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I had watched a couple of his not so great movies like "The Flowers of War" (Christian Bale), "The Great Wall" (Matt Damon) and then stopped. They all have a lot of eye candy, visually they were really good, but quite melodramatic and emotionally unsatisfying (to me). From your list, it appears that I missed all the good indie ones from the 90sI had avoided Zhang Yimou (or Yimou Zhang?) for long. Though I liked "Hero" when I saw it long back, my image of Zhang was 'one who makes gorgeous martial arts movies where people fly'. I had not watched any of his films other than "Hero" till now.
I have watched 6,9,10,12, I liked them. Now I will check out the rest.I had avoided Zhang Yimou (or Yimou Zhang?) for long. Though I liked "Hero" when I saw it long back, my image of Zhang was 'one who makes gorgeous martial arts movies where people fly'. I had not watched any of his films other than "Hero" till now.
There are two distinct kinds of Yimou Zhang movies - the independent movies he made earlier (some of which were banned in China) and the big-budget wuxia movies he made later on. But, all across, there's no denying that he excels in creating eye-catching visuals on screen. A short personal opinion of his movies follow:
1. Ju Dou (1990): This film set in rural China in the 1920s as few other films of ZY are. Gong Li, his frequent collaborator, plays a young woman sold as a third wife to an old man. The sadistic, miserly old man owns a dying mill which also hosts his adopted nephew who is slaving his life away. An affair develops between the new wife and the nephew. The old man falls ill and the relationship which was once hidden is now out in the open. How it affects everybody forms the rest of the film. There are many things to like here like the way the colors are used, the performance of Gong Li, how it is not melodramatic even though it has plenty of chances to be and how it shows the rich-poor/power struggle/an allegory of the struggle between communist rulers and system and people's wishes. This was initially banned in China.
2. To Live (1994): This is a story of riches-to-rags across decades. This is also the story of how people were affected by the rise of Mao and the subsequent cultural revolution in a restrained (without resorting to preachy or overly dramatic style) and a realistic manner. This too was banned in China when it came out.
3. Raise the Red Lantern (1991): Perhaps the most well-known of his earlier films. This film is memorable for its great visual style and the fantastic (perhaps her best in their collaboration) performance of Gong Li as an educated, but poor girl who gets married to a wealthy man as his fourth wife. One other aspect of this film is even though the wealthy man (the master) is an important character, we never see his face. We see a lot of house customs and a whole lot of power struggle (politics) among wives. This too was seen as metaphorically critical of the Chinese government and was banned for a while.
4. Not One Less (1999): ZY's most "Abbas Kiarostami" film. Set in rural China, with a cast full of non-professional actors and a touch of neo-realism, this one shares a lot of things with his other 1999 film, "The Road Home". Both feature school teachers and dogged never-say-die determination of their leading ladies. A young, completely clueless 13-year old girl is brought in by the mayor as a substitute teacher for a month. While the reason for her determination, later on, is not exactly logical, non-professional actors, especially the children, make it feel realistic and note-worthy.
5. The Story of Qiu Ju (1992): Reading the plot, I didn't think there was enough for a 100-minute movie (and the plot is exactly what is in the movie). However, the first scene where Qiu Ju emerges as yet another faceless person from among a sea of people made me interested. Sure enough, I don't remember if there are any close-ups of Gong Li's face until the end. While her fight for justice doesn't seem entirely 'rational', I liked many scenes along the way - the way she spends her money and how she is taken for a ride at times but also gets help from a few others. The only thing that didn't sit well with me is how the Chinese bureaucracy is full of people with a tendency to be helpful to Qiu Ju.
6. Hero (2002): Made soon after the roaring success of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", this remains my favorite among ZY's recent output. Watching it after nearly a decade, the first 40 minutes are so were really hard to sit through. If not for the Rashomon-esque unreliable narrator technique, I would not have liked this film as much.
The "Hmmm... Good... But..."
7. The Road Home (1999): This was the debut of Zhang Ziyi. I really liked the idea of showing the present in Black and White and the past in color. This one is a really simple film, but a (mostly) engaging one. The sparse plot and some predictable romantic and melodramatic elements prevented me from liking this even more.
8. Coming Home (2014): This was a throw-back-to-old style film among his recent list of big-budget films. While the story is good and the performance of Chen Daoming stands out, it was a bit too melodramatic for me. There are some really good scenes, especially early on though.
9, 10. Curse of the Golden Flower (2006), House of Flying Daggers (2004): I may be the only one in the entire world that like 'Curse' more than 'Daggers'. These are different kinds of films - 'Curse' is a really flawed film which has many negatives against it, while 'Daggers' has many, many positive points for it.
