Zhang: Still at the Heart of Chinese Filmmaking : Movies: His work has been both banned and praised, and his celebrated relationship with actress Gong Li has ended. But 'Shanghai Triads' is an example of his staying power.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Recently, the marquee of the Shanghai Paradise theater here featured a large, painted panel advertising the showing of "To Live"--the critically acclaimed film directed by Zhang Yimou and starring Gong Li. Zhang, the intense genius, was portrayed broodingly in the foreground. The beautiful Gong Li, dressed in a traditional silk gown with high-button collar, demurred elegantly in the background.

Over the past decade, Zhang and Gong had built one of the world's most successful creative relationships. In film, he was Ingmar Bergman to her Liv Ullmann. Off-screen, although not married, she was Woodward to his Newman. They were mainland China's most fashionable couple.

But there were two things wrong with this picture. First, after living together for years, Zhang and Gong recently broke up during the making of their newest collaboration in Shanghai. The split caused a sensation in the movie-crazy Hong Kong press and, according to reports, threatens to disrupt their longtime working relationship.

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Second, the movie "To Live" is supposed to be banned in China by the state propaganda department. So what was it doing on the marquee of the movie theater in one of Shanghai's elite neighborhoods, one full of high-ranking Communist officials?

When asked why they had a "To Live" poster on their marquee, the managers of the Paradise mumbled something about the film "coming soon," although there has been no hint of the government lifting its ban.

Told about the poster for "To Live"--which won a best actor award for star Ge You at the Cannes film festival--during an interview here, Zhang managed a smile. Although officially banned, the film is widely available on video, and some theaters somehow still manage to show it.

"I went back to Xian," Zhang said, referring to the city in Shaanxi Province where he began his filmmaking career. "Everyone had seen it." This pleasant thought elicited a satisfied chuckle.

That's the way things are these days in China. Lots of rules. Inconsistent application. Just because something is banned (and China refused to nominate the film for best foreign language film for the Academy Awards) doesn't mean it is out of circulation. The U.S. government learned a lot about this condition in negotiations that led to Sunday's agreement with China on copyright, trademark and patent infringements. Pirated American CDs and videos are everywhere. The laws banning them have been on the books, but. . . .

Interviewed in his room at the no-frills hotel where his film crew is based in Shanghai for his latest film, Zhang Yimou appears small, almost frail. Patiently--the strain of all-night filming sessions showing in eyes that appear bruised by exhaustion--he answers questions about censorship and government meddling in his films.

For his part, Zhang, 45 years old and, along with Chen Kaige ("Farewell My Concubine"), one of the pillars of the so-called Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers, has never understood why his films get under the skin of government propaganda patrols.

He considers himself a good Chinese citizen. Like the Chinese Communist officials, he is worried about the prospect of "chaos" if the increasingly toothless totalitarian state collapses too quickly. The specter of what has occurred in the former Soviet Union comforts no one here.

Like many intellectuals, he read the recent alarmist, futuristic book, "China Viewed Through a Third Eye," which predicts anarchy as rural masses flood into the cities, seeking work and a piece of the action.

He doesn't even object to the process of censors reviewing his films. He just feels they are wrong to ban them. In addition to "To Live," two more of Zhang's films--"Ju Dou" and "Raise the Red Lantern"--were initially banned by authorities although later released after they collected dozens of international prizes.

However, another of his films, "The Story of Qiu Ju," was warmly embraced by the authorities and is said to have been viewed and approved by Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping. Why the censors ban one film and praise another is a mystery to Zhang.

"I still feel very strongly that all my films are healthy and constructive," he said.

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Irritated that "To Live" was shown at last year's Cannes Film Festival without official permission from the Ministry of Radio, Film and Television, the Chinese government in the fall issued strict new rules limiting foreign funding for Chinese movies unless officially approved.

The new rules almost caused the cancellation of Zhang's latest project, a movie tentatively titled in English "Shanghai Triads," set in the corrupt and decadent Shanghai of the 1930s.

