(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.