The Personal Is Political for a Chinese Director Zhang Yimou Talks about History, Violence, and China's Rush toward Materialism - and How These Affect His Films

By David Sterritt, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, January 24, 1996 | Go to article overview

The Personal Is Political for a Chinese Director Zhang Yimou Talks about History, Violence, and China's Rush toward Materialism - and How These Affect His Films


David Sterritt, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


When movies are at issue, China's government has a remarkable talent for embarassing itself in public. And the country's most renowned filmmaker, Zhang Yimou, is often the figure at the center of the storm.

The most recent incident was touched off when Zhang's old-fashioned mobster epic, "Shanghai Triad," was selected by the New York Film Festival for its coveted opening-night slot. Angered by the presence of a completely unrelated movie in the festival - a documentary called "The Gate of Heavenly Peace," about China's democracy movement - the Chinese authorities revoked permission for Mr. Zhang to attend the gala screening of his film.

The result: more press coverage for "Shanghai Triad," for Zhang himself, and for the documentary than would ever have happened otherwise.

Something similar happened when China kept Zhang from the Cannes Film Festival two years ago. His drama "To Live" was being honored with a slot in the official competition, irking authorities who found the movie too critical in its view of recent Chinese history.

A press conference for the director went forward as planned - with a conspicuously empty seat at center stage, reminding the world that a towering artist would have been present if not for governmental petulance. "To Live" is still unreleased in China.

And fans in the United States still remember when Chinese authorities tried to have Zhang's brilliant "Ju Dou" yanked from the Academy Award race, simply because the film's sardonic melodrama struck them as too downbeat for international consumption.

Zhang didn't make it to New York in 1995, but he did make it to Cannes in May, and I seized the opportunity to continue an intermittent dialogue I've had with him since our first meeting eight years ago. Meeting with a handful of journalists on a sunny balcony of the Grand Hotel, he proved as outgoing and articulate as ever.

Unlike most of Zhang's previous pictures, beginning with the rowdy "Red Sorghum" and continuing through works like the elegant "Raise the Red Lantern" and the ironic "Story of Qiu Ju," the new "Shanghai Triad" is a straightforward genre piece with few subtexts or complexities. Set in Shanghai during the 1930s, it centers on a teenage boy who becomes the servant of a "Godfather"-type crime boss and his mistress, a brassy cabaret singer.

"There's not much politics in this film," Zhang acknowledged through an interpreter. "To be honest, after the 'To Live' incident, I am a bit tired."

Still, the picture does make implicit comments on the current state of Chinese life through its portrait of Shanghai's excesses some 60 years ago.

"In its depiction of the world the boy enters," Zhang explains, "the film has parallels with today's China - in terms of how materialistic society has become, and how this influences people's views of money and {their} chase after material goods, and how this affects human relations.... If you go to China today and talk to people, they'll be telling you {only} how they want to make money and improve their livelihoods. We want to convey that in the movie."

To carry this message, Zhang selected the "Godfather" genre rather than a format that might appear more neutral. The choice suggests that his views of current Chinese trends are not optimistic, and his conversation bears this out. "I think the country will become more and more materialistic," he says. "We're heading in that direction. I'm interested in asking the question: As our livelihood improves, how can we maintain our more human side? From this point of view, one can say {the film} is somewhat political."

Another timely issue raised by "Shanghai Triad" is that of violence - on the screen and in the world.

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