Zhang Yimou

Zhang Yimou
Zhang Yimou

Zhang Yimou honored at the press conference (2005)
Chinese name (Traditional)
Chinese name (Simplified)
Pinyin Zhāng Yìmóu
[tʂɑ́ŋ îmǒʊ] ( listen)
Origin China
Born November 14, 1951 (1951-11-14) (age 60)
Xi'an, Shaanxi, China
Occupation Film director, producer, cinematographer and actor
Spouse(s) Hua Xie

Zhang Yimou (born November 14, 1951)[1][2] is a Chinese film director, producer, writer and actor, and former cinematographer.[3] He is counted amongst the Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers, having made his directorial debut in 1987 with Red Sorghum.[4]

Zhang has won numerous awards and recognitions, with Best Foreign Film nominations for Ju Dou in 1990 and Raise the Red Lantern in 1991, Silver Lion and Golden Lion prizes at the Venice Film Festival, Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival.[5] In 1993, he was a member of the jury at the 43rd Berlin International Film Festival.[6]

One of Zhang's recurrent themes is the resilience of Chinese people in the face of hardship and adversity, a theme which has been explored in such films as, for example, To Live (1994) and Not One Less (1999). His films are particularly noted for their rich use of colour, as can be seen in some of his early films, like Raise the Red Lantern, and in his wuxia films like Hero and House of Flying Daggers. He is currently directing an upcoming historical drama war film called The Flowers of War.


Early life

Zhang Yimou was born in Xi'an, the capital city of Shaanxi province, China. Zhang's father, a dermatologist, had been an officer in the Nationalist Kuomintang army under Chiang Kai-shek during the Chinese Civil War, and an uncle and an elder brother had followed the Nationalist forces to Taiwan after their 1949 defeat. As a result, Zhang faced difficulties in his early life.[7][8]

During the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, Zhang left his school studies and went to work, first as a farm labourer, and later at a cotton textile mill in the city of Xianyang.[8][9] During this time he took up painting and amateur still photography.

Early career

When the Beijing Film Academy reopened its doors to new students in 1978, following the abandonment of policies adopted during the Cultural Revolution, Zhang, at 27, was over the regulation age for admission, and was without the prerequisite academic qualifications. After a personal appeal to the Ministry of Culture, and showing a portfolio of his personal photographic works, the authorities relented and admitted him to the Faculty of Cinematography. Zhang graduated with the class of 1982, which also included Chen Kaige, Tian Zhuangzhuang, and Zhang Junzhao. The class went on to form the core of the Fifth Generation, who were a part of an artistic reemergence in China after the end of the Cultural Revolution.[1][8][10]

Zhang and his co-graduates were assigned to small regional studios, and Zhang was sent to work for the Guangxi Film Studio as a cinematographer. Though originally intended to work as director's assistants, the graduates soon discovered there was a dearth of directors so soon after the Cultural Revolution, and gained permission to start making their own films. This led to the production of Zhang Junzhao's One and Eight, on which Zhang Yimou worked as director of photography, and Chen Kaige's Yellow Earth, in 1984. These two films were successes at the Hong Kong Film Festival and helped to bring the new Chinese cinema to the attention of worldwide audiences, signaling a departure from the earlier propagandist films of the Cultural Revolution.[1][10] Yellow Earth is today widely considered the inaugural film of the Fifth Generation directors.[10][11][12]

In 1985, after moving back to his home town of Xi'an, Zhang was engaged as cinematographer and lead actor for director Wu Tianming's upcoming film Old Well, which was subsequently released in 1987. The lead role won Zhang a Best Actor award at the Tokyo International Film Festival.[10]

Film director


1987 saw the release of Zhang's directorial debut, Red Sorghum, starring Chinese actress Gong Li in her first leading role. Red Sorghum was met with critical acclaim, bringing Zhang to the forefront of the world's art directors, and winning him a Golden Bear for Best Picture at the 38th Berlin International Film Festival in 1988.[13]

Codename Cougar (or The Puma Action), a minor experiment in the political thriller genre, was released in 1989, featuring Gong Li and eminent Chinese actor Ge You. However, it garnered less-than-positive reviews at home and Zhang himself later dismissed the film as his worst.[14]

