From Raise the Red Lantern to the Rise of Zhang Yimou
by Joseph Nicolai
- Feb 9, 2015
Chinese name: 张艺谋 (Zhāng Yìmóu)
Date of Birth: November 14, 1951
Place of Birth: Xi'an, Shaanxi, China
Occupation: Film director, producer, cinematographer and actor
Spouses: Xiao Hua(肖华) (1978-1988)
Chen Ting(陈婷) (2011-)
Daughter (with Xiao Hua): Zhang Mo (张末), born on March 31, 1983
Son (with Chen Ting): Zhang Yinan (张一男), born in 2001
Son (with Chen Ting): Zhang Yiding (张一丁), born in 2004
Daughter (with Chen Ting): Zhang Yijiao (张一娇), born in 2006
Zhang Yimou is a Chinese film director and former cinematographer. Zhang also directed the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics which were applauded around the world for their scale and execution. After making his directorial debut in 1987 with the classic Red Sorghum, Zhang has won numerous awards and recognitions and has become one of the most influential directors in China.
Born in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, in 1951, Zhang faced a difficult childhood because his father had been an officer in the National Revolutionary Army under Chiang Kai-shek. During the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, Zhang was sent to work as a farm laborer for 3 years and then at a cotton textile mill for 7 years. During this period he took up painting and photography. When the Cultural Revolution finished he was initially refused entrance to the Beijing Film Academy (北京电影学院) in 1978 for being above the age limit. After an appeal to the Ministry of Culture, and providing a portfolio of his photographs, the authorities relented and admitted him to the Faculty of Cinematography. Zhang would graduate in 1982, alongside other future luminaries such as Chen Kaige (陈凯歌), Tian Zhuangzhuang (田壮壮), and Zhang Junzhao (张军钊). The class went on to form the core of what has been called the Fifth Generation of China’s filmmakers. He has Honorary Doctorate Degrees from Boston University, Yale University and Harvard University.
Zhang was assigned to the Guangxi Film Studio (广西电影制片厂) as a cinematographer. Though originally intended to work as an assistant it became apparent there was an urgent need for qualified directors so they quickly gained permission to start making their own films. 1987 saw the release of Zhang's directorial debut, Red Sorghum, which starred the now superstar Gong Li in her first leading role. Based on the Mo Yan’s novel of the same name, the movie was met with critical acclaim, winning Zhang a Golden Bear for Best Picture at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1988.
His next movie, Codename Cougar was by all accounts not very good. However his following project, the period drama Ju Dou (again starring Gong Li), garnered critical acclaim once more and became China's first film to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1990. A couple of years later one of his films, Raise the Red Lantern, was nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 1992 Academy Awards.
Zhang would soon afterwards win one of the most prestigious major awards in film. To Live, his epic film which highlighted the resilience of the ordinary Chinese people through the upheavals of the 20th century won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes in 1994. It was banned in China by the Chinese State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television due to its critical portrayal of the Communist government. Zhang was also subsequently banned from filmmaking for two years. This however did not end his career. Large scale commercial historical epics such as Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004) have become his hallmark of late.
Red Sorghum (红高粱) (1987)
Code Name Cugar (代号美洲豹) (1988)
Ju Dou (菊豆) (1990)
Raise the Red Lantern (大红灯笼高高挂) (1991)
The Story of Qiu Ju (秋菊打官司) (1992)
To Live (活着) (1994)
Shanghai Triad (摇啊摇，摇到外婆桥) (1995)
Keep Cool (有话好好说) (1997)
Not One Less (一个都不能少) (1999)
The Road Home (我的父亲母亲) (1999)
Happy Times (幸福時光) (2000)
Hero (英雄) (2002)
House of Flying Daggers (十面埋伏) (2004)
Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (千里走单骑) (2005)
Curse of the Golden Flower (满城尽带黄金甲) (2006)
A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop (三枪拍案惊奇) (2009)
Under the Hawthorn Tree (山楂树之恋) (2010)
The Flowers of War (金陵十三钗) (2011)
Coming Home (归来) (2014)
Directing 2008 Beijing Olympics Opening and Closing Ceremonies
Zhang Yimou has not kept his artistic talents to cinema alone. In 2008 he was chosen to direct the opening and closing ceremonies of the Summer Olympics in Beijing, further cementing his international status.
Zhang was a runner-up for the Time Magazine Person of the Year award in 2008 (US President Barack Obama won Person of the Year, 2008). Steven Spielberg, who withdrew as an adviser to the Olympic ceremonies, 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."
