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Director with a Midas touch

Special to The Times

There are two Zhang Yimous. There’s the director who makes films of elegant restraint and spartan aesthetics, such as “Raise the Red Lantern” and “The Road Home.” Then there’s the more recent incarnation -- as bigger budgets have come his way -- who combines florid melodrama and elaborate period backgrounds, such as in “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers.” It’s that latter style -- with the glitz and glitter factor amped even higher -- that Zhang brings to the screen in “Curse of the Golden Flower.”

The story of a severely dysfunctional imperial family in the late Tang dynasty, “Curse” features characters bedecked in robes of sumptuous embroidery and headdresses dripping with hammered gold. They sweep through chambers of baroque ornamentation and corridors impaneled with a dizzyingly colorful material simulating liuli, an expensive Chinese art glass.

All this is to underscore the disparity between appearance and reality. “ ‘Gold and jade on the outside, rot and decay on the inside,’ ” Zhang quotes an old Chinese saying, to sum up the theme of his film. “Feudal society used ritual and tradition to suppress human nature. I think many classic Chinese novels and stories deal with this very subject matter.”

Zhang, 55, is on a stopover in Los Angeles, where his film was honored with the closing-night slot at the recent AFI International Film Festival. On this day, it’s been back-to-back interviews before heading back to New York on a red-eye. There he’s been working at the Metropolitan Opera, rehearsing Placido Domingo as the lead in Tan Dun’s new opera, “The First Emperor,” that premiered in December.

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In his youth, he never would have imagined being such a jet-setter. He’d been stuck in a dead-end factory job and feared he’d never escape.

“When I was young, I never dreamed I’d be a film director,” he says. “My family background wasn’t good, I didn’t think I’d get anywhere.” He had been blacklisted by the government because his family had links with the hated Kuomintang. Then in 1978, after an initial rejection, he gained admission into the Beijing Film Academy.

“That opportunity changed my life,” he says, smiling as he remembers his own twist of fate. A lean man with craggy figures, he fields questions in a measured, unhurried manner and in Chinese. “So you think, ‘I’ve been given this amazing chance, I really shouldn’t waste it.’ ”

He hasn’t. As a film director, Zhang has been unusually prolific, pumping out a feature every one to two years. He also manages to jump from small- to big-scale films with apparent ease. After making two martial arts epics, the box office hits “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers,” last year he released a relatively obscure drama, “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles.”

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“I like to make both kinds of films,” he says. “Making epics tests a director’s skills; they’re complex projects that require precise planning. And some stories just suit that epic scale. With small-scale films, well, I find that each experience contributes to the other.”

“Curse” is loosely based on the play “Thunderstorm” by Cao Yu, one of China’s most celebrated 20th century writers. “I thought it would lend itself to adaptation,” Zhang says. “Cao Yu was influenced by ancient Greek tragedy, so the work is very dramatic.” The original play was set in the 1930s, when it was written, and featured the ruthless chairman of the board of a coal-mining company.

To revitalize the material, Zhang decided to set his story in ancient China, within an imperial family. While battles are raging without, battles also rage within one emperor’s household. The emperor (Chow Yun Fat) is having the empress (Gong Li) slowly poisoned in retaliation for her dalliance with his firstborn, Crown Prince Wan (Liu Ye), the offspring from his first wife. Meanwhile, the empress is concocting her own plot. She persuades the second son, Prince Jai (Jay Chou), to help carry out a coup during the upcoming Chong Yang festival, a holiday meant to celebrate family and to honor ancestors.

It’s a grim view of the family as a caldron of dark lusts and jealousies. But wasn’t the theme of “To Live” -- the film that won Zhang the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes in 1994 -- that the family is good? “If you’re going to write about the family of an Everyman, it’s a warm-hearted story,” Zhang says. “But if you write about a royal family, it will be rife with dark motives and emotions.”

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Much of the excitement around the film has been generated by the reteaming of Zhang with his first muse, Gong Li, for the first time in more than a decade. They have not worked together since “Shanghai Triad” in 1995. Yes, he had long wanted to work with her again, the director says, but they needed the right script to come along.

Twenty years ago, Zhang discovered Gong when she was still a student at the Central Academy of Drama in Beijing. He cast her as the lead in his directorial debut, “Red Sorghum” (1987), and she became his leading lady off screen as well. He cast her in his next six films and won a slew of international awards and honors. They became household names in Asia. By the completion of “Shanghai Triad,” they had drifted apart and in 1996 Gong married a Singaporean businessman. Today, the actress has jump-started her American career with high-profile parts in “Memoirs of a Geisha” and “Miami Vice.”

“There’s a greater maturity in her,” Zhang says. “She packs more power in her performance.”

“It was good working together again,” Gong says, in a separate interview. “Since we’ve worked together so often, I didn’t need to spend time understanding his style, he didn’t have to discover my method.

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“My challenge was how to convey a sense of my character’s past without showing past events, how she’s in pain and suffering without going overboard. Cao Yu expressed this brilliantly in his play,” Gong continues. “In a male-supremacist society, even a woman with all the privileges in the world is still under the thumb of one man, her husband. She isn’t sick, but when her husband commands her to take her medicine three times a day, she has to, even though she knows it’s poison. This is the tragedy in a feudal society; everyone becomes twisted.”

Gong amplifies Zhang’s thoughts on the subject. “Even those who gain power still have many desires. At some point, it can become madness -- people can become like this, a whole country can become like this.”

This is Chow Yun Fat’s first collaboration with Zhang. “He’s a name brand,” says Chow, who’s been doing a spate of Chinese-language films, although he will be seen next summer in “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.” “I’ve seen a lot of his movies and admired them. Actors in his films often give a different performance than usual, it’s a talent he has.” After working with this director, Chow is even more impressed. “Zhang Yimou has a very clear vision of what he wants in his film, from beginning to end, and he has the determination to get it.”

Zhang says he’s become more conscious of appealing to audiences, including foreign ones. “Times have changed,” he says.

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“If you’re always trying to make personal films, they may win prizes, but lose audiences. Then the result is that Hollywood products take over the market. There are many directors in China, including some from the Sixth Generation, who do make these small-scale personal films,” he says. “But only a handful can make large-scale films. It’s a matter of who has the experience, and who can get the financial backing for such films. If I can make some of these films, that’s all right with me.”


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