Friday, September 10, 2010

Modern Maestros: Zhang Yimou

Robert here, with another entry in my series about great contemporary directors.

Maestro: Zhang Yimou
Known For: films about the lives of women in China and more recently wuxia epics.
Influences: American Noir, Chinese fantasy and mythology
Masterpieces: Raise the Red Lantern
Disasters: none
Better than you remember: If you're among those who think his recent films aren't as good as his older ones, you might be right, but if you think they're bad, then I'd say they fall into this category.
Box Office: 53 mil for Hero
Favorite Actor: the beautiful, ravishing, talented Gong Li

It's entirely possible that Zhang Yimou's greatest achievement of the past ten years had nothing to do with film. He garnered his largest audience and highest place on the world stage for directing the Opening Ceremonies to the Olympic Games. Those who saw the spectacle were blown away by the beauty and artistry. Those who knew of Zhang Yimou's work in the cinema, were also blown away, but not surprised. For over twenty years, Zhang has been making films with light and color and human passion and emotion as his cornerstones. Audiences who've discovered Zhang lately have found a series of gorgeously staged wuxia epics. Anyone quick to dismiss these films as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon clones or less substantial than Zhang's earlier films should take another look. Hero and House of Flying Daggers are among the most beautiful films of all time. Their produciton designs and cinematography are at times simply jaw dropping.

Has any director turned on a dime like Zhang Yimou has? Could his early films been any different from his recent ones? Well, "yes" to answer my own question. While there is indeed a gap between those films thematically, they all adhere to Zhang's powerful aesthetic. Consider 1992's Raise the Red Lantern and how its use of color to evoke emotion is really no different from Zhang's recent movies. Yes, the film has less color overall, but that simply sets up the amazing pop of red that accompanies the joy of the lanterns' arrivals (at the house of whichever wife is in the husband's favor that night). Zhang loves color and finds uses for it everywhere in his filmography. And just in case you worried that while his use of color has flourished, his penchant for emotionally evocative films has faded, right in the middle of epics, Zhang released the little seen Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, proving that he can still tug a heart string or two whenever he wants.

After a long break after the Olympic Ceremonies, Zhang returns with his latest film, A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop (a remake of the Coen's Blood Simple) and proves quite adept at noir influence as well. He is a man of many trades and faces, Zhang Yimou, all saturated in beauty and meaning. His next film The Love of the Hawthorn Tree will be released this month in China. It's another period drama/romance to continue to quell the fears of those who think Zhang's serious work is behind him. Although any lover of cinema will tell you, it doesn't matter what kind of movie Zhang is making next, whether it be a drama or adventure, noir or romance, or all four, it's release will be colored with excitement and anticipation.

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