Violating One-Child Policy
Zhang was recently investigated for violating China's one-child policy after allegedly fathering 7 children with 4 women. According to mainstream media in China, Zhang married the dancer Chen Ting in December 2011; she had three children with him. However, when the news came out Zhang, to the surprise of many, did not provide an immediate response. On November 29, 2013, under pressure from the public and criticism on the Internet, Zhang's studio released a statement that acknowledged Chen Ting and their three children. On January 9, 2014, the Lake District Family Planning Bureau, in accord with China's one-child policy, said Zhang was required to pay an unplanned birth and social maintenance fee totaling 7.48 million RMB (roughly US $1.2 million). On February 7, 2014, sources in the media reported that Zhang had paid the fee.
Zhang has co-directed a number of outdoor folk musicals under the title Impression, all of which were co-directed by Wang Chaoge (王潮歌) and Fan Yue (樊跃). These include Impression Liu Sanjie (印象刘三姐), which opened in August 2003 at the Li River, Guangxi Province; Impression Lijiang (印象丽江), opened in June 2006 at the foot of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in Lijiang, Yunnan Province; Impression West Lake (印西湖象), in late 2007 at the West Lake in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province; Impression Hainan (印象海南) in late 2009, set in Hainan Island; and Impression Dahongpao (印象大红袍) set on Mount Wuyi, in Fujian Province; Impression Putuo (印象普陀) on Decmber 31, 2010, in Putuo Mountain, Zhejiang Province; Impression Wulong (印象武隆) on October 2011, in Wulong, Chongqing.
The so-called “iron triangle” behind the series posing at Impression Putuo (from left: Fan Yue, Zhang Yimou, and Wang Chaoge). Between the three of them they have made quite an impression on the world of stage performance. While all the performances in the Impression series are sublime in their execution the three have been drivers of stagecraft innovation.
Ticket booth of Impression Sanjie Liu (印象刘三姐). Located next to the famous Li River and sitting across from Shutong Hill, the unique set location allows for the audience to soak-in a majestic 180-degree panoramic view of the performance and the pastoral nature scene that surrounds it. With such a beautiful backdrop for the stage the team painstakingly developed acoustic & lighting systems for the show in a way that they blend harmoniously with – rather than overpower - the beautiful local surroundings.
Performance of Impression Sanjie Liu (印象刘三姐) with the Li River in the distance.
Site of Impression Lijiang (印象丽江). Since its inception in 2006, Impression Lijiang has drawn a steady crowd. In fact, demand has been so high that the seating capacity was increased from 1,200 to 2,800 + to meet demand. The ever-bigger stage is built around the famous Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and features local stories & folk tales which are performed by a largely-local performer troupe. Another claim to fame is that the stage, some 3,100 m above sea level, is the highest open-air arena in the world. The troupes many performers hail from 10 different ethnic minorities from nearby villages, most for whom farming was recently the only source of revenue. The practice of employing locals & minorities has been a hallmark of the Impression series that has contributed positively to developing regions.
Performance of Impression Lijiang (印象丽江) provide a sense of scale to the sublime local nature scenery.
Entrance to Impression West Lake (印象西湖).Premiered in 2007, Impression West Lake is found in Hangzhou, located in China’s Zhejiang Province just next door to Shanghai. While during the day no trace of the stage can be found at night the area transforms itself in to a stage of a world class caliber offering some 1,500 standard seats, two VIP rooms & space on chartered boats. While the stage itself is built on the water the story builds from a local Hangzhou love story that was passed down the ages as a legend. With performers seemingly walking on water the spectacle is given a dream-like quality. Because the stage was so integrated in to the local lake many can be seen sprawling outside the open-aired venue’s 1800 designated seats.
Performance of Impression West Lake (印象西湖) give a dream-life feeling as performers seemingly glide on water.
Impression Theater in Hainan. Drawing from the local surroundings the performance showcases Hainan’s island environment. The theater itself is the first live performance in China that uses the ocean’s beachfront as a stage. With the ocean resting a mere 50 meters or so from the performance itself spectators can get more than an impression they are on a beach. This feeling is furthered by the changing state of the stage itself. The stage goes from being a solid floor to being filled with water. Aside from the technical innovative features of the show, the performance departs from the relatively high-brow content of previous Impression performances and instead draws from unique aspects of Hainan beach-life, which are exemplified in the show’s costumes, music & dance, combined with beautiful ocean-views that make Impression Hainan a truly unique viewing experience.
Performance of Impression Hainan (印象海南岛) provides a slice of Hainan beach-life.
