Monthly Archives: October 2004

Chinese Directors: Zhang Yimou (b 1951)

(These notes from 2004 fill in some of the background on Zhang Yimou’s films seen in the West. There are links to entries on this site for individual films.)

Zhang Yimou has been the most prolific Chinese filmmaker to emerge since 1984 in terms of films seen internationally. He graduated from Beijing film academy as a cinematographer and worked on One and Eight (1983) for Zheng Jun-Zhao, Yellow Earth (1984) and Big Parade (1986) for Chen Kaige and Old Well (1986) for Wu Tian-Ming before moving into direction. Following the trilogy of ‘Red’ films (Red Sorghum, Judou, Raise the Red Lantern) the second two of which were initially denied a release in mainland China, his work as a director began to meet official approval with the release of his next film The Story of Qiu Ju in 1992. This tells the story of a young peasant woman (again played by Gong Li), whose husband is physically abused by the village chief. She seeks justice from the state bureaucracy but is forced to pursue her case through a whole system of local and regional bureaucracies. Heavily pregnant and with little money she braves the big city to win support.

Filmed in what in the West would be seen as a ‘neorealist’ style with location shooting on busy city streets, The Story of Qiu Ju represented a change of aesthetic and also a change of tone. Many critics saw this as Zhang Yimou ‘pleasing’ the authorities with a film which in some ways validated the system, even if it emphasised the hardships of the peasantry. In his films since, Zhang Yimou has developed a range of styles and has varied his subject matter between the historical (the twentieth century for To Live (1994), the 1930s for Shanghai Triad and ancient China for Hero (2003)) and the contemporary (Happy Times (2002)). Not One Less (1999) is another neorealist film, though it may owe more to realism as interpreted by Iranian Cinema, of which Zhang is a big admirer. The romantic sweep of The Road Home (2001) also has some Iranian influences and some which seem to echo Hollywood ‘pioneer’ westerns. This film also features Zhang Ziyi, Gong Li’s successor as Zhang’s female star.

With Hero and The House of Flying Daggers (2004), Zhang Yimou has shown himself capable of bridging the gap between ‘art’ and ‘popular cinema’ in China. He has thrived in a commercial world of co-productions with Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan as well as the Hollywood studios. He has shown himself adept at dealing with censorship and has emerged as an idiosyncratic voice in Chinese culture, even if some of his recent films (e.g. Hero) have been seen as supporting centralised control of Chinese society.

The Lady of Musashino (Japan 1951)

Tsutomu and Michiko in the woods by Musashino

Tsutomu and Michiko in the woods by Musashino

Mizoguchi Kenji (1898-1956)

“The comparisons are as inevitable as they are unfashionable,” wrote James Quandt, introducing the centenary retrospective of the films of Kenji Mizoguchi. “Mizoguchi is cinema’s Shakespeare, its Bach or Beethoven, its Rembrandt, Titian or Picasso.” If this remains a minority opinion, it’s not because others have tried him and found him wanting. Mizoguchi is either admired or ignored. If he is, as I believe, the greatest of Japanese directors, then he has eluded general recognition as such only through unpropitious circumstances. (

So begins Alexander Jacoby’s impassioned presentation on Mizoguchi in Senses of Cinema’s ‘Great Directors’ series. As he suggests, Mizoguchi became the focus for cinephiles in Europe in the 1950s (including the critics at Cahiers du Cinéma) whilst Kurosawa was the more popular arthouse choice in America (and Ozu would later become the film theorist’s choice).

In his career of some 36 years, Mizoguchi directed more than 90 films. Many of the early silents and some of the wartime sound films have been lost, but the international success of his late films did allow some of the earlier works to get a showing outside Japan. Mizoguchi was famous for films in which women were given leading roles. Some of these were historical dramas (jidaigeki), some were contemporary ‘social problem’ pictures or melodramas (gendaigeki). All were on the side of the women, exposing their maltreatment in Japanese society (female suffrage was not achieved until 1946 under the Allied Occupation) and empowering them through artistic representation. There are varying critical viewpoints on the extent to which Mizoguchi could be classified as a ‘feminist’ director. Some critics have suggested that he exploited the suffering of his heroines (and of his actresses, with whom he was tyrannical in the search for perfection). But there is no dispute that women are invariably at the centre of his films.

