Family & Companions
One of the most acclaimed Chinese filmmakers of the late 20th century, award-winning director Zhang Yimou produced a series of intensely moving period dramas about the political and emotional inequalities suffered by women in Chinese history, including "Ju Do" (1990), "Raise the Red Lantern" (1992) and "To Live" (1994) before scoring international hits with the martial arts thrillers "Hero" (2002) and "House of Flying Daggers" (2004). Part of China's acclaimed "Fifth Generation" of filmmakers, whose work flew in the face of government control over how movies were made, Zhang emerged as the most successful of the group, thanks to his early dramas which all featured the sensuous actress Gong Li as their long-suffering but resolute heroines. After a brief fallow period in the late 1990s, Zhang emerged again with "Hero," a lavishly expensive historical epic with martial arts star Jet Li in its lead. Its phenomenal success allowed Zhang to move between major efforts like "House of Flying Daggers" and "Curse of the Golden Flower" (2006) and smaller fare like "A Woman, A Gun and a Noodle Shop" (2009), a screwball adaptation of "Blood Simple" (1984). "The Flowers of War" (2011) marked his return to grand scale filmmaking, as well as his commitment to telling honest stories about the lives of people under oppression, both from their circumstances and from within their hearts.
Born Nov. 14, 1950 in Xi'an, the capital city of Shaanxi province in Mainland China, Zhang's father, a dermatologist, had been an officer in Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist Kuomintang Army, which had been defeated by Mao Tse-tung's Communist forces in 1949. An uncle and older brother had fled with the Nationalists to Taiwan. These factors marked Zhang as a potential enemy of the state, and during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, individuals such as Zhang were dispatched to toil on farms. He was removed from school as a teenager for rural labor duty before being transferred to a cotton textile mill in Xianyang. With the death of Mao in 1976, the draconian restrictions of the Cultural Revolution began to lessen, allowing people to live more freely and of their own accord. Universities began to reopen, and in 1977, Zhang applied to the Beijing Film Academy. He had developed a passion for visual arts as a young man, with a particular interest in films and photography, and reportedly sold his own blood to purchase his first camera. The quality of his photos helped to gain him entrance into the Academy, despite his being over the regulation age for admission. There, his classmates included future directors Chen Kaige ("Farewell My Concubine," 1993), Tian Zhuangzhuang ("The Blue Kite," 1993) and Zhang Junzhao ("One and Eight," 1984). They and other members of Zhang's 1982 graduating class would form the core of the Fifth Generation, a group of Chinese filmmakers who would challenge both accepted notions of storytelling and the government's control over creative endeavors through their works.
After graduation in 1982, Zhang and three of his classmates were sent to the rural Guangzi Film Studio to work as director's assistants. To their dismay, they found that very few filmmakers were actually working, so they formed their own collective and began creating their own features. Initially, Zhang worked as a cinematographer, bringing his unique sense of color and composition to such landmark '80s efforts as Zhang Junzhao's "One and Eight" and Chen Kaige's "Yellow Earth." Both films helped to re-introduce Chinese cinema to world audiences through numerous festival presentations. In 1985, Zhang was sent back to Xi'an, where he served as both cinematographer and lead actor for Wu Tianming's "Old Well" (1987), which earned him the Best Actor Award at the Tokyo International Film Festival. Zhang finally stepped behind the camera as director for 1987's "Red Sorghum," a period story about a young woman sold into marriage. A visceral, earthy drama crackling with copious violence and dynamic edits and compositions, the film's true calling card was the lead performance of 21-year-old drama school student Gong Li, with whom Zhang would have a lengthy professional and personal relationship. In her, Zhang found an actress whose physical beauty was only matched by her ability to bring humanity to his stories of human oppression and deliverance. Gong's presence helped to make "Sorghum" an international hit, earning the Golden Bear at the 38th Berlin International Film Festival and scores of other festival awards.
After completing a forgettable spy drama with Gong called "Codename Cougar" in 1989, Zhang and his leading lady launched into a series of acclaimed period dramas that helped to establish them as leading figures on the international circuit. "Ju Do" (1990) was a harrowing drama with Gong as another victim of arranged marriage whose attempt to find happiness led to tragic results. It received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film - the first Chinese feature to ever earn such an honor - and won the Luis Bunuel Special Award at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival. "Raise the Red Lantern" (1992) starred Gong as a concubine who discovered the abusive, patriarchal world of 1920s aristocracy. A visually as well as emotionally stunning film, it too received a Foreign Film Oscar nomination, as well as the Silver Lion at the 1991 Venice International Film Festival. However, its anti-authority message resulted in the Chinese government banning it from theaters, a fate that had also befallen "Ju Do."
"The Story of Qiu Ju" (1992) marked a turning point in Zhang's career. Lighter in tone than his early, atmospheric tragedies, it also deviated from its predecessors with its gritty, semi-documentary look and use of non-professional actors. Gong once again took the lead as a peasant woman who faced insurmountable odds in her attempt to gain justice for her husband after a small town leader beat him. A major hit both abroad and in mainland China, where its message was adopted as part of a large anti-corruption campaign, "Qiu Ju" won the Golden Lion at the 1992 Venice Film Festival, as well as the Volpi Cup for Gong. For a brief period, Zhang was as adored in his native country as he was around the world. But with 1994's "To Live," he returned to the Chinese government's blacklist. A heart-rending chronicle of the tragedies that befall a 20th century family as it endured the cultural upheaval of China's transformation into a Communist state, "To Live" was viewed as anti-authoritarian and pulled from release. However, it won Zhang a shared Grand Jury Prize with "Burnt By the Sun" (1994) at the Cannes Film Festival, as well as a Golden Globe nomination. It would also mark the end of his first and most successful period as a director.