Site of Impression Dahongpao (印象大红袍). The fifth show in the Impression series is Dahongpao. Translated in English “big red robe”, it takes its name from an exclusive tea from Wuyi Mountain. The show itself is stage in the Wuyi Mountains located in southeastern China's Fujian Province where Dahongpao’s finest oolong tea is found. Given the prestigious tea found along the mountain nearby, the stage incorporates parts of the Wuyi Mountain itself and expands on teahouse inspired themes that can be found throughout the performance. In short, it is not only the mountains, but the tea itself that becomes an essential part of the impression. Not only does the performance take its cues from this local natural habitat but also from the locals themselves: most of the performers are in fact Wuyi Mountain people. The stage also showcases some impressive technical innovations being not only the first landscape-enclosed theater but also offering the audience an unheard of 360-degree view of the show.
Performance of Impression Dahongpao (印象大红袍) provides a window to Chinese tea culture.
Ticket office of Impression Putuo (印象普陀). The sixth open-air show by the directing trio was Impression Putuo. While taking the name of the Buddhist island of Putuo, located in East China's Zhejiang Province, Impression Putuo is actually found on the much lesser-known island of Zhujiajian (朱家尖) that faces its better known neighbor. Following in the path of previous Impression projects that aim to both showcase a local setting while also providing employment opportunities for locals, it is alleged that most of the actual performers come from local villages and have no prior performing experience. The theater itself is located in the Guanyin (Avalokitesvara) Culture Garden compound and has become one of its star attractions. Following the now-established trend of incorporating local scenes to the performance, Impression Putuo blends the local landforms with its patented technological effects and performance. Aside from its stagecraft innovations the spectacle also raised some eyebrows given some of semi-nude performance in some scenes of this Buddhist themed performance.
Performance of Impression Putuo (印象普陀) masterfully integrates the local scenery with advanced lighting effects.
Impression Wulong (印象武隆).
Impression Wulong is set in the Peach Garden Canyon in Chongqing. Premiering in 2011, the set is built around the unique u-shaped canyon. In line with previous decisions, site-selection revolved around maximizing viewer pleasure and minimizing ecological disturbances. The unique stage layout allows for performers be just feet away from lucky participants. Even the entrance to the stage was given a lot of thought and exemplifies the attention to detail found in many of the Impression projects. Participants must walk through a 280+ meter man-made underground tunnel before finally reaching the theater. Once through the “rabbit hole” participants are privy to the natural beauty of the stage and the show to come. The show itself features local songs that were once sung to synchronize rhythm at work - a local custom that was on the verge of extinction until given another life through Impression. Along with this, local Sichuan flavor is provided through a variety of themes and set-designs peculiar to the region.
Performance of Impression Wulong (印象武隆) showcases the lives of locals.
Zhang Yimou also discovered two of China's most famous actresses: Gong Li (巩俐) & Zhang Ziyi (章子怡).
Gong Li was a student at the Central Academy of Drama in Beijing when she met Zhang Yimou. He cast her in his first film, the critically acclaimed Red Sorghum (1987), followed quickly by Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern, which introduced her to audiences around the world. After his 1995 film To Live, they did not work together again until Curse of the Golden Flower in 2006.
Zhang Ziyi was also a student at the Central Academy of Drama when Zhang Yimou asked her if she'd star in The Road Home (1999) which won the Silver Bear award at the Berlin Film Festival. It was to be her first film and not her last. A year later, she achieved international fame for her role in Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and would go on to star in two of Zhang Yimou's most prosperous films, Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004).
The two ladies look alike (left: Gong Li; right: Zhang Ziyi)
The two ladies dress alike (left: Zhang Ziyi; right: Gong Li)
Other “Mou’s Girls” include Dong Jie (董洁), who starred in Happy Times, and Zhou Dongyu (周冬雨), who stared in Under the Hawthorn Tree and other films.
Affair with Gong Li
Zhang and Gong Li waving at 2014 Cannes Film Festival
Though Zhang Yimou and Gong Li’s partnership in the last three decades resulted in many memorable films, their affair in the 1990s spurred controversy. Zhang was married when he became involved with Gong and against the prevailing taboos did not keep the affair a secret. He reportedly simply told his ex-wife: “I want to be together with [Gong Li]. People can say whatever they want. Let them. They can call me a bastard.”
Their first collaboration was 1987’s Red Sorghum, Zhang Yimou’s directorial debut and Gong Li’s acting debut. They allegedly were mutually attracted to each other, and Zhang and Gong became an official couple during the production of his 1990’s A Terra-Cotta Warrior (秦俑). At the time, Zhang was still married to his then ex-wife Xiao Hua whom he would later divorce in 1988.
In Xiao’s autobiographical book, Remembrance (往事悠悠), she said she discovered the illicit affair through Gong’s letter to Zhang. Gong wrote, “You have left, and you took my heart with you.” Zhang did not hide his relationship from Xiao and told her openly that he wanted to be with Gong. Zhang also told Gong’s boyfriend at the time, “Xiao Hua and I were a mistake.”
