Subscribe to the APA Newsletter
Amidst the busy preparation for his three latest projects -- Curse of the Golden Flower, the Metropolitan Opera's The First Emperor, and the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening and closing ceremonies -- Chinese cinema czar Zhang Yimou shares his thoughts with Asia Pacific Arts on his latest cinematic offering.
Since preoccupying himself with grandiose martial arts films like Hero and House of Flying Daggers, Zhang Yimou has been wrestling with mixed reviews from critics nostalgic for his older allegories of China's social ills. In an attempt to refute criticism that his gargantuan action films are weak in their storylines, his new kung-fu epic, Curse of the Golden Flower, is a domestic intrigue with betrayal, passion, and deceit running deep in a dysfunctional royal family in late-Tang Dynasty China.
The director sums up his newest visual showcase as "Raise the Red Lantern set in a palace" -- an exploration of power and evil through the volatile gender politics of a powerful household.
Based loosely on Lei Yu (Thunderstorm), a 1934 play written by famed Chinese playwright Cao Yu ("China's Shakespeare") which dramatizes the spiraling fall of a wealthy industrialist's family in 24 hours, Zhang's opulent adaptation shares the modern Chinese play's borrowings from Greek tragedy (namely the Oedipus Complex and the Medea figure) and probes into the suppression of Chinese women in patriarchal, feudal society --a thread common to many of Zhang's films such as Raise the Red Lantern, To Live, and Ju Dou.
The early conception for Curse came to mind while Zhang was scouting for a good script during the shooting of House of Flying Daggers. "I woke up one day and thought: why don't I make use of an existing Chinese drama? We need a strong story for Curse and Lei Yu is just a perfect choice," he recalls.
"We didn't want to change the plot drastically, but instead, just to set it in a historical setting," while taking into account the Chinese public's perennial love for stories of kings and queens, evident in the surging popularity of costume dramas and historical soap operas on mainland Chinese television.
Embodying the Tang Dynasty
The mesmerizing late-Tang empress was tailor-made for Gong Li. Only the Chinese screen siren can deliver the extraordinary acting range the role demands, Zhang says. "In Lei Yu, the character of Shifeng [the archetype for Gong Li's empress] is always reserved for the best actress. Gong Li has matured a lot and is reaching the prime period of her acting right now. She offered so many surprises on set," says Zhang of his former lover and muse.
Gong and Chow Yun-fat indeed forge a dramatic regal duo on screen, with some Western critics comparing Chow's ruthless king and Gong's sinister queen to icons Emperor Nero and Lady Macbeth. Zhang describes the film as "the ultimate battle of the sexes": king and queen are at the height of their power, but the female still cannot escape the bondage of more than 2000 years of Chinese feudal traditions.
"The empress may have the most glamorous outlook, but she can only struggle in futility and cannot escape her tragic fate," hesays.
Though macabre and at times surrealistic, Zhang believes the story can strike a chord among its international audiences. "These kinds of stories happened in Chinese and Western courts before. It is so universal. The inner court symbolizes chaotic human relationships," he says.
China during the Tang Dynasty was a global power which owned a significant fraction of the world's GDP, and Zhang notes that the extravagance of the court and the film's hallucinatory visual effects serve to reflect that affluence.
"The grandeur of the Tang Dynasty reinforces the theme of the story: power breeds evil and greed. The pomposity should not be regarded as sheer superfluousness," he says.
This thematically-resonant grandeur extends to the costumes as well. The dangerously-revealing curves of the actresses have been a heated talking-point of the film; Zhang says his original idea was to recreate splendid Chinese imperial apparel that evokes the marvel of a French court; hence came the Chinese interpretation of provocative imperial costumes for the pageant of palace maids and concubines.
For instance, Gong Li's silk-threaded capes in iridescent colors and golden phoenix headdress were part of a dazzling wardrobe created by renowned Hong Kong fashion designer Chung-man Yee. The glittering costumes were hand-stitched by a team of 40 Chinese seamstresses and embroiderers.
