The Gang of One Who Altered China’s Film Image

Times Staff Writer

Ten years ago, Zhang Yimou toiled as a laborer in a Shenyang textile factory, his future clouded by his father’s past as a counter-revolutionary and a general in the Nationalist Chinese army. In his spare time, Zhang took snapshots with a cheap, Chinese-made camera.

Today, Zhang is the toast of the revitalized Chinese cinema, part of a new wave of experimental film makers whose works have won national and international acclaim. Zhang’s first film, “Red Sorghum,” a poetic, beautifully photographed tale of rural Chinese life in the 1930s, was awarded the Golden Bear--the top prize--at the Berlin Film Festival this year. At 37, Zhang suddenly finds himself compared to Kurosawa and Truffaut, and the comparisons make him frown.

“I’ve studied many foreign films, and I respect directors like Kurosawa and Truffaut and Coppola,” Zhang said on a recent visit to Los Angeles, where “Red Sorghum” opened Friday. “But when I make a film, I don’t think about any other film or any other director. I don’t want to live in anyone’s shadow or imitate anyone else’s technique, not even Kurosawa or Coppola.”

Zhang’s passage from factory hand to film director was speeded by a Chinese institution that dates from the Han Dynasty--the competitive examination.


Exams were suspended during the tumultuous decade of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). When China reinstituted college entrance exams in late 1977, enabling disfavored youths like Zhang to compete on an equal basis with those with more revolutionary credentials, friends who knew of his love of photography encouraged him to apply to the newly reopened Beijing Film Academy. He did, thinking he might be trained as a cinematographer.

Once enrolled at the academy, he immersed himself in its hot-house atmosphere, trying his hand not only at cinematography but acting and writing and directing. He graduated in 1982, a member of a class of 150 students so talented, so determined to change China’s traditional, overly stagy film-making techniques, so much in demand by the country’s 18 studios, that they have transformed Chinese cinema and been designated the “Fifth Generation.”

To this day, classmates act in one another’s movies and fill in as cinematographers or film editors when a friend needs help. Zhang, for example, was the cinematographer on Chen Kaige’s “Yellow Earth,” which was also widely applauded abroad, and last year won the best actor prize at the Tokyo Film Festival for his lead role in Wu Tianming’s “The Old Well.”

Still, the Fifth Generation label mystifies Zhang. “I’m not sure who the first four generations were, but Chinese like everything to have a number,” he said, lounging in jeans, a sweat shirt and brand-new basketball shoes. “Actually, I don’t think all of us in the Fifth Generation have that much in common. Our styles are very different. We like different subjects.” He paused, then grinned. “The only similarity I see is that we’re all innately rebellious.”


That’s not surprising, since all of them came of age as Red Guards in the early days of the Cultural Revolution, when then-Chairman Mao Tse-tung encouraged teen-agers to challenge authority and traditions. Zhang’s skepticism toward authority carries over to the current regime of Deng Xiaoping and to his own benefactors at the Chinese Film Bureau, whose officials have the ultimate veto over whether his films gets made and distributed.

“China enjoys more artistic freedom now than at any time in its current history, but there are still taboos,” he said through a translator. “We all know what they are, and we all work around them. If you show one Communist Party member in a bad light in your film, you’d better show 10 in a good light. That’s about the proper proportion.”

In “Red Sorghum,” Zhang sidestepped some taboos by making a historical drama, set in the coastal province of Shandong. A beautiful young woman is forced into an arranged marriage with a leprous winery owner, takes up instead with a clumsy but passionate coolie assigned to carry her sedan chair to the wedding, bears his child and ends up running the winery when her elderly husband is mysteriously murdered.

Everyone thrives--for a while, until the Japanese army invades and forces peasants to cut down the sorghum fields to make way for a road. The peasants rise up, but nearly everyone is slaughtered, leaving only a bloodstained sorghum field.

Foreign audiences may see political morals in that tale; peasant uprisings, after all, are a staple of Communist history. But when Zhang first proposed making “Red Sorghum,” the chief criticism of the script, he recalls, is that “it wasn’t very revolutionary.”

That the film was made despite the objections of high-level officials reflects new political realities in China, Zhang said. “Party cadres . . . can’t directly order you to make changes, and they can’t stop a film altogether unless they have some good reasons that others, higher up the ladder, also consider valid.”

What impresses foreign and Chinese audiences alike is the sensualism of “Red Sorghum"--the sorghum fields rippled by a hot wind, the coolie’s instantaneous infatuation as he catches his first glimpse of the heroine, a riveting seduction scheme. From some rather inexperienced actors, Zhang has coaxed performances of startling subtlety.

Zhang and his colleagues in the Fifth Generation didn’t learn that at the Beijing Film Academy, where most of their instructors were veterans of Beijing Opera and its exaggerated, almost histrionic stage technique.


“My technique is learned from life,” Zhang said. “My friends and I always vowed to make movies that felt real.”

Zhang’s pursuit of reality does not always sit well with the Film Bureau. Just this summer, Teng Jinxian, chairman of the Film Bureau, announced that the Chinese government may institute a rating system to shield children from sex and violence. He cited “Red Sorghum” as a movie unsuitable for children because of the seduction and another harrowing scene in which two resistance fighters are skinned alive.

Despite the Film Bureau’s reservations, “Red Sorghum” tied for best movie of the year in all three national film competitions. That doesn’t mean that Zhang, who earns just $27 a month, will get a raise, though his first-place finish at Berlin will earn him a 10,000 yuan bonus (about $2,700) from his bosses.

What’s most important to Zhang, however, is that he has won approval for his next film, a thriller about the (completely fictitious) hijacking of a Taiwanese airliner to the Chinese mainland. The situation is resolved only when the two Chinese governments--bitter foes for four decades--collaborate at the highest levels. Then, once the incident is over, both governments deny that they ever had any contact.

“Isn’t that what all governments are like?” Zhang asked.