Sunday, August 10, 2008
Zhang Yimou: Gritty Renegade Now Directs China’s Close-Up
August 8, 2008
Gritty Renegade Now Directs China's Close-Up
By DAVID BARBOZA
BEIJING — For much of the past quarter century, the Chinese director Zhang Yimou made films that showcased his country's struggle against poverty, war and political misrule to the outside world — films that Chinese, for the most part, never saw.
Time and again, Mr. Zhang's terse, gritty epics were banned by government censors for portraying China's ugly side. When he won an award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1994, the authorities stopped him from attending. Up for an Oscar one year, officials lobbied to have his film withdrawn from the competition.
But when the Olympics kick off Friday at China's new National Stadium, with President Hu Jintao of China, President Bush and other world leaders in attendance and perhaps one billion people watching live on television, Mr. Zhang will preside over the opening ceremonies.
Nearly two years in the making, his spectacle is intended to present China's new face to the world with stagecraft and pyrotechnics that organizers boast have no equal in the history of the Games. Whether or not it succeeds, it will underscore one reality of a rising China: many leading artists now work with, or at least not against, the ruling Communist Party.
Rising nationalism and pride in China's emergence as an economic power, and robust state support for artists who steer clear of political defiance, have transformed China's cultural landscape since the early part of this decade. Today, directors, writers and painters who seek to expose the darker side of authoritarian rule not only enrage the censors, but also often find themselves shut out of the lucrative market for Chinese art, books and film. Many of those who find less political outlets for their talent, on the other hand, can get rich.
"People really are selling their talent in a way that can make them money," said Ai Weiwei, an internationally recognized artist based in Beijing. "They really know that if they work with the government, they'll benefit."
The opening ceremonies will represent a particularly momentous conversion for Mr. Zhang, whose experience during the horrors of Mao's Cultural Revolution appeared to inform several of his internationally acclaimed — and domestically banned — films, including "Ju Dou" and "To Live."
Mr. Zhang said in a recent interview that he never had political aims. His supporters say it is the Communist Party that has become more sophisticated, seeking to harness the country's top talent and embrace a broader notion of national culture.
But critics accuse Mr. Zhang of making a pact with a political leadership that has a long record of restricting artistic freedom, playing the role of favored court artist — a kind of Chinese Leni Riefenstahl, creating beautiful backdrops for iron-fisted rulers.
"He went from being this renegade making films that were banned and an eyesore for the Chinese government to kind of being the pet of the government, in some people's eyes," said Michael Berry, who teaches contemporary Chinese culture at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "It's almost a complete turnaround from his early days."
Other artists, including a few who fled into exile after the crackdown on Tiananmen Square in 1989, now seem to be searching for ways to partner with Beijing as well.
The Academy Award-winning composer Tan Dun and the celebrated pianist Lang Lang perform for the country's leaders at Beijing's new National Theater and serve as cultural ambassadors overseas. Xu Bing, a painter and calligrapher whose work in the 1980s was viewed as subversive, is now a vice president at Beijing's Central Academy of Fine Arts. He recently created a huge installation piece for the new Chinese Embassy in Washington.
Few artists, though, have embraced the government the way Mr. Zhang has. He has served as an artistic adviser to Beijing, promoted the nation's image abroad and produced a short film to help China win the right to host the 2008 Olympics. He is now a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, the country's top political advisory body.
Beijing, in turn, has promoted Mr. Zhang, giving his recent films favorable opening dates that bolster box office returns. The country's film authorities allowed one of his recent movies to open at the Great Hall of the People. Cultural authorities even lobbied Hollywood executives to get his big-budget martial arts film, "Hero," an Oscar.
Some Chinese critics panned "Hero" as an implicit homage to authoritarian rule. While it did not win an Oscar, it became one of the highest grossing foreign films in the American market.
Its success gave rise to the rapid commercialization — and depoliticization — of Chinese art. China's cultural landscape is now filled with big-budget historical dramas, multimillion dollar art auctions, government-backed opera and dance extravaganzas, and bold new state-financed entertainment venues that suggest a melding of art, culture, power and national pride.