With the release of the gangster drama "Shanghai Triad" (1995) came the end of Zhang and Gong's professional and personal relationship. The film also suffered when the Chinese government pulled it from the New York Film Festival after receiving word that "Gate of Heavenly Peace" (1995), a documentary about the Tiananmen Square massacre, was also part of its programming. For the next few years, Zhang kept a busy if lower profile. He directed a production of the opera "Turandot" with an international cast in 1996, and helmed three smaller, more intimate features. The relatively obscure black comedy "Keep Cool" (1997) preceded another triumph, "Not One Less" (1999), a drama about a substitute teacher in search of a missing student that underscored the tribulations of providing education to rural China. Controversy erupted when the film was not selected for the 1999 Cannes Film Festival, which Zhang suggested was motivated by Western audiences' misunderstanding of Chinese politics. However, it did receive the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, as well as scores of other festival awards.
Immediately after completing "Not One Less," Zhang made "The Road Home" (1999), a poignant story of romantic and familial love about a young man's return to his home town for his father's funeral, which sparked a reminiscence about the bond shared by his parents. "Road" marked the debut of another stellar actress, Zhang Ziyhi, who would rise to fame the following year with "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (2000). After completing the lightweight comedy "Happy Times" (2000), Zhang entered the second and most successful period of his career with a series of action-dramas that blended furious martial arts with court intrigue and personal politics. But as before, his efforts were not without their share of controversy.
"Hero" (2002) starred some of the biggest names in Chinese film, including martial arts stars Jet Li, Donnie Yen and Tony Leung in a fast-paced story of a nameless warrior (Li) and his quest to assassinate the first Emperor of China. A massive hit in China, "Hero" was the highest gross film in Chinese movie history and swept the Hong Kong Awards, but for unknown reasons, was kept out of circulation in America by its distributor, Miramax, for a full two years after its Chinese release. Despite its nomination for Best Foreign Language Film in 2003, it took the efforts of director Quentin Tarantino and executives at Miramax's parent company, Disney, to secure an uncut, subtitled presentation.
After the success of "Hero," Zhang busied himself with a variety of non-film projects, including portions of the closing ceremonies at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, as well as several operas and folk musicals in China. He returned to features with "House of Flying Daggers" (2004), another martial arts epic that earned praise for its color compositions, which harkened back to Zhang's early works. Despite a limited North American release, "Daggers" was another substantial hit in the West, but its follow-up, the muted drama "Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles" (2005), was rarely seen outside of China. The moving drama starred renowned Japanese actor Ken Takakura, whom Zhang had admired for years, as a father who traveled across China to reconcile with his ailing son and complete a documentary on Chinese opera. In 2006, Zhang reunited with Gong Li for the first time in over a decade for "Curse of the Golden Flower," a historical drama starring action legend Chow Yun-fat and Gong as the Emperor and Empress of China, whose dying love blossomed into hatred and eventually, plans for war. At the time of its release, it was the most expensive film ever made in China, and received glowing responses from critics around the globe for its high-wattage cast, which included Chinese pop star Jay Chou, and its sumptuous visuals and set design.
Zhang returned to the Olympics in 2008 to direct the opening and closing ceremonies of the Summer games in Beijing. Critics levied charges that the once-proud opponent of government censorship was now happily collaborating with his former enemies, but Zhang refuted the claims, citing his honor to direct the Olympic ceremony as the motivating factor. He returned to features with the offbeat "A Woman, A Gun and a Noodle Shop" (2009), a quirky revamp of the Coen Brothers' "Blood Simple" (1984) transposed to a remote Chinese desert town. Its screwball comedy elements were a marked departure for the director, though "Under the Hawthorn Tree" (2010), an adaptation of author Ai Mi's popular novel Hawthorn Tree Forever, about forbidden love during the time of the Cultural Revolution, was a return to his romantic tragedies of the 1990s. In 2011, Zhang directed "The Flowers of War," a drama about an American mortician (Christian Bale) who posed as a priest to protect a group of schoolgirls and prostitutes from the Japanese Army during the brutal attack on Nanking in 1937. Its $94 million budget surpassed "Hero" as the most expensive Chinese film made to date, and its blend of intimate human drama and large-scale action set pieces made it the highest grossing Chinese film of 2011. That same year, "Flowers" was nominated for a Golden Globe as Best Foreign Language Film.
By Paul Gaita
Director (Feature Film)
Cast (Feature Film)
Cinematography (Feature Film)
Writer (Feature Film)
Producer (Feature Film)
Music (Feature Film)
Due to the Cultural Revolution, studies suspended and sent to work in the countryside, first on farms in Shanxi province and later as a laborer in a spinning mill
Assigned to work in the Guangxi Film Studio
Debut as feature cinematographer, "One and Eight"
Transferred to the pioneering Xi'an Film Studio
Feature film directing debut, "Red Sorghum"
Directed the internationally acclaimed "Raise the Red Latern"
Won award at Cannes for "To Live"
Debut as opera director with production of "Turandot" at the Teatro Comunale in Florence, Italy; reportedly the first Chinese director of an Italian opera production
Helmed the comedy "Keep Cool"
Earned critical praise for "Not One Less", a look at contemporary China as seen through the story of a young schoolteacher and an unruly student; screened at Venice; set to be released theatrically in the USA in 2000
"The Road Home", a drama about a woman recalling her courtship with her now deceased husband, screened at Sundance
Directed "Hero",starring Jet Li and Maggie Cheung; received a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film
Directed Ziyi Zhang in "House of Flying Daggers"
Directed Gong Li in the historical drama, "Curse of the Golden Flower"; also scripted