Despite some Chinese film critics' and historians' berating of the film for distorting historical truth, claiming the rise of feminism in the Tang Dynasty (during which Wu Zetian became China's first and only female ruler) did not justify the prevalence of bosom-revealing costumes in the film, Zhang refutes the notion. "This voluptuous style was a key aesthetic during the Tang Dynasty. Prominent cleavage was a court fashion during the era. It's pretty authentic," he says.
The revolution waits
As digital filming becomes the new vogue and defines the future of filmmaking in Hollywood, Zhang says China is yet to catch up with the digital revolution. One of the many restraints is the new technology's skyrocketing costs, and the fact that not much digital filming equipment is available in mainland China. "We were considering renting digital cameras to shoot this film, but the rental store had only two cameras left-- the other two dozen or so were already rented by a Hollywood production filming in China-- so we had no choice but to stick to the celluloid format," he explains.
Zhang recalls that Steven Spielberg was surprised to learn that Curse was shot on film and gave him a thumbs-up appraisal for capturing the exuberant colors and bewildering action sequences.
After visiting the set of Miami Vice last year (where digital cameras were used), Zhang came to the conclusion that digital filming may yield better results when shooting in the dark, but not under bright light. He decided to wait until the new technology matures before he experiments with the new toys.
In defense against criticisms that the mind-boggling computer effects take over the film and diminish its melodramatic tension, Zhang argues that post-production for the film was completed in only three months, which didn't allow much time to add elaborate computer effects.
The road forward
Losing the Golden Globe nomination may hamper the film's prospect for competing in the 2007 Oscars, but its commercial success has already set a milestone for Zhang. Curse of the Golden Flower broke mainland China's box office record and grossed RMB 96 M (12.5 Million U.S.) in the four days since it opened on Dec. 14. Speculations surrounding the film's Oscars bid and the mixed reviews it has drawn in China and the U.S. don't seem to dampen Zhang's spirit. "These awards are all American games, established by Americans to critique American productions. They only have one category for all of international cinema," he says.
"I would be rather thrilled if one day a Chinese cinema award can amass so much power and influence."
As the forerunner of China's "fifth generation" directors, Zhang has high hopes that emerging Chinese directors will carry the beacon of Chinese cinema. "The term [fifth generation] is almost twenty years old. We should focus on the new crop of directors now," he says. "Filmmaking always belongs to young directors -- they are the ones who have the zest and are able to define the future." He names fledging director Ning Hao as one of the new artists to watch out for. Ning's low-budget debut Crazy Stone (Fengkuang de Shitou) was a box office sensation across mainland China.
"The future of the film market belongs to young people. They are demanding good films that successfully blend commercial and artistic elements," he says. "The ultimate purpose of a film is to enchant the audience. If it scoops up many awards but attract very few moviegoers, it is still a failure."
Zhang's kaleidoscopic oeuvre oscillating between epic action flicks and relatively low-budget, heart-warming social satires (including Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, Not One Less, and The Road Home) is a result of this attempt to balance aesthetic and commercial interests.
The decision to be both a crowd-pleasing blockbuster maverick and art-house auteur is Zhang's response to the globalization of film productions. In order to secure foreign investments and seal multinational collaborations to create cinematic bonanzas, he is often under the reality-check to recoup the hefty capital that is poured in. Zhang believes the wuxia film, the Chinese martial arts genre, is the only Chinese cinematic genre that can cross borders and succeed in foreign markets. "Sadly, it is the market that determines the export [of Chinese films], not the other way round. It's evident since the days of Bruce Lee," he says. "If I keep the storyline and set the same film in modern times, I could only get about one-fiftieth of profit in return," he jokes.
More of APA's Curse of the Golden Flower coverage:
Official Curse of the Golden Flower website (U.S.): http://www.sonyclassics.com/curseofthegoldenflower/
Official Curse of the Golden Flower website (China): http://ent.sina.com.cn/hjj/
Official Curse of the Golden Flower website (Taiwan): http://www.bvi.com.tw/movies/goldenflower/
Date Posted: 12/21/2006