When it comes to Cannes, Zhang Yimou feels as if he just can’t win.
After the Chinese government twice prohibited films of his from competing in the Cannes Film Festival, he thought he had a sure bet this year. His latest picture, “Not One Less,” is a realistic, charming story of children in the countryside struggling to stay in school, a movie that finally won authorities’ consent for entry at Cannes.
But during the selection process, Zhang heard, a Cannes screening committee member called the film “propaganda.” Stung, the director yanked it out of competition. He also pulled another film, “The Road Home,” that he had planned to screen during the festival, which begins Wednesday.
“It seems that in the West, there are always two ‘political criteria’ when interpreting Chinese films, either ‘anti-government’ or ‘propaganda,’ ” he wrote in an open letter to Cannes festival director Gilles Jacob. “This is unacceptable.”
At home, local newspapers lionized Zhang for standing up for China’s honor.
“First Chinese director to say no to Cannes!” said the headline in Shanghai’s Youth Daily. “Zhang Yimou’s withdrawal is of great importance.”
But who canned whom?
In France, Zhang’s withdrawal is being interpreted as “a face-saving move” after his film was rejected as a prize-contender and offered a place in the festival’s noncompetitive showcase, “Un Certain Regard.” Jacob told reporters last week that it is “interesting that when the festival selected in the past one of Zhang’s movies, he did not come to Cannes,” adding that he was puzzled by Zhang’s “tendentious and political argument.”
“The de facto opinion of festivals is that if a film is banned or made underground in China, then it is automatically a good film,” said William Brent, executive director in Shanghai of China Entertainment News, a newsletter that monitors the nation’s TV and film industries.
“Now that he has made a film the government likes, he is suspected of kowtowing to the government,” Brent said. “He has to serve the interests of the domestic film bureau but somehow also romance the festivals into thinking he’s subverting the system.”
A Far Step From
“Not One Less,” which will be released in the United States by Sony Classics in February or March of 2000, tells the story of a 13-year-old girl who must take over a school when the sole teacher suddenly leaves. The only instructions the young substitute receives are a simple admonition: that when the teacher returns, every child must be there. (In China’s poor countryside, where school can be a barely affordable luxury, students are often lost to the demands of family and farm work.) Zhang cast actual village children in the film. The movie is gritty and realistic, a far step from 1991’s lush and exotic “Raise the Red Lantern,” directed by Zhang, 50, and starring his former lover and China’s best-known actress, Gong Li, as a young woman who becomes the fourth wife of a capricious nobleman in 1920s China. It won the best foreign language film Oscar that year.
“Not One Less” shows the harsh conditions in rural schools in a witty and winning way, capped with an inspirational--some say didactic--ending. As a result, the government has embraced it as a showpiece for its educational charities. The beginning of the film flashes a quick appeal for donations to the state-run Candle Project, which helps pay for rural schools, and Zhang has been touring the country to promote the movie--and the Hope Project, another school charity.
After a forum with Shanghai schoolteachers and film students the day after he announced its withdrawal from Cannes, Zhang took a break from the frenzy on a black leather couch in a room offstage. He did not intend to make a film to benefit government charities, he said, but has gone along with Beijing’s brand of promotion and marketing.
“To say it from my heart, if my film helps improve conditions for rural schools, I am very happy,” he said.
Artistic satisfaction is harder to come by. In a country that alternately praises and penalizes his work, Zhang’s true art is his tightrope walk between creation and accommodation. To receive approval to make a film, he must submit its script to authorities before he shoots, and he has to hand over the film after he completes it.
“The censorship system in China is a fact. You can’t make any kind of film you like,” said Zhang, whose close-cropped hair made him look gaunt, his cheekbones casting deep shadows on his face. “I won’t complain about that. I believe you must work in the environment where you are born.”
Zhang has evaded restrictions in the past through metaphor and allegory. His 1995 film, “Shanghai Triad,” was supposed to be a straightforward gangster picture set in the 1930s. Its underlying message, though, seemed to be that the bad old days of the ‘30s were not so different from the corruption and chaos of the bad new days of the ‘90s.
After a spate of run-ins with the government over other films--in 1997, the film bureau pulled “Keep Cool” out of Cannes after his 1995 offering, “To Live,” was screened there without government approval--he tried something else. Turning from screen to stage last year, he triumphantly directed a production of the opera “Turandot” at Beijing’s Forbidden City that brought international attention to China’s artistic scene. It also brought him back into the government’s good graces.
Films Owned by
a State-Run Unit
But that is a precarious place, and occupying it has a price, Chinese film insiders say, speculating on the government’s role in the withdrawal of “Not One Less” from Cannes. In China, films are owned by a state-run production unit, which decides how to distribute and promote them. The decision to enter a film at Cannes--or withdraw it--belongs to that unit as well.
“Whether the government stood in front of him or stood behind him in this decision to withdraw, you can draw your own conclusions,” said a film bureau official. “But it was not made by the director alone.”
There were whispers after Zhang’s pullout that the government was embarrassed that the Cannes committee had rejected Zhang’s film, which had won great praise at home.
Even worse, the festival did pick a film by his mentor-turned-rival, Chen Kaige, although “The Emperor and the Assassin” nearly failed in receiving official approval for submission.
In compensation for his pulling out of Cannes, the story goes, the government promised Zhang that it would make his movie required viewing for students across the country, guaranteeing millions of ticket sales.
Zhang sank deep into the leather couch and sighed.
“Chinese have a habit of classifying my films into categories and adding a political flavor,” he said, unwittingly echoing the same complaint he leveled at the Cannes jury. “When I make a film, I just try to make a piece of art. Politics will go out of date, but art is permanent.”