In the same year, Zhang began work on his next project, the period drama Ju Dou. Starring Gong Li in the eponymous lead role, along with Li Baotian as the male lead, Ju Dou, garnered as much critical acclaim as had Red Sorghum, and became China's first film to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.[15]


After the success of Ju Dou, Zhang began work on Raise the Red Lantern. Based on Su Tong's novel Wives and Concubines, the film depicted the realities of life in a wealthy family compound during the 1920s. Gong Li was again featured in the lead role, her fourth collaboration with Zhang as director.

Raise the Red Lantern received almost unanimous international acclaim. Film critic Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times noted its "voluptuous physical beauty" and sumptuous use of colours.[16] Gong Li's acting was also praised as starkly contrasting with the roles she played in Zhang's earlier films. Raise the Red Lantern was nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 1992 Academy Awards, becoming the second Chinese film to earn this distinction (after Zhang's Ju Dou). It eventually lost out to Gabriele Salvatores's Mediterraneo.

Zhang's next directorial work, The Story of Qiu Ju, in 1992, once again starring Gong Li in the lead role. The film, which tells the tale of a peasant woman seeking justice for her husband after he was beaten by a village official, was a hit at film festivals and won the Golden Lion award at the 1992 Venice Film Festival.[17]

Next, Zhang directed To Live, an epic film based on the novel by Yu Hua of the same name. To Live highlighted the resilience of the ordinary Chinese people, personified by its two main characters, amidst three generations of upheavals throughout Chinese politics of the 20th century. It was banned in China, but released at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival and won the Grand Jury Prize, as well as earning a Best Actor prize for Ge You.[18][19] To Live was banned in China by the Chinese State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television, due to its critical portrayal of various policies and campaigns of the Communist government.[20]

Shanghai Triad followed in 1995, featuring Gong Li in her seventh film under Zhang's direction. The two had developed a romantic as well as a professional relationship, but this would end during production of Shanghai Triad.[21] Zhang and Gong would not work together again until 2006's Curse of the Golden Flower.

1997 saw the release of Keep Cool, a black comedy film about life in modern China. Keep Cool marked only the second time Zhang had set a film in the modern era, after The Story of Qiu Ju.

As in The Story of Qiu Ju, Zhang returned to the neorealist habit of employing non-professional actors and location shooting for Not One Less in 1999[22][23][24] which won him his second Golden Lion prize in Venice.[25]

Shot immediately after Not One Less, Zhang's 1999 film The Road Home featured a new leading lady in the form of the young actress Zhang Ziyi, in her film debut. The film is based on a simple throw-back narrative centering on a love story between the narrator's parents.


Happy Times, a relatively minor film by Zhang, was based loosely on the short story, Shifu: You'll Do Anything for a Laugh, by Mo Yan. Starring popular Chinese actor Zhao Benshan and actress Dong Jie, it was an official selection for the Berlin International Film Festival in 2002.

Zhang's next major project was the ambitious wuxia drama Hero, released in China in 2002. With an impressive lineup of Asian stars, including Jet Li, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Zhang Ziyi, and Donnie Yen, Hero told a fictional tale about Ying Zheng, the King of the State of Qin (later to become the first Emperor of China), and his would-be assassins. The film was released in North America in 2004, two years after its Chinese release, by American distributor Miramax Films, and became a huge international hit. Hero was one of the few foreign-language films to debut at number 1 at the U.S. box office,[26] and was one of the nominees for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2003 Academy Awards.