Like Mr. Zhang, the director Feng Xiaogang said he tired of battling censors long ago and switched to making more entertaining films that could deliver box-office riches. Chen Kaige, another prominent director with a history of provocative and rebellious films, has also been embraced by Beijing, which a few years ago allowed him use of one of the country's most important government buildings for the premiere of his big-budget film "The Promise."
"Now, the government wants directors to promote the country's economic development," said Wu Tianming, a well-known producer and director. "And the directors need money and fame and they can earn even more money with government support."
For months, Mr. Zhang and his crew have been closeted in a secure Olympics compound, preparing the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics. The three-and-a-half-hour show is still shrouded in secrecy, though some highlights have been leaked. Mr. Zhang will use more than 15,000 performers and fireworks by the renowned artist Cai Guoqiang. Acrobats will dance through the air as in Mr. Zhang's martial arts films. Lang Lang will headline a program that will include dance performances and the Peking Opera.
To help create China's cultural moment, Mr. Zhang initially tapped Steven Spielberg to work as artistic adviser on the opening ceremonies.
But under pressure to sever ties because of China's role in Sudan, Mr. Spielberg resigned in February, saying that his conscience troubled him and that China should do more to stop genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan.
The resignation was an embarrassment for China and Mr. Zhang, and it served to demonstrate the kind of pressures that artists in the West can come under when they work for the government. In China, though, Mr. Zhang sidestepped the matter with what has become his standard line, "I have no interest in politics."
A Troubled History
Politics, in the past, was not easy to dodge.
Mr. Zhang's father, an accountant, had served as an officer in the Nationalist army fighting the Communists during the country's protracted civil war. His uncle fled with the Nationalists to Taiwan. Mr. Zhang grew up in northern Shaanxi Province in the 1950s on the wrong side of history.
The family's problems intensified when the Cultural Revolution got under way in 1966, touching off a decade-long period of political madness. Mr. Zhang's home was ransacked and his father was labeled a "double counter-revolutionary."
At 18, he was sent to labor in the countryside, tilling fields with peasants. Mr. Zhang recalled a youth filled with despair in a 2005 interview with Mr. Berry of the University of California, Santa Barbara.
"Most enemies of the people during that time fell into the category of the 'five bad elements,' " he said. "Well, people like me were called 'the worst element.' So those 10 years, from 1966 until 1976, I lived under the shadow of tragedy and hopelessness."
In 1971, though, he was assigned to work as a machine technician at the No. 8 Cotton Mill in Xianyang, in Shaanxi Province. It was there that he fell in love with art and photography.
"He showed no interest in politics," said Lei Peiyun, who worked with Mr. Zhang in the factory's propaganda department. "But he once told me that people are shackled by politics."
With Mao's death in 1976, Mr. Zhang gained admission to China's only film school, the Beijing Film Academy. Initially he made his mark as a cinematographer, working on "Yellow Earth," the 1984 film of a classmate, Chen Kaige.
But he soon began making his own films. In visually striking features like "Red Sorghum," "Ju Dou" and "Raise the Red Lantern," he explored the country's feudalist past, the plight of women and the conflicted lives of the Chinese people.
"At that time the whole culture was destroyed," said Mr. Wu, the producer and director who helped finance several of Mr. Zhang's early films. "They tasted the ugliness but less of the beauty."
Although his early films won critical acclaim in the West, they were often banned in China as dark and even poisonous.
Some officials even accused him of pandering to Western tastes by stereotyping the Chinese character, an accusation he strongly denied. Others viewed his films as veiled critiques of the leadership, buried in the subtext of films set in pre-revolutionary China.
Wang Bin, his longtime literary adviser, said this happened in 1989 during preparation for shooting "Ju Dou," the tale of a woman forced into an arranged marriage with an impotent old textile mill owner.
