Zhang Yimou: Indie Film Director

FT put together an excellent interview with Zhang Yimou (张艺谋), China’s leading feature film director. Some very interesting points come out during the interview, showing the artist inside is alive and well.

Zhang uses a modest apartment in an anonymous Beijing suburb as his office – and there is a back-to-basics quality about the two films he is working on, one a remake of a Coen Brothers movie. Although he does not quite put it this way, it feels as if he is trying to re-establish himself as an independent filmmaker. When Zhang describes his work he takes a slightly defensive tone, a sign that fame and wealth have come at a critical cost.

“I am still an independent artist. I am not a member of the Chinese Communist Party or the Communist Youth League,” says Zhang. “I am still working hard to make one new film after another. My life has not changed at all.”

He smiles at the label and says he is not bothered. “I am not a person out of the official regime. I was engaged to do the Olympics and because the state leaders were very happy, they used me again for the national day celebrations. These were just assignments,” he says. “The more independent an artist is, the more special or unique his or her work is.”

Perhaps most importantly, Zhang Yimou sure uses a lot of RED in his films.

A decade later, he was making powerful films that many thought of as allegories for authoritarian rule under the communists, including Red Sorghum (1987) and Raise the Red Lantern (1991), a claustrophobic examination of the life of a concubine that meshed his talent for intimate detail with a luxuriant use of colour. He has also dabbled in grand theatrical events, staging Turandot in Beijing’s Forbidden City palace a decade ago. In recognition of his status, he has just been announced as Martin Scorsese’s successor in the Rolex mentoring scheme, which each year matches distinguished filmmakers and other artists with up-and-coming protégés.

In regards to his direction of the opening ceremony for the Olympic Games:

“I am very proud of myself,” Zhang says. “Everyone knew they were going to get a show about traditional Chinese culture, but … I was able to find a way to use multimedia to demonstrate the new, modern China.”

When he and his film school colleagues started making movies in the 1980s, he says, they were still angry about their suffering during the cultural revolution. “At that time, lots of Chinese people were thinking about the tragedy of the cultural revolution. The work of most film directors reflected this,” he says. (“I never had a mentor,” he grumbles. “At that time, the biggest issue was whether you had enough to eat.”)

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