Zhang followed up the huge success of Hero with another martial arts epic, House of Flying Daggers, in 2004.[27] Set in the Tang Dynasty, it starred Zhang Ziyi, Andy Lau, and Takeshi Kaneshiro as characters caught in a dangerous love triangle. House of Flying Daggers received acclaim from critics, who noted the use of colour that harked back to some of Zhang's earlier works.[28]

Released in China in 2005, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles was a return to the more low-key drama that characterized much of Zhang's middle period pieces. The film stars Japanese actor Ken Takakura, as a father who wishes to repair relations with his alienated son, and is eventually led by circumstance to set out on a journey to China. Zhang had been an admirer of Takakura for over thirty years.[29]

2006's Curse of the Golden Flower, saw him reunited with leading actress Gong Li. Taiwanese singer Jay Chou and Hong Kong star Chow Yun-fat also starred in the period epic based on a play by Cao Yu.[30]

Zhang's recent films, and his involvement with the 2008 Olympic ceremonies, have not been without controversy. Some critics claim that his recent works, contrary to his earlier films, have received approval from the Chinese government. However, in interviews, Zhang has said that he is not interested in politics, and that it was an honour for him to direct the Olympic ceremonies because it was "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."[31]

On May 24, 2010, Zhang was awarded an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree by Yale University, and was described as "a genius with camera and choreography."[32]

There are high expectations for Zhang's 2011 "The Flowers of War" as it is his most expensive film to date, budgeting for $90.2 million.[33]

Stage direction

Starting in the 1990s, Zhang Yimou has been directing stage productions in parallel with his film career.

In 1998, he directed an acclaimed version of Puccini's opera Turandot, firstly in Florence and then later at the Forbidden City, Beijing, with Zubin Mehta conducting.[34] He reprised his version of Turandot in October 2009, at the Bird's Nest Stadium in Beijing, and plans to tour with the production in Europe, Asia and Australia in 2010.

In 2001, Zhang adapted his 1991 film Raise the Red Lantern for the stage, directing a ballet version.[35]

Zhang has co-directed a number of outdoor folk musicals under the title Impression. These include Impression, Liu Sanjie, which opened in August 2003 at the Li River, Guangxi province;[36] Impression Lijiang, in June 2006 at the foot of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in Lijiang, Yunnan province; Impression West Lake, in late 2007 at the West Lake in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province; Impression Hainan in late 2009, set in Hainan province; and Impression Dahongpao set on Mount Wuyi, in Fujian province. All five performances were co-directed by Wang Chaoge and Fan Yue.

Zhang also led the production of Tan Dun's opera, The First Emperor, which had its world premiere at the Metropolitan Opera on 21 December 2006.[37]

2008 Beijing Olympics Opening and Closing Ceremonies

Zhang Yimou was chosen to direct the Beijing portion of the closing ceremonies of the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece, as well as the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China, alongside co-director and choreographer Zhang Jigang.[38]

Zhang was a runner-up for the Time Magazine Person of the Year award in 2008. Steven Spielberg, who withdrew as an adviser to the Olympic ceremonies to pressure China into helping with the conflict in Darfur, described Zhang's works in the Olympic ceremonies in Time magazine, saying "At the heart of Zhang's Olympic ceremonies was the idea that the conflict of man foretells the desire for inner peace. This theme is one he's explored and perfected in his films, whether they are about the lives of humble peasants or exalted royalty. This year he captured this prevalent theme of harmony and peace, which is the spirit of the Olympic Games. In one evening of visual and emotional splendor, he educated, enlightened, and entertained us all."[39]


As director

Year English title Chinese title Notes
1987 Red Sorghum 红高粱 Golden Bear
1988 Codename Cougar 代号美洲豹 (co-director)
1990 Ju Dou 菊豆
1991 Raise the Red Lantern 大红灯笼高高挂
1992 Story of Qiu Ju, TheThe Story of Qiu Ju 秋菊打官司 Golden Lion
1994 To Live 活着 Grand Prix du Jury
1995 Shanghai Triad 摇啊摇,摇到外婆桥
1995 Zhang Yimou Segment of the anthology, Lumière and Company
1997 Keep Cool 有話好好說
1999 Not One Less 一个都不能少 Golden Lion
1999 Road Home, TheThe Road Home 我的父亲母亲 Jury Grand Prix
2000 Happy Times 幸福時光
2002 Hero 英雄
2004 House of Flying Daggers 十面埋伏
2005 Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles 千里走单骑
2006 Curse of the Golden Flower 满城尽带黄金甲
2007 Movie Night Segment of the anthology, To Each His Cinema
2009 Simple Noodle Story, AA Simple Noodle Story[40] 三枪拍案惊奇
2010 Love of the Hawthorn Tree, TheThe Love of the Hawthorn Tree 山楂树之恋
2011 The Flowers of War 金陵十三釵