That summer, after the military fired on pro-democracy activists occupying Tiananmen Square in Beijing, Mr. Zhang and some co-workers ventured outside and witnessed the aftermath of the killings.
"We saw burned vehicles, bloody students," Mr. Wang recalled. "I don't want to say much now. But we spent the whole night sleepless. Because of that event, I trusted Zhang Yimou. I felt he cared for his nation."
Distraught by what they saw, Mr. Wang said Mr. Zhang and the staff altered the screenplay, and the film's final scene.
"At the end of the film, Ju Dou has a huge fire, and that represents our emotion," he said. "That is June 4."
He was bolder when he made the film "To Live," which traces one family's tragic journey over the course of four decades, ending with the Cultural Revolution, a subject that to this day remains taboo.
Colleagues said Mr. Zhang's team submitted a fake script to the censors for pre-approval, promising to make a film about China's bright future, and then secretly began filming "To Live."
When the film was released to critical acclaim overseas, government censors were infuriated. Mr. Zhang was banned for five years from making films in China with foreign funds.
It was the last time he seriously challenged government censors.
The threat that he could be barred from making movies altogether, had a profound — if never fully articulated — effect on Mr. Zhang, said Zhang Zhenyan, his longtime production manager, who is no relation.
A New Approach
The director began toying with new and less provocative genres — a gangster film, tear-jerkers and a tender tale of a village teacher who, with the help of a benevolent state television boss, rescues a lost student.
Then in 2001, after the hit film "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," by the Taiwan-born director Ang Lee, Mr. Zhang's work became commercial on a grand scale. He made three big-budget martial arts films that broke box office records in China.
Critics said he had sold out to Hollywood. Mr. Zhang defended his new taste as international and modern. In an interview late last year, he said, "China has stepped into a new era, an era of consumption and entertainment," adding, "You can condemn it if you like, but it is a trend of globalization."
"Hero" told the story of China's first emperor, Qin Shihuang, who was known for burning books, burying intellectuals and unifying China through brutal means. Some critics accused Mr. Zhang of pandering to Beijing with a story that seemed to glorify an all-powerful state that preserves unity and stability.
Government officials praised the film, calling it "a new starting point to China's new century."
And before the film was even released to the public, the government submitted it as the nation's official foreign-language Oscar nominee in 2002 (the state selects just one film each year) and then lobbied Hollywood executives for it to win, according to film industry executives.
A letter Mr. Zhang wrote in late 2002 to Miramax Films, which had acquired rights to "Hero," hints at his new influence.
Annoyed by the editing of the film, Mr. Zhang told his American backers, "If you insist on doing nothing to support the film but keep on delaying and cutting down the movie, and eventually destroying it, I cannot imagine how the Chinese government and the whole Chinese population will think of you and Miramax."
He added: "I truly believe no one could stop their anger! You will be hurting not only me, but also the whole Chinese population."
A Cultural Hero
There were other perks. His production of the opera "Turandot" was staged in the Forbidden City, a national landmark. Beijing nominated his last three films for the foreign-language Oscar, even though "Curse of the Golden Flower" opened last year to poor reviews.
And then the top honor: he was named artistic adviser to the Beijing Olympic Committee and later won the competition to serve as impresario of Olympic ceremonies.
"The government made him a cultural hero of China," Chen Xihe, a professor of film at Shanghai University, said in an interview last year. "Why would he continue to make movies that challenge the political system?"
Mr. Zhang dismissed the suggestion that there were political motivations behind his work, and he said the Olympics were a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that any Chinese would be foolish to pass up.
"For a century, this is the most important time for the Chinese to host all of guests coming from all over the world," he said in an interview. "I took this job, to a great extent, because I wanted to do something for the Chinese people."
Friends said his stewardship of the opening ceremonies was the ultimate reward for a man who spent so many years was on the outside, once tarred as an enemy of the state.
"Although he started with no interest in politics," said Bai Yuguo, a longtime friend, "he's now at the center of China."