In 1993, Gong – then 28 years old – wanted to make things official with Zhang. She had hoped to marry before 35 years old and have children. The filmmaker said, “Marriage? I never thought about that!” Gong was crushed by Zhang’s lack of commitment but she nonetheless continued to collaborate with Zhang. In 1995, after completing the film Shanghai Triad, Gong and Zhang officially ended their romantic relationship and parted ways.
Various claims attempting to explain why Zhang and Gong broke off surfaced after the media got wind of the story. The most infamous rumor was the “telephone gate” incident. Zhang and his daughter Zhang Mo often had long phone conversations. Once, Zhang told Gong to call him one night, but she attempted to call him unsuccessfully for two hours. Gong immediately assumed that Zhang was chatting with his daughter. Gong was furious at having been discarded by Zhang, and decided that it was time to call their relationship off.
Zhang Mo has said that Zhang and Gong’s affair had ruined her childhood. When Zhang Mo was only 7 years old her parents divorced and she rarely saw her father in her childhood. She is said to possess much anger towards Gong for ruining her family.
To salvage his relationship with his only daughter, Zhang started to spend more time with her as she grew older. He brought her to the set of 1997’s Keep Cool, where she developed an interest in filmmaking. Zhang sent her to study film in the United States, where she earned a prestigious degree at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in New York. She then returned to China to work as her father’s assistant.
Perhaps having experienced similar problems in life, Zhang Mo has come to terms to her father’s involvement with Gong. At the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, the two women were seen hugging warmly, putting closure behind one of China’s most sensationalized affairs.
Zhang Mo hugging Gong Li at 2014 Cannes Film Festival
Below are series of photos of Zhang Yimou and Gong Li when they were in love.
Zhang and His Family
A birthday celebration of the whole family
Comparison of Zhang Yimou as a kid (left) and his oldest son Zhang Yinan, posted on Chen Ting’s Weibo (China’s Facebook) on Feb 4, 2015 (right bottom is her Weibo account number)
From Left: Zhang’s current wife Chen Ting, Steven Spielberg, and Zhang (photo taken before the premiere of Coming Home)
Zhang’s oldest son, Zhang Yinan
Zhang with youngest son, Zhang Yiding
Zhang with oldest son, Zhang Yinan
Zhang’s second son Zhang Yiding at one-year-old
Zhang’s daughter Zhang Mo with her ex-husband
Zhang’s daughter Zhang Mo with his husband (left)
Zhang’s little daughter Zhang Yijiao
Zhang Yimou with ex-wife Xiao Hua and daughter Zhang Mo
An allegedly fake picture of Zhang and current wife Chen Ting
Chen Ting cutting for Zhang
Zhang’s mother with the kids
Zhang is going to direct a promotional video for Beijing's bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics
As the director of the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Zhang was the focus when he relayed the torch.
Legendary Pictures announcing casting on “The Great Wall” directed by Zhang
Zhang acting in the movie of The Old Well directed by Wu Tianming (吴天明)
A precious photo from 1987 demonstrating the young friendship between Zhang and Mo Yan, the 2012 Nobel Prize laureate.
All about Red Sorghum, from left to right: the leading actress Gong Li, the original writer Mo Yan, the leading actor Jiang Wen (姜文), and the director Zhang.
Zhang with Mo Yan on May 17, 2014
Zhang receiving a lifetime achievement award at the Cairo International Film Festival on December 6, 2012.
Chen Daoming (陈道明, left), Gong Li and Zhang Yimou attending Cannes Film Festival with the movie “Coming Home” on May 22, 2014
Zhang Yimou and his long time former partner Zhang Weiping featuring on "Harper's Bazaar Men's Style" on Jan 14, 2010. The two has split and Zhang Yimou has sued Zhang Weiping to recover some $2.43 million (RMB15 million).
Zhang and Jay Chou (周杰伦)
Zhang, Zhang ZiyiJay and Taiwanese director Ang Lee (李安) who directed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Zhang and Hong Kong kung fu star Jacky Chan (成龙)
Zhang and famous actor Sun Honglei (孙红雷)
Another famous director Chen Kaige (陈凯歌) presenting award to Zhang
Chen Kaige and Zhang at their young ages
Zhang with another famous director Feng Xiaogang (冯小刚)
Zhang with famous cosmic player Zhao Benshan (赵本山)
Zhang, Gong Li and Hong Kong super star Chow Yun fat (周润发)
Zhang and kung fu star Jet Lee (李连杰)
From left: Zhang, Gong Li and another famous director Gu Changwei (顾长卫)
Zhang playing tricks with young girls, the right one being Zhao Benshan’s sister-in-law Yu Yuexian (于月仙)