Zhang Yimou’s movies: past and present

The world famous Chinese director Zhang Yimou is currently under investigation since being suspected of having seven children from three different women. If this turns out to be true, the Chinese authorities will impose on him a 160 million yuan fee.

This news has caught the attention of many and initiated valid and important discussions. Once again it directed the spotlight on one of the most repugnant laws still implemented in the 21st century, the one child policy. Introduced at the end of the 1980s by Deng Xiaoping, it was supposed to be a temporary measure to promote economic growth which, according to the new leaders of those years, was possible to achieve only by decreasing the huge population density in the country. However, many years have passed and nothing has changed in its implementation. In addition, the Zhang Yimou case raised debate around the undemocratic implementation of such aberrant measure, as the richest can easily bypass it by paying massive fees, while the poorest cannot and are forced to practice abortions.

Finally – and this is what this article will focus on – the Zhang Yimou case has caused indignation among many loyal fans of this director, who believe him to be a sort of hero constantly denouncing the backwardness and totalitarianism of the Chinese system. In the West, Zhang Yimou’s movies have been exalted as the first and true depiction of China and as an activist effort to denounce China’s problems in terms of mentality, justice, equality and democracy. Indeed, movies such as To Live and Ju Dou have been temporarily banned within China by the Party censoring committee for conveying a “bad” image of the country. In other words, Zhang Yimou is often considered as the artist who wants to set China free. It seems that this is only partially true, taking this in mind I get the chance to briefly review his career from a point of view that is not the mainstream one.

Zhang Yimou is said to belong to the so called Fifth Generation of Chinese directors, who started operating at the end of the 1980s, a decade after the end of the Cultural Revolution. This generation of cinema is characterized by the double aim of rediscovering the forgotten roots of the country and denouncing Chinese traditionalism as an obstacle to modernity. Indeed, this applies to Zhang Yimou’s movies, in which many claim to see both those targets clearly. However, in his career there has been a shift from one aim to the other, rather than a successful coexistence of the two, and it is sadly clear that this has been mostly dictated by revenue interests. In his first movies, such as Red Sorghum, he successfully managed to go back in time and offer a faithful portrayal of 1930s peasant life: the story is not only deep and moving, but successfully contextualized in the Second Sino-Japanese War.

However, he then realised that his tales were not catching the attention of the larger audience in China and he started producing movies for the Western audience. Movies such as Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern are tales of an unacceptably patriarchal society, static close-mindedness, corrupted institutions and evil habits, and gained a huge international recognition. At the core of his movies you find oppressed women, as they are considered by the director to have always been the main victims of Chinese society. In such a choice, the largest part of the audience sees the intent to condemn injustice and push for emancipation.

However, his protagonists are failures more than heroes, as they never manage to set themselves free: Ju Dou dies in a house fire she herself set, as if she finally needs to pay for having tried the path of emancipation through the violation of Confucian and social rules; similarly, Songlian in Raise the Red Lantern, ends up becoming insane. It seems that rather than telling stories of liberation addressing and encouraging the Chinese audience, Zhang Yimou’s movies tell stories of defeat for an outside audience. Also, more than a true depiction of Chinese folklore, his movies represent a pseudo-folklore made of massages, concubines and sensuality. It’s obvious that China is much more than that. Behind Zhang Yimou’s depiction of China there is the aim to catch the big Western audience by fuelling Western imagination, prejudice and sense of superiority: China as it is represented in his movies is not the real and complex one, rather a one faced exotic and backward picture as it is imagined by the West.

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