"Curse.." was the costliest movie made in China when it was released. You see it and you realize where most of the money went - in golden palace sets which somehow do not value privacy, in costumes that earned it the nickname "The Curse of the Tight Corsets", fights that are supposed to be grand but turn out to be an eyesore. Yet, it had one thing going for me - it was interesting because of the character's motivations and how it might turn out. Most people disliked the 'shallow, Shakespearean plot', but that was the only thing iof interest to me.
"..Daggers" was visually stunning, Zhang Ziyi included. It had (a little) more grounded and better-choreographed fights compared to "Hero" and was very interesting to me until the last 20 minutes or so happened. At that point, it was clear that it was just a romantic triangle underneath all that glamour and it sort of lost points (that and people ripping off Zhang Ziyi's clothes, what's with that YZ?).
Didn't like much
11. Red Sorghum (1988): Zhang Yimou's first film is still a critical darling. Many people admire it and rightly so. Set in the backdrop of the second Sino-Japanese war, this film had some really, really good and memorable scenes. I don't know if it was due to the condensing of a two-volume novel into 90 minutes, but it felt very disjointed for me to enjoy as a whole.
12. The Flowers of War (2011): A largely English film with Christian Bale in the lead. After I watched "Waltz with Bashir", I realized I would have engaged even more had I known anything about the massacre of Sabra and Shatilla. No such requirements here. The first half depicting the dark days of "The Rape of Nanjing" shows enough to know what happened (at least from the Chinese perspective). I liked the acting debut of Ni Ni and some of the characters as well. However, this one was a bit too long and a bit too melodramatic to leave a lasting impact about an otherwise tragic incident.
13. Shadow (2018): The visual style of this film is brilliant. The film bathes itself in black, gray and white. It also features a lot of yin and yang with the usual action choreography you can expect from ZY's films. While there is a decent plot, the slow pace and the execution left me not so excited at the end of it all.
3) One of the main reasons why directors like ZY changed their style is censorship in China. Without this background, it is difficult to understand the transformation.Zhang was born in Xi’an in 1951 to parents of “bad” class background and reportedly sold his own blood to buy his first camera. He grew up in socialist China where class struggle dominated life and literature. Like many young Chinese of the time, he was sent to farms and factories during the Cultural Revolution and so gained grass-roots knowledge of life in China. His portfolio of photographs helped win him admission to the cinematography department of the Beijing Film Academy in 1978, after successfully appealing a decision to bar him on the basis of age.
In the first part of his career, Mr. Zhang made beautiful art films set in rural China that were banned by censors here. In the second part, he made beautiful historical epics that alienated many of his early supporters, who say Mr. Zhang’s narratives now toe the party line. THEN there was his stint designing the cast-of-thousands opening ceremony for the 2008 Summer Olympics. It was a moment of pride for many Chinese and for Mr. Zhang, though some critics said he had become China’s Leni Riefenstahl.
In the past, both Zhang and Lou have been considered by authorities as troublemakers. Zhang, who was sent for re-education during the Cultural Revolution, saw his 1994 epic “To Live” banned in China, despite winning awards in Cannes that year. Though Westerners may not understand the message, Zhang’s “Hero” was criticized in some quarters for an ending that in some eyes supported the Communist Party narrative.
Chinese executives and international film festival programmers are scratching their heads to understand why Zhang Yimou’s “One Second” was withdrawn from the Berlin Film Festival’s main competition just days before its premiere.
One potential reason is administrative. The so-called “Dragon Seal,” a title card shown ahead of every film confirming that it has cleared all local and national censorship processes, may no longer be enough on its own for a film to premiere at a foreign festival. The film must receive an additional travel permit. Once that is granted, the film’s length and dialog cannot be changed, and additional producers and investors cannot come on board. This process is understood to have been introduced in 2017, as part of China’s Film Industry Promotion Law, but only to have been strictly applied from this year.
Other reasons are political. Responsibility for the entertainment sector in China shifted last year from the State Council to direct control by the Communist Party’s Propaganda Department. That has meant a tightening of ideological oversight.
Presenting his own potentially inflammatory film depicting rioting, corruption and murder, director Lou Ye revealed that getting “The Shadow Play” approved had taken two years of negotiation with censors. The film plays in Berlin’s Panorama section. “This was the most complicated material I’ve ever presented. And it was the most difficult censorship process I’ve ever lived through,” he said Monday at a Berlin press conference