Zhang Yimou always bends smoothly

Old strategist or intriguer, that’s what former classmates called director Zhang Yimou (70), foreman of China’s ‘fifth generation’ film makers. A generation that grew up during Mao’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and was forced out of school to ‘learn from the peasants’. Zhang’s comrade Chen Kaige had to disown his own father during a brutal ‘battle session’ of the Red Guards.

For China’s Communist Party, Mao’s disastrous, tens of millions of life-consuming campaigns are a source of embarrassment. Still, it’s a mystery why China risked losing face in 2020 by One Second of his longtime mainstay Zhang Yimou to pull out of the Berlinale film festival at the last minute due to “technical problems in post-production”. Later on, the film went into circulation and it turned out to be almost nostalgic for Mao: you had nothing, but it was fun! Perhaps it was related to confusion within the Chinese censorship: a state task that recently again fell directly under the party.

Zhang Yimous earnings for the motherland are great. He directed the stunning opening of the Beijing Olympics in 2008. He put Chinese cinema back on the map, first with art films adored in the West, in the 21st century with colorful wuxia spectacles full of palace intrigue and whirling action as The House of Flying Daggers (2004). Movies with impeccable political morals: hero (2002) ends in self-sacrifice for the sake of unity. He also made patriotic blockbusters with American movie stars: The Flowers of War (2011, with Christian Bale, on the Japanese massacre in Nanking), The Great Wall (2016, a fantasy spectacle with Matt Damon.

Doubly counter-revolutionary

Zhang Yimou has a lot of credit, but do they trust him? He comes from a ‘double counter-revolutionary’ nest. His parents—a dermatologist and a doctor—were not just bourgeois, his father once fought for the nationalist Kuomintang, and his uncle followed Marshal Chiang Kai-shek to Taiwan. For others, the Cultural Revolution was a shock, Zhang once said. Not for him. “I’ve lived on the wrong side of the river all my life.”

As a teenager he had to work as a farmhand and factory worker and faced his fate stoically: the evening he spent on self-study. He was much appreciated as a painter of Mao frescoes; in 1974 he bought a camera with his savings and made an impression with landscape photography. His talent was undeniable; When the Chinese film academy reopened in 1978, the culture minister personally wrote a request to admit Zhang, who was much too old at 26.

Read the review of ‘One Second’

There Zhang, the ‘oldest brother’ of the class, became acquainted with classical Hollywood, Italian neorealism, nouvelle vague. The world opened up to him. After the success of the social realist Yellow Earth from his classmate Chen Kaige in 1984 – Zhang was a cameraman – his crop stormed the western film festivals and art houses. Zhang Yimou won with his beautifully stylized, sometimes monochrome debut The Red Cornfield in 1988 the Golden Bear of Berlin; four years later, the Golden Lion followed for The Story of Qiu Ju


Those historical dramas with his then wife Gong Li as the heroine still dotted around Maoism. The suppression of the student protest on Tiananmen Square in 1989 proved to be a setback; Zhang’s laureate Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern (1990, 1991) were temporarily not shown in China. But after another round of relaxation, the ‘fifth generation’ took the bull by the horns with epic films about China under Mao. Chen Kaiges Farewell My Concubine (Golden Palm Cannes 1993) was internally cleared of homosexuality and Maoist violence by order of the Politburo.The Blue Kite (1993) gave Tian Zhuangzhuang, another classmate, a 10-year film ban – in which a good family is crushed by fickle political campaigns and an actress public enemy for refusing to share the bed (‘dance’) with party bosses; still a no go area in China.

Zhang Yimou went less far. In To Live (1994) the turmoil of civil war, Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution for anti-hero Fungui is a purgation: the gambler, dandy and loose-leaf turns into a sincere family man. Mao’s bloody excesses are the result of over-enthusiasm.

With that cycle of films, the fifth generation reached its peak. Zhang Yimou focused on genre: wuxia, comedies, gangster movies. Artistically he was overtaken by the ‘sixth generation’ of You Le and Jia Zhangke, whose focus is the transformation – and moral degeneration – of the peasant state of China into a semi-capitalist world power. Mao remained vaguely taboo, but also a bit old news.

Zhang Yimou is far from being filmed. on One Second This year followed a spy film set in Japanese-occupied Manchuria and a war film about a sniper who hits 214 Americans in Korea. This is how people like to see it now: patriotic blockbusters, unfit for export. China is looking inward again, and the old strategist is bending smoothly as always.

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