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[FILM] Zhang Yimou: Art in Action

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  • chiayuan25
    Zhang Yimou: Art in Action Source: Edward Douglas December 1, 2004 Before Hero topped the box office this past summer, few Americans knew the name Zhang Yimou,
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 2, 2004
      Zhang Yimou: Art in Action
      Source: Edward Douglas December 1, 2004

      Before Hero topped the box office this past summer, few Americans
      knew the name Zhang Yimou, let alone seen any of his films. That
      said, the 53-year-old director had already found himself an extensive
      art house crowd and received Oscar nominations for many of his
      previous films over the last 17 years.

      What made Hero so significantly different was that it was an action
      film set in ancient China starring two of the country's top martial
      artists, Jet Li and Donnie Yen, but it also was a love story between
      Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, the stars of Wong Kar Wai's own
      American breakout In the Mood for Love. Hero received an Oscar
      nomination in early 2003, but it then wasn't released for over a year
      and a half. Although he wasn't sure why it took that long for Miramax
      to release his 2002 film, Zhang chose to leave that side of the
      business decisions to them and began work on his next film. In this
      case, it paid off. After topping the box office in August with an $18
      million opening weekend, almost double what his previous movies had
      made in American theatres combined, Hero grossed over $50 million.

      Less than four months later, his next film, House of Flying Daggers,
      is about to be released stateside, and Zhang thinks that the success
      of Hero will make it easier for him to find an American audience. "I
      was very surprised, since I never imagined [Hero] would do so well at
      the box office," the director told us while in town premiering the
      film at the New York Film Festival. "I think a lot of that has to do
      with Ang Lee's 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' and the opportunities
      that film opened up for new genres to get into the American film

      Since he's once again working in the martial arts genre, many will
      think that the director has a fondness for it or found something
      lacking in previous offerings. "I was never a huge fan of martial
      arts films," he confided. "Over the course of my whole life I've seen
      maybe fifteen of them, but I've read extensively in the genre of
      martial arts fiction, and that's from where most of my inspiration
      came. What's different about Chinese martial arts film and similar
      genres in other cultures is that it's a genre of the imagination. For
      instance, the samurai in Japan or the cowboys in the West are both
      based on actual historical figures that existed. In China, there
      weren't really people like this, at least not flying through the
      trees in the way that they are imagined in these movies. It's
      something that's rooted in the imagination and fantasy and dreams,
      and that was the world that I was trying to project into, rather than
      basing them on the existing body of martial arts films."

      "The film itself is a betrayal of traditional martial arts films,
      because a lot of the martial arts tradition is based on a code of
      conduct," he continued. "They have their rules of the game and all
      the fighting and revenge has to be in accordance with it. However
      here, we have a girl that betrays her code of ethics for love,
      pointing to a larger rebelliousness and an individualistic freedom.
      In the West, when you're watching this, you might not think of it as
      anything unique or special. In China, it's actually something very
      different from other martial arts, films because these are values
      that aren't usually espoused in the genre."

      The action in House of Flying Daggers is a lot more violent and
      realistic than the stylish fantasy-based action in Hero. Zhang
      explained why he chose to go in this direction. "The screenplays for
      both 'Hero' and 'House of Flying Daggers' were generated almost
      simultaneously. In 'Hero', there's a stronger attachment or interest
      to form, which is very abstract and influenced by Chinese painting.
      There's an esthetic beauty that's incorporated that is much more
      visible. We tried to root 'House of Flying Daggers' more in reality
      and make it more humanistic in dealing with love and people. It's a
      very different approach. Besides there being blood, you'll notice
      that in 'Hero', somebody can fight off hundreds of arrows and in the
      end, they're not even breathing hard. After each fight in 'House of
      Flying Daggers', even if it's just one-on-one, they're gasping for
      breath afterwards. It's a lot more realistic and human portrayal of
      the fight sequences."

      Those who saw Hero will have been impressed with the director's use
      of color in certain sequences. "As a director, I've always paid a lot
      of attention to the more formalistic elements of my films and color
      is one of those," he explained. "Another difference between action
      sequences in Western films versus Chinese films is that in Chinese
      action films, there's sort of an esthetic beauty that is often
      inherent in the fight sequences. They're not just fighting, but
      there's also a state of mind of the characters as they're in this
      battle. Color is one of the ways that I try to emphasize that and
      bring that out, as you can see in both my films."

      In China, filmmakers have to deal with a lot more than just studio
      execs, critics, and the MPAA, as the government there gets more
      actively involved in the filmmaking process right from inception. He
      told us more about the process. "There is a censorship in place, and
      you have to submit the screenplay and then the finished film for
      approval to the government censors. With films like 'House of Flying
      Daggers' and 'Hero', which are both classical costume dramas set in
      the past, there isn't much of a problem because there's nothing
      really dealing with contemporary society that they would deem
      inappropriate or too sensitive. Usually, these things go fairly
      smoothly since martial arts films are a very big genre in China with
      not too many subversive elements."

      Despite being steeped in tradition, even Americans may be surprised
      when the end credits for House of Flying Daggers start rolling across
      the screen to the tune of "Lovers", a Western style ballad sung in
      English by opera singer Kathleen Battle. Zhang explained the
      decision. "The selection of Kathleen Battle was because the composer
      is a personal friends of hers and he suggested her when we needed a
      song for the closing credits. Of course, I had heard of her, and she
      had a beautiful voice, so we decided to go with it. I think it had a
      really special effect, because she has a very soft voice that really
      strikes you when you hear it. I thought it was a wonderful ending to
      the film." He went onto explain how reaction in his native land has
      been mixed to the decision. "On the one hand, people were saying it
      was great, and it was this internationalism showing that art knows no
      boundaries, and then there were those people asking why I was ending
      a Chinese film with an English song, like I was selling out."

      Zhang Yimou got so hooked on opera after staging Verdi's
      opera "Turandot" in Beijing (as seen in the documentary The Turandot
      Project) that he decided to do something with the Metropolitan Opera
      in New York. The opera to be staged sometime in 2006 will be based on
      Emperor Qin. the character from Hero who became the first emperor of
      China, and the music will be composed by Tan Dun, who did the lush
      score for the film. To make it even more enticing, Zhang said that it
      may be noted tenor Placido Domingo's last performance on stage before

      In the meantime, Zhang will be returning to modern China for his next
      project, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles. "My next film is going
      to be a smaller budget art film, more similar to my previous work,"
      he said. "It's about the relationship between a father and a son and
      it will be a serious drama, very realistic and very much rooted in
      contemporary China. But I don't rule out the potentiality that in the
      future, I'll go back to making another martial arts film."

      Having loaded the bases with two jaw-dropping films this year, some
      people think that it's time Zhang Yimou finally wins his much-
      deserved Oscar. He takes this sort of thing in stride. "If I were to
      get it, it would be a nice affirmation of all the work that I've done
      over the years, but at the same time, I'm not that fixated on it.
      I've been nominated three or four times-more than any other Chinese
      director-and I haven't got it yet. We have a saying in Chinese: If
      you think about it too much, you're not going to get it. So I just
      don't think about it and we'll see what happens. I think it also
      depends on luck at the end of the day."

      House of Flying Daggers opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday
      and will open elsewhere in the following weeks. In the meantime, you
      can watch Hero, which was just released on DVD.

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