Mizoguchi’s remarkable success internationally with the early 1950s films was partly to do with a familiarity in the West with the idea of a ‘woman’s picture’/melodrama and partly a recognition of a strong cinema aesthetic, which although ‘exotic’ and ‘Japanese’ was also visually striking. Robin Wood (1976) offers a view of Mizoguchi as demonstrating a style that has affinities to European directors as diverse as Max Ophüls and Roberto Rossellini and features strong diagonals in the compositions The famous later films featured fluid and extensive tracking shots as well as distinctive compositions that drew on traditional Japanese painting styles (although like Kurosawa, he had studied Western painting). In his earlier films the camera is sometimes less mobile and the arrangement of characters in the frame and the editing seems to ‘break the rules’ of Western continuity editing (see Gallagher 2001). In the 1940s, some Western critics suggested an affinity to the long take, plan séquence style of Jean Renoir. (Plan séquence means carefully choreographing a whole scene involving actions by characters and camera movements within a single take.) The opening shots of The Lady of Musashino certainly resemble the Renoir of The River (France/India 1950). Richie (2001: 81) dismisses The Lady of Musashino as ‘static’ and therefore not ‘modern’. Is he right?

The Lady of Musashino
This film dates from the period immediately before Mizoguchi was in effect ‘introduced’ to the West through the Venice Film Festival (The Life of Oharu, Mizoguchi’s next film in 1952 won the International Award at Venice). It is one of a trio of ‘bourgeois melodramas’ that Mizoguchi directed between 1949 and 1952, but the only one of the three to have become available in the UK (the others are A Portrait of Madame Yuki (1950) and Miss Oyu (1951)).

The Lady of Musashino is remarkable for a number of reasons (even though it is not one of Mizoguchi’s widely discussed films). First is the seemingly simple and perhaps even abrupt editing and mise en scène. Some scenes are very short and major changes in the central character’s life are documented very quickly (the abruptness of death and funerals for instance). This would have been seen in Japan as a straight genre film, albeit at the ‘quality’ end of the market. The audience at the time would have picked up quickly on the important changes in social mores and the implications in the behaviour of family members, but we might have more of a problem in assessing the importance of the narrative information we are offered.

This leads to the question of thematics and the context of production. The film is contemporary for its period and traces what happens to a middle class woman over the years from the latter stages of the war in 1944-5 up to the present (i.e. 1951). This is the period of the Occupation (which ended in 1952), when Japanese people were recovering from the shame of defeat, trying to rebuild their lives and starting to come to terms with the new ‘democratic’ Japan and the promise of ‘modernisation’ and economic recovery.

As a relatively well-off woman, Michiko, the ‘Lady from Musashino’ (a small city to the west of Tokyo, since the 1960s part of the outer suburbs of the metropolis) does not have to scrabble for a living like many working class Japanese, but she does have to face the dilemma of choosing between her obligations to her parents and other traditional Japanese customs and the rather different attractions (and problems) of ‘modernity’. The latter are attractive to both her husband, Tadao (who is normally referred to by his family name Akiyama) and Tomiko, the wife of her cousin Eiji.

Michiko’s family relationships are at the centre of the narrative. At the start of the film she returns from a bombed-out Tokyo to her family home with its house, land and servants. Her father is concerned that she maintain the family name (Miyaji) and he refers to her ‘samurai blood’ which helps her to stand the bombing. He doesn’t trust Akiyama who happily admits that he is of peasant stock, which is why he is happy to run away from the bombing. Akiyama has become a Professor at Tokyo University and he is so eager to see the ‘stupid war’ over that he earns a rebuke from Michiko’s father: “Do you want to see Japan defeated?”

Michiko’s cousin Eiji Ono owns a munitions factory and he will survive the war, but her father’s brother is a Chief of Staff who must commit hari-kari with the defeat. It is his son, Tsutomu, who carries the family name of Miyaji. Tsutomu returns in 1947 from POW camp in Singapore and enrols at the university. Michiko must follow her father’s teachings, but she finds herself torn between her husband, a moderniser who teaches Stendahl and espouses adultery as ‘freedom’, and Tsutomu, who yearns for the solitude of Musashino, but finds himself trapped in the Americanised world of post-war Tokyo. The ending of the film confirms that the struggles over ‘modernity’ and tradition’ are not simple, nor should characters be seen as wholly ‘good’ or ‘bad’, based on their attitudes.

