the Red Lantern1991). Like Ju Dou, this film was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Foreign film Both films suffered the same initial reception from Chinese officials, banning in their native land. It is likely that Ju Dou was too sexually explicit for the Chinese censors, though a case can be made for political allegory in its content. Raise the Red Lantern, however, comes from a much colder point of view.

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Gong Li: fire and ice in Raise the Red LanternİOrion

     Once again, it is Gong Li who is the chief focus of Zhang’s camera. Gong Li is a remarkable actress who's finely painted face can call on a wide range of emotion. Zhang's lingering close-ups of the actress combine the power of his lens with her remarkable talent. This time the setting has changed from rural China to the more formal and sophisticated domain of China’s wealthy. As the reluctant newly installed fourth concubine of a rich man, Songlian, Gong Li and director Zhang create the portrait of a strong woman battling the traditional place of female subservience in Chinese culture.
     When Songlian enters the rigid 1920s household, a crimson concubine armed with beauty and defiance, a struggle for power erupts between the concubines. While the youthful Songlian tries desperately to bend the traditions governing this world, the weight of centuries is too powerful a force.
     As the three youngest wives strive for dominance over this female preserve, Zhang’s camera closes on each woman watchfully, penetrating through the stiff gowns and stylized make-up, examining the underlying deceptions and isolating his focus on the internecine machinations that traverse the courtyards linking the residences of the concubines.
     Zhang’s camera is extremely formal is his compositions for Raise the Red Lantern. The camera moves in languid, elegant examination of the architecture and appointments of this rich man’s world. There is a rigidity to the framing, unfortunately crippled by the cropping on this laserdisc from the original Panavision 2.35 aspect ratio. The carefully balanced pictures reinforce the sense of order in the Chinese culture being examined. Color and sound mingle to produce additional tension. All the elements at the Director's command are used masterfully.
     Raise the Red Lantern may suffer from cropping, but it is still a beautiful laserdisc to watch. Colors have been captured handsomely and most compositions are not evidently marred. The delicate lighting survives well in this transfer from Image Entertainment. The sound is wonderfully evocative of the period; not just the music, but the sounds of the courtyard, the massive doors closing, even the extinguishing of the lanterns, are all integrated powerfully for fine effect. Although there are 22 chapters encoded on the disc, they are not listed on the jacket, subverting their usefulness.
      Ask me to sit down and view any of his films again and you'll get a quick, unequivocal, delighted assent. More than anything, I think it is Zhang's sense of space and color that is captured in all his films which casts its spell over me. With The Story of Qiu Ju(1992) , the director takes his first cinematic look at contemporary China.
     This is a tale set in the provincial villages and cities of modern China in which the family and structure have been reshaped by four decades of communist rule. A young pregnant peasant seeks justice for the affront of the village chieftain against her husband. There is no malice is her relentless pursuit of what is right. She is painted in beautiful, muted colors by the very glamorous Gong Li playing brilliantly against type. Qiu Ju is forced to take her quest for right up every level of the bureaucratic ladder until she is painfully rewarded by a reality that subverts the measure of her justice with its ironic timing.

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Gong Li as a pregnant peasant in The Story of Qiu Ju İSony

     The plot synopsis may not sound scintillating, but the film is completely engaging; a patchwork quilt of insightful detail that adds up to vivid picture of Chinese life. The brilliant signature photography of Zhang commands the screen frame by frame. The dried red peppers hanging against the eaves of Qiu Ju’s village home are spectacular splashes of color against the bland peasant dress and dull fall/winter landscape. Qiu Ju's journeys on her quest for justice are captured by the beautiful long lens of Zhang, while many of the city scenes are recorded by Zhang with the use of hidden cameras. The details of the city are as fresh to Qiu Ju as they are to Western viewers, each stop frame a feast of color and composition.
     The Story of Qiu Ju is the first film for which Zhang abandoned the anamorphic lens. Shot spherical and likely composed for a 1.66 aspect ratio, the laserdisc suffers less from cropping than other of Zhang’s films. The images are sharp and the color controlled yet intense. Maybe the color of the hanging chilies is not quite the same bright red that reflected off the theater screen, but it is close. The detail of surround elements is excellent as is the musical score. The disc has not been provided with chapter stops.
     After the simplicity and direct approach used by Zhang in The Story of Qiu Ju, the director took on a sweeping saga of To Live(1994)depicting the hardship of accommodating to the unpredictable winds of modern Chinese political climate. Though the film depicts the upheaval of China, it examines the history by concentrating on the intimate moments of life, maintaining a less formalized, naturalistic style that stitches together the often frayed threads which make up the chaotic universe of To Live.

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A sweeping battle scene from To Live İHallmark

     Zhang’s film benefits from two stirring lead performances from Ge You and Gong Li as the husband and wife who find a path for survival. Ge, who played the slithery Master Yuan in Chen Kaige’s Farewell, My Concubine, undergoes remarkable change through the decades. Gong Li, once again turns in an fantastic for director Zhang. Somehow, despite her great beauty, Gong manages to fit the role of this very plain woman perfectly. The film may be a bumpy emotional trip, but riding the revolutionary storm with these wonderful film artists is well worth the jolts. The striking honesty of this film earned Zhang more severe criticism from officials, preventing its showing on the mainland.
     There are beautifully shot night scenes of Ge’s performing puppet shows that transfer wonderfully to laser. The color palette is not as rich as some other Zhang films, but the laser is accurate in their reproduction. I found the sound very satisfying. The detailed timbre of the instruments often had a feeling of floating in the room. To Live is a fabulous film and not to be missed. The film transfer appears cropped from a 1.85 aspect ratio, though the end credits do indicate "Filmed in Panavision."
     Zhang’s last U.S. release, Shanghai Triad(1995), is again a departure for the artist, playing more like a Warner’s 1940’s gangster melodrama than a studied examination of mores and political matter. It is even shot differently than any of Zhang’s previous films, much of it lensed through filters, creating a nostalgic look for 1930’s Shanghai
     A young boy, Shuisheng, comes to Shanghai to work for the family gang. He is given to Bijou, the boss’s moll, as a personal servant. The perspectives in Shanghai Triad are all through the boys eyes. This is Zhang’s vision of lost innocence as the boy witnesses a ruthless fight for the control of the mob which eventually entangles the beautiful Bijou.

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Dance Hall girl Gong Li. İSony

     Bijou is played with chilling aplomb by glorious Gong Li. As Shanghai’s popular chanteuse, Li wiggles her way through some entertaining cabaret numbers, juggles her lovers, and moves through the film with imperial swagger. By the time her icy veneer begins to melt, it is clearly too late for her redemption.
     Shanghai Triad, released on laserdisc by Columbia-Tristar in 1.85 is the first of Zhang’s films to be presented in its proper aspect ratio. The grainy nature of the source material is reflected in the accurate transfer. The material is sharp, but colors are somewhat desaturated, a minor disappointment. The stereo mix is quite appealing.
     Zhang’s Muse for virtually his entire directing career has been the incandescent actress Gong Li. Li has starred in each one of the director’s films, and they also maintained a live-in relationship off the screen, though the couple recently parted company. Shanghai Triad will likely be the last film of this fertile screen relationship. It is interesting to speculate what impact the loss of Gong Li will have on Yimou’s future films, emotionally and otherwise.


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