Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Films of Zhang Yimou and Gong Li

In the 1990s I was fairly obsessed with the work of director Zhang Yimou and actress Gong Li. Their collaboration began with the adultery dramas RED SORGHUM (1987) and JU DOU (1990) but I didn’t become aware of their work until the breakout hit RAISE THE RED LANTERN (1991), which garnered international attention. Zhang was greeted as the great artistic find of the so-called Chinese “Fifth Generation” of filmmakers (the first generation of filmmakers to emerge in China since the Cultural Revolution), and Gong became the biggest star in Chinese cinema. (The two also made a little seen 1989 thriller called CODENAME COUGAR—which, in addition to sounding like a bad porno, seems to have been disowned at one time or another by everyone involved.) 

Their working relationship went on to include the films THE STORY OF QIU JU (1992), TO LIVE (1994), and SHANGHAI TRIAD (1995). After that the two went their separate ways—professionally and personally. Gong enjoys the life of an international superstar (including some roles in American films) and Zhang has moved on to other projects, mostly of the large-scale epic variety. 

Although the two reunited briefly for the costume epic CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER in 2006, I think it’s safe to say that their legend rests largely on the amazing work they did in the 1990s. It was an amazingly creative period for the duo, resulting in a body of work that ranks up there with von Sternberg and Dietrich. 

It’s all worth seeing, but perhaps the best place to start is their most famous film RAISE THE RED LANTERN. Set in the 1920s, it tells the story of a young woman (Gong) married off as a concubine to a rich older man. She’s the Fourth Mistress, a situation she’s none too happy with. This sets up a battle of wills between the young woman and her fellow wives and, eventually, with the entire system.

RAISE THE RED LANTERN isn’t so much a historical drama (there’s a lot of doubt about how accurate a picture it paints of its time period) but rather a chamber drama about how one woman attempts to survive in a world that seems to be closing in on her. It’s a full on visual masterpiece—a triumph of cinematography and art direction—but it’s also a deeply moving filming, owing much to the beautiful performance of Gong. 

From there, I suggest going to a much different film, but the one that I would argue represents the greatest achievement of Zhang and Gong, 1994’s TO LIVE. It tells the story of one married couple (Gong and the wonderful actor You Ge) in China from the 1940s to the 1960s. In doing so, it shows how ordinary people endured the massive changes that swept across that country from the fall of the Nationalists to the Rise of Maoism to the terrifying purges of the Cultural Revolution. What works brilliantly here is that the film never misplaces its focus. It never preaches, never needlessly underlines. It stays centered on Gong and You and their children as they attempt to negotiate political winds that are as random as they are deadly. It works, first and foremost, as a drama. The last few scenes—which I will not reveal—are shattering. 

Its political statement may be implicit—seen in the progress of time through the film, the way the bright red murals of Mao fade and chip as the years limp by—but it’s also unmistakable (not surprising considering that Zhang was a victim of the Cultural Revolution himself, having been pulled out of school and sent to work as a farm laborer for three years after he was deemed in need of re-education). The film was banned in China, and Zhang was forbidden to make films for two years. Today, however, TO LIVE can be seen as one of the truly great movies of Chinese cinema, an essential document of the country in flux through years of revolution and hardship. 

Zhang is widely seen as a feminist filmmaker, which owes something to his preference for female protagonists (even after his association with Gong ended). RED SORGHUM and JU DOU are both dramas about a young woman (Gong in both cases) married to an older man, having an affair with a younger man. These have distinct echoes of THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (particularly JU DOU) and owing to the racy subject matter both were both banned for a time in China. These are gorgeous works, with JU DOU in particular being a work of stunning color cinematography—famously, the film was shot with a color process far richer than any one currently used in America, and the colors fit a story of large passions writ large. 

That’s an impressive run of films. TO LIVE and RAISE THE RED LANTERN I’d submit, are two of the truly essential films of the 1990s (up there with PULP FICTION and Kieslowski’s Colors Trilogy). RED SORGHUM and JU DOU are excellent. 

If you want to finish things out, then check out THE STORY OF QIU JU—the smallest, quietest film they made—about a poor pregnant woman trying to navigate an endless bureaucracy in her attempt to punish the low-level government employee who kicked her husband in the balls. It’s an odd film, a comedy of manners that subtly indicts a system that seems almost to have been designed to deny real justice. 

Their last film of the nineties was the neo-noir SHANGHAI TRIAD. While by no means a bad film, it’s still their least substantial work, a film that is beautifully shot and well acted (and Gong looks amazing) but that nevertheless pales in comparison. It seemed obvious that the duo had done their best work.

I suppose Zhang and Gong could be criticized for selling out. (I’m certain this criticism has been leveled.) He decided he’d rather produce action movies and big events like the opening of Beijing Olympics and she decided she’d rather be a rich international movie star. But their work since the 90s hasn’t been without its interest. In addition to his epics, which are fun, he made small lovely films like NOT ONE LESS and the sweet romance THE ROAD HOME, featuring a winning performance by Ziyi Zhang. And Gong has mixed her work in big budget films with work with Wong Kar Wai (the freaky 2046) and Chen Kaige (the wonderful epic THE EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN). More to the point, Zhang and Gong put in their time together making art films in the 1990s. Those films work not just as explorations of China’s past but, perhaps more importantly (and, in a sense, more genuinely) as documents of the time in which they were made.    


Jan Ostrom said...

I am so with you on the 90s work. Love these two and glad to know others share my admiration for their work. Great article. thanks so much!

Jake Hinkson said...

Thanks, Jan!

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