What lifts the film above the general level of well-made genre films is Mizoguchi’s direction, particularly his direction of his familiar star actress Kinuyo Tanaka (1910-1977). Ms Tanaka began her career at 14 and made a total of 117 films, including 15 with Mizoguchi, starting in 1940. (She later went on to direct six features in the 1950s and 1960s, according to IMDB becoming the first woman to direct in Japan. She also worked for Ozu.) In a useful essay on Tanaka and Mizoguchi, Chika Kinoshita refers to the way in which Mizoguchi ‘realises’ relationships on screen:

Mizoguchi’s films are almost always about women. It is, however, arguable that Mizoguchi strongly gravitates not toward women’s beauty or their sorrows but toward women in social relations, and in particular to hierarchical power relations between the sexes. Mizoguchi’s view is succinctly illustrated in a 1952 interview: “In the first place, I have long thought that after Communism solves the problems of class, male-female problems would remain.” Here his reference to Communism, though seemingly casual, reveals that he considered the male-female relation to be something like class relations, i.e., a historically specific hierarchical system that serves as mode of exploitation. Sato [Tadao] accurately points out Mizoguchi’s profound obsession with “the high/low positions in human relations” and maintains:

In Mizoguchi, even a state of love between a man and a woman is under the sway of hierarchy. Or, for Mizoguchi, the most desirable form of romantic relationships might have been a picture of holding down under him someone noble at whom he used to look up . . . He recognised that every human relation inevitably takes shape as either the act of looking up or that of looking down, even in romantic relationships. [Sato, Tadao. Mizoguchi Kenji no sekai (Tokyo: Chikuma-shobou, 1982)]

Sato’s observation is helpful in mapping out hierarchical power/romantic relations in the Mizoguchian world. In effect, modern romantic love, which theoretically bases itself on human equality in bourgeois society, is what his films often eulogise as an abstract ideal, but rarely realise in a concrete form.
(‘Choreography of desire: analysing Kinuyo Tanaka’s acting in Mizoguchi’s films’ by Chika Kinoshita Uploaded 1 December 2001)

Donald Richie (2001) A Hundred Years of Japanese Film, Tokyo, London and New York: Kodansha International
Robin Wood (1976) Personal Views: Explorations in Film, London: Gordon Fraser

Web Resources
Tag Gallagher (2001) ’Mizoguchi and Freedom’
Alexander Jakoby (2002) Profile of Mizoguchi
Gary Morris (1998) Profile of Mizoguchi
Tim Smedley (2003) Review

Roy Stafford 18/10/04

Raise the Red Lantern (China/Hong Kong/Taiwan 1991)

Songlian (Gong Li) receives a massage.

Songlian (Gong Li) receives a massage.

In 1984, Yellow Earth was the first film from the so-called ‘Fifth Generation’ of new Chinese filmmakers who had emerged as the first new graduates of the Beijing Film Academy in the early 1980s to be seen widely outside China. The visual power of the film came from the partnership between Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou and over the next few years these two would emerge as the major figures of Chinese Cinema for the international audience. The Chinese film industry had been nationalised early in the 1950s and it operated several studios in different parts of the country. Significantly, the most interesting films from the new directors tended to come from the studios in the remote territories, far from the censors in Beijing or indeed the establishment figures in the industry. Over the next few years, the Chinese government censors allowed some films to be released, but held others back – not always with a clear rationale for their decisions. Filmmakers became accustomed to ‘playing games’ with the censors and developing deals with overseas production partners. Zhang Yimou has been particularly adept at these games and as a result has made more films than many of his contemporaries (e.g. Tian Zhuangzhuang with ten years between each of his three major films).

Zhang Yimou’s first directorial effort was Red Sorghum (1987). This was a popular film, based on a popular novel, with popular songs and the first of an unofficial trilogy of films, all of which were allowed for export and became arthouse hits across the world. Judou followed in 1989 and Raise the Red Lantern in 1991. These three films have the following common features:

• all are ‘historical’, or at least set in the period before the founding of the PRC (People’s Republic of China);
• all feature Gong Li as a beautiful and intelligent young woman forced to rebel against an older man or patriarchal system;
• all are melodramas, notable for an ‘excessive’ visual style, characterised most often by the use of the colour red. Red Sorghum is set amongst the fields of red grain which produce a local beer/wine – and which literally run with blood during the violent conclusion to the story. Judou is set in a dyeworks.

The setting of Raise the Red Lantern is the 1920s and Gong Li plays a young woman who through force of circumstance must become the fourth wife/concubine of a rich man. She finds herself battling with the other three wives to build and protect her own position in the very traditional household.