As cinematographer

Year English title Chinese title Notes
1982 Red Elephant 红象
1983 One and Eight 一个和八个
1984 Yellow Earth 黃土地
1986 Old Well 老井
1986 The Big Parade 大阅兵

As actor

Year English title Chinese title Notes
1986 Old Well 老井 Sun Wangquan
1987 Red Sorghum 红高粱
1989 Fight and Love with a Terracotta Warrior 古今大战秦俑情 Tian Fong
1997 Keep Cool 有话好好说 Junk Peddler

See also


  1. ^ a b c Farquhar, Mary (May 2002). "Zhang Yimou". Senses of Cinema. http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/directors/02/zhang.html. Retrieved 2010-09-27. 
  2. ^ Date of Birth at Britannica
  3. ^ Tasker, Yvonne (2002). "Zhang Yimou" in Fifty Contemporary Filmmakers. Routledge Publishing, p. 412. ISBN 0-4151-8974-8. Google Book Search. Retrieved 2008-08-21.
  4. ^ Jonathan Crow. "Zhang Yimou - Biography". Allmovie. http://www.allmovie.com/artist/zhang-yimou-117624. Retrieved 2009-01-12. 
  5. ^ "Zhang Yimou Bio". tribute.ca. http://www.tribute.ca/people/Zhang+Yimou/4873. Retrieved 2010-09-01. 
  6. ^ "Berlinale: 1993 Juries". berlinale.de. http://www.berlinale.de/en/archiv/jahresarchive/1993/04_jury_1993/04_Jury_1993.html. Retrieved 2011-05-29. 
  7. ^ Memoirs from the Beijing Film Academy: The Genesis of China's Fifth Generation. Ni Zhen, translated by Chris Berry. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002, pp. 44.
  8. ^ a b c "Zhang Yimou". http://www.notablebiographies.com/supp/Supplement-Sp-Z/Zhang-Yimou.html. Retrieved 2010-09-01. 
  9. ^ Memoirs from the Beijing Film Academy: The Genesis of China's Fifth Generation. Ni Zhen, translated by Chris Berry. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002, pp. 45-6.
  10. ^ a b c d Crow, Jonathan. "Zhang Yimou". New York Ties. http://movies.nytimes.com/person/117624/Zhang-Yimou/biography. Retrieved 2010-09-01. 
  11. ^ Zhang Yingjin (2003-10-10). "A Centennial Review of Chinese Cinema". The University of California, San Diego. http://chinesecinema.ucsd.edu/essay_ccwlc.html. Retrieved 2008-08-21. 
  12. ^ "A Brief History of Chinese Film". The University of Edinburgh-Cinema China '07. http://www.llc.ed.ac.uk/cinema-china/briefhistory.html. Retrieved 2008-08-21. 
  13. ^ "Berlinale - Archive - Annual Archives - 1988 - Prize Winners". Berlin International Film Festival. http://www.berlinale.de/en/archiv/jahresarchive/1988/03_preistr_ger_1988/03_Preistraeger_1988.html. Retrieved 2008-08-21. 
  14. ^ http://www.wzrb.com.cn/node2/node142/userobject8ai220559.html
  15. ^ Neo, David (September 2003). "Red Sorghum: A Search for Roots". Senses of Cinema. Archived from the original on 2008-08-02. http://web.archive.org/web/20080802224322/http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/cteq/03/28/red_sorghum.html. Retrieved 2008-08-28. 
  16. ^ Ebert, Roger (1992-03-12). "Raise the Red Lantern :: rogerebert.com :: Reviews". Chicago Sun-Times. http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19920327/REVIEWS/203270303/1023. Retrieved 2008-08-21. 
  17. ^ Kleid, Beth (September 14, 1992). "MOVIES." Los Angeles Times, p. 2.
  18. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Awards 1994". Cannes Film Festival. http://www.festival-cannes.fr/en/archives/1994/awardCompetition.html. Retrieved 2008-08-21. 
  19. ^ To Live - by Roger Ebert
  20. ^ Zhang Yimou. Frances K. Gateward, Yimou Zhang, University Press of Mississippi, 2001, pp. 63-4.
  21. ^ Ebert, Roger (1996-02-16). "Shanghai Triad". Chicago Sun Times. http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19960216/REVIEWS/602160304/1023. Retrieved 2008-08-21. 