As usual in Zhang's movies, the film stars Gong Li. But in the middle of filming in Shanghai, Gong Li split with Zhang, reportedly for another man. It was another setback for a film already plagued by new rules and limited financing.

To ensure that the movie would be made, Zhang was forced to enter into unwanted collaboration with the official Shanghai Film Studio. This marks a significant break in Chinese filmmaking. In the past, Fifth Generation directors such as Zhang, Chen Kaige and Tian Zhuangzhuang ("The Blue Kite") were able to make their films in relative freedom, only to run the gantlet of censors later.

"Now I feel more constrained," Zhang said. "I feel like I'm being watched all the time."

But if Zhang feels the pressure, it doesn't show when he is on the set. Filming a scene here at dusk in the garden of the old Ruijin Villa that was once the residence of Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, Zhang is very much in command.

Whereas in his hotel room he appeared fragile and meek, on the set, his hands thrust deep into the pockets of his heavy, knee-length army surplus coat, Zhang is a picture of strength. He looks taller than his 5-foot-7 frame.

Several times he paces the concrete garden walk where the scene is set, making sure that the crew has wet the surface with a hose to give the effect of a recent rainfall. Several times he arranges the black-robed actors who are supposed to be gangsters guarding the entrance to the villa. Several times he instructs the driver of an antique truck how to approach the gate and swerve to the left at the last instant.

Two cameras are trained on the gate. A sense of purpose and artistry fills the garden. When he is sure every piece is in order, Zhang shouts into a battery-powered bullhorn. " Kaishi ," he yells to the truck driver, "Drive." Then when he sees the truck move he turns to the cameras. " Shi pai !" he says--"Shoot!"

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With this new movie, Zhang said optimistically in the hotel interview, he doesn't expect any trouble from government censors. "This film is not politically sensitive," he says assertively.

Based on a recent popular novel by author Li Xiao and approved by the mainstream Shanghai studio, the film appears to meet the new conditions established by the government.

The movie is a period piece set in the 1930s, when the town was run by powerful gangsters such as "Big Ears" Du and "Pockmarked" Huang. Zhang says the main gangster in the movie is a composite of these two villains.

Star Gong Li plays a Shanghai cabaret performer, a gangster's moll caught in a deadly love triangle with the head hood's handsome brother.

Chinese government censors approved the script because it depicts the wicked capitalistic past before the Communist "liberation."

In Zhang's talented hands, however, most viewers are likely to see a shocking similarity between the wicked past and the increasingly wicked present. "This film will have relevance for people living in today's China," Zhang said. "Guangzhou (Canton), Shenzhen and Shanghai have a lot of similarities to those days."

Anyone who has visited China's major cities recently knows that prostitution, gambling and organized crime are back. Atop the Rainbow Hotel in Shanghai, for example, is a dance club where hookers openly solicit Chinese and foreign customers.

After the 1949 Communist victory, prostitution all but disappeared in China. Former prostitutes were sent to "re-education camps." But since 1978, when Deng Xiaoping liberalized the economy, the old vices have returned. A February report by the Public Security Ministry said that 288,000 people were arrested in 1994 on prostitution-related charges. Shanghai officials recently announced plans to crack down on drug- and sex-related crimes.

If Zhang Yimou does run into trouble with this new film as he has in the past, it will be because the 1930s decadence he depicts on the screen looks too much like today. People might be compelled to ask the one question the government does not want posed: "Why did we have the revolution?"

Although Zhang himself claims no political or social statement in his film, the irony of Shanghai's wicked past catching up with its socialist future pervades the set here.

One recent afternoon, producer Wang Ganyi was wearing a sweat shirt the crew had printed up for the movie. Inscribed on the front was what amounted to a movie trailer for the new film:

"What appears bad is not necessarily bad. What appears good is not necessarily good. The whole story takes place in what seems like the old Shanghai, but it is not just a story of old Shanghai. . . ."

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