The production history of the film shows an early co- production with the celebrated Taiwanese director Hou Hsaio-Hsien as executive producer and a Hong Kong production company able to ease the passage of the film into Western arthouse distribution. The film was shot in China in Shanxi province but its release was suppressed by the Chinese authorities. It is certainly possible to see the story as a metaphor for the repression in the Communist state which led to the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. Verina Glaessner in her Sight and Sound review (February 1992) suggests that the characters in the film have their own individual lives subsumed in the unchanging life of the house. The colour red here denotes not passion but simply status and the Old Master with his preference for things to be ‘bright and formal’ appears to be referring to the Chinese socialist realist view of art (as distinct from the much more sophisticated visual sense of the Fifth Generation). The metaphor forces Zhang into a much more austere and controlled representation of the house than in the more clearly melodramatic mise en scene of the brewery in Red Sorghum or the dyeworks in Judou.

By his third film (in the West) Zhang Yimou had attracted both admiring audiences and a range of academic critics, notably those concerned with feminist film studies and ‘post colonial’ studies. He became identified with films that seemed to celebrate the suffering of Chinese women. His attachment to his ‘muse’, Gong Li also brought up charges of appearing to satisfy an ‘Orientalist’ desire to see images of a beautiful China with its beautiful heroine. A good example of the critiques is offered in this Bright Lights article, ‘Better Beauty Through Technology: Chinese Transnational Feminism and the Cinema of Suffering’:

. . . in Chinese film – particularly in the Fifth Generation Mainland films, which apparently ignore bourgeois Western feminism – the ideological tensions between Eastern and Western feminism have often been trumped by visual splendor and depictions of melodramatic female suffering. While representations of feudal suffering were a common tool used by Republican revolutionaries and anti-Confucian Maoists alike to critique Third World primitivism, the persistence of this aesthetic has in film submerged any kind of gendered politics beneath a commodifiable aesthetic of cinematographic prettiness, in which the systems under critique are paradoxically presented romantically, nostalgically, in a word, sexily. Of course, generic images of female suffering are common throughout classical East Asian cinema, as evidenced by Mizoguchi’s ever-suffering heroines, whose proto-feminisms the Japanese new wave, attempting to escape the straitjacket of feudalist aesthetics, considered needlessly romantic. But while I refuse to characterize suffering as an aesthetic particularly “Asian” or feminine, I must still contend with the kind of oriental imagery promulgated by Zhang Yimou, which has fostered an internationally recognized trope of prettified female suffering, and which – ignoring both Western feminism and Chinese Mulan-ism [Mulan is a traditional Chinese heroine figure] – has been incapable of saying anything innovative about women’s problems in premodern China. If feminism should critique the tyranny of the physical appearances that preserve male and female as biologically exclusive and unequal terms, might it not be ironic for a film – such as Zhang’s Raise the Red Lantern – to purportedly critique patriarchy while burying its themes beneath the similarly exclusive physical appearances of high-class cinematography? (Andrew Grossman, 2002, Bright Lights 35 on

A different view comes from Mary Farquhar writing on another Australian website, Senses of Cinema:

The trilogy is probably Zhang’s masterpiece. Its visual power rests on female sexuality as onscreen spectacle. Its narrative power rests on reworking the early 20th century debate on Chinese patriarchy, liberation and modernity. Lu Xun, China’s best-known writer in the early 20th century, was a trenchant critic of Confucianism, especially filial piety. He called on fathers to liberate the young and so liberate society. Without such systemic change, he wrote, children are socialised into a cannibalistic society in which everyone is gobbled up. Within this framework, young women who challenge the system in socialist realist Chinese cinema of the 1930s nearly always die. The Chinese Communist Party subsequently claimed that they had liberated the masses from Confucian and capitalist bondage: men, women and children. Fifth Generation cinema, however, recast the Party as political patriarchy in a devastating cultural critique. Zhang goes even further in the trilogy. Old men personify a system that never relinquishes power. Freedom only comes from real or symbolic patricide that is carried out by the son but instigated by female desire. Women have agency. Their ability to choose a man is the catalyst for social change, for better among peasants in Red Sorghum or for worse in the artisan and literati households of, respectively, Judou and Raise the Red Lantern. Thus, many commentators call the trilogy a Chinese exploration of oedipality, founded on ancestral controls over female desire rather than on the son’s actual desire for his blood mother. The argument is no longer that fathers must liberate their children but that children must kill their fathers to liberate themselves.