  22. ^ Kraicer, Shelly (2001). "Not One Less". Persimmons 1 (3). http://www.chinesecinemas.org/notoneless.html. Retrieved 9 September 2009. 
  23. ^ Rea, Steven (24 March 2000). "In a Chinese village, the teacher is 13". The Philadelphia Inquirer. 
  24. ^ Feinstein, Howard (6 February 2000). "Losing a Muse and Moving On". The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2000/02/06/movies/losing-a-muse-and-moving-on.html?pagewanted=all. Retrieved 9 September 2009. 
  25. ^ Rooney, David (1999-09-13). "Chinese best at Venice fest". Variety. http://www.variety.com/article/VR1117755601.html. Retrieved 2008-08-21. 
  26. ^ "Kung Fu Power for 'Hero' at Box Office". The New York Times. 2004-08-30. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9401E4DA1F3EF933A0575BC0A9629C8B63. Retrieved 2008-08-21. 
  27. ^ Gough, Neil (2004-04-12). "Zhang Yimou Interview". Time. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,501040419-610119,00.html. Retrieved 2008-08-21. 
  28. ^ "House of Flying Daggers". Metacritic. http://www.metacritic.com/film/titles/houseofflyingdaggers. Retrieved 2009-01-14. 
  29. ^ "Zhang Yimou's new film makes domestic debut". China Daily. 2005-12-18. http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/english/doc/2005-12/18/content_504306.htm. Retrieved 2008-08-21. 
  30. ^ Catsoulis, Jeannette (2006-12-21). "Curse of the Golden Flower - Movie - Review". The New York Times. http://movies.nytimes.com/2006/12/21/movies/21flow.html. Retrieved 2008-08-21. 
  31. ^ Barboza, David (2008-08-07). "Gritty Renegade Now Directs China’s Close-Up". The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/08/sports/olympics/08guru.html. Retrieved 2009-01-01. 
  32. ^ Citations for Recipients of Honorary Degrees at Yale University 2010
  33. ^ "Big expectations for Zhang Yimou's The 13 Women of Nanjing". Asia Pacific Arts. 2011-04-18. http://asiapacificarts.usc.edu/article@apa?big_expectations_for_zhang_yimous_the_13_women_of_nanjing_16652.aspx. 
  34. ^ Eckholm, Erik (1998-09-01). "Turandot - Directed by ZHANG Yimou, at the Forbidden City Beijing". The New York Times. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9C01E3DF143FF932A3575AC0A96E958260. Retrieved 2008-08-21. 
  35. ^ Director Zhang Yimou Fine Tunes 'Red Lantern' Ballet
  36. ^ ""Liu Sanjie" performed in natural scenic setting". China Daily. 2003-08-17. http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/en/doc/2003-08/17/content_255620.htm. Retrieved 2008-08-21. 
  37. ^ Morris, Lois B. & Lipsyte, Robert (2006-10-01). "The Great Wall Rises (and Falls) at the Met". The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/01/arts/music/01lips.htm. Retrieved 2008-08-21. 
  38. ^ "Zhang Yimou and his five creative generals". Official Website of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. http://en.beijing2008.cn/culture/ceremonies/n214143744.shtml. Retrieved 2008-08-21. 
  39. ^ "Person Of The Year 2008". Time. 2008-12-17. http://www.time.com/time/specials/2008/personoftheyear/article/0,31682,1861543_1865103_1865107,00.html. 
  40. ^ Geoffrey Macnab (2010-02-17). "Review of "A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop"". Independent, The (London: Independent, The). http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/reviews/a-woman-a-gun-and-a-noodle-shop-film-festival-berlin-1901570.html. Retrieved 20 February 2010. 

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