The ultimate guide to Chinese cinema - The films of Zhang Yimou
(Credit: TIFF)

The ultimate guide to Chinese cinema: The 12 best films of Zhang Yimou

Director Zhang Yimou is one of the most talented, versatile, and certainly widely acclaimed filmmakers of the so-called ‘Fifth Generation’—the post-Cultural Revolution Chinese filmmakers who brought Chinese cinema to the world and increased its international popularity.

Born in 1951 in Xi’an, Shanghai, Zhang had obstacles to overcome in order to work in film. The prestigious Beijing Film Academy had been closed down for years by the revolutionary government, only reopening when Zhang was 27, past the acceptable age for university attendance. From a politically diverse family, he was also regarded as slightly suspect by the government of the time. However, his impressive photographic work finally won him a place at the academy, where he began by studying cinematography.

Working as a cinematographer and actor for two years before attempting a film of his own, Zhang’s debut as a director was unexpectedly successful. His first feature, Red Sorghum (1987), a drama set in 1930s China, received international acclaim, as well as the Best Picture award at the Berlin Film Festival. From this time, Zhang continued to work steadily, producing successful and widely praised films, while also doing stage direction for a variety of plays and operas, as well as designing the closing ceremonies for the 2008 Olympics. Apart from some substandard collaborative work from 2015-16, his films have been consistently excellent.

Most of Zhang’s films fall into two very different categories: elaborate historic adventures, often featuring martial arts, which became well known in the west; and simpler and more heartfelt community or family dramas, many of them set in rural China, sometimes depicting a personal struggle against fate, injustice, or painful circumstances. Some of his later films deal with the trials and chaos of the Cultural Revolution, something Zhang has troubled memories of, once recalling simply, “I witnessed so many terrible and tragic things.”

Although he did not mean his films to be overtly political, once stating quite directly that “art is not political” and that he had “no political intentions” in his filmmaking, Zhang did not hesitate to include disreputable stages of Chinese history, or to portray existing corruption in government, which resulted in some of his films being censored or suppressed, or even in sanctions against Zhang himself. He was sent for ‘re-education’ during the notorious Cultural Revolution, saw one of his most highly praised films, To Live, banned in China for years, and despite his growing fame, continues to have his work scrutinised closely before it is released outside China.

His upcoming 2020 film, One Second, was actually withdrawn from competition at the Berlin Film Festival only days before its planned premiere, reportedly over concerns about its political implications. The censorship system in China, Zhang has noted, has remained virtually unchanged over the years, and although he has made his anti-censorship views clear, telling journalists at the 2020 Berlin Film Festival that “film should be free,” he has learned to work within the system, apparently without allowing it to restrict his output. 

Zhang’s work is known for striking visual features, particularly the creative and effective use of colour. He appears to agree with Alfred Hitchcock’s opinion on the value of showing what is happening in a film, over and above explaining it through dialogue. His historical adventures include not only painstakingly and distinctively staged battle scenes that rival anything in the genre, but memorable and beautiful episodes unrelated to the swordsman theme, in which colour, light, and graceful movement create an experience quite apart from the film’s storyline. The director acknowledges and celebrates his emphasis on imagery, even over plot or acting; he once commented that the visual is the part of the film that viewers tend to retain, even after the storyline is largely forgotten; individual images make an impression and will be recalled years later, he says, and “this is what makes a director happy.”

His films tend to be largely visual experiences, although the most memorable and dramatic examples are found in his historical adventures. His family dramas tend to set aside elaborate imagery for the more subtle and intimate, allowing the camera to focus on facial expressions and dialogue and permit the characters and their reactions to tell the story.

A selection of his work over the years…

Zhang Yimou’s 12 best films:

1991 – Raise the Red Lantern   

This brilliant film, although briefly banned in China, established Zhang’s name as a filmmaker and earned multiple awards internationally, including a BAFTA, and both London Critics’ Circle and New York Critics’ Circle award for best foreign-language film. Set in 1920s China, it tells the story of a young woman, Songlian (Li Gong, who worked with Zhang in six of his films), pressured by her family into accepting an offer of marriage from a wealthy middle-aged man. She becomes the fourth wife in his household, and finds herself in a situation fraught with endless plotting and subterfuge, as the wives compete with each other for the master’s favour and the privileges that go with it. Under Zhang’s direction, the intrigue within this small closed community becomes as intense as any political drama, as alliances are formed, deceptions revealed, and the struggle for the meagre share of power available intensifies. Songlian at first tries to distance herself from the scheming and rivalry, but is finally drawn into it, with unexpected and tragic consequences.

Zhang compels the camera to tell the story more than the actual dialogue, often maintaining close ups of a character’s face while action or dialogue takes place offscreen, enabling us to observe the subtle changes in expression caused by the unseen events. It is also an interesting and surprisingly effective choice to never show the face of the master of the household; his voice and the effects of his presence are there, but he remains offscreen. Li Gong’s subtle but acute performance explains Zhang’s decision to cast her in lead roles in several of his later films. The film is also an early showcase for Zhang’s talent for relating details through ritual actions, colour, and light, beginning with the red lantern of the title which is hung outside the rooms of the wife currently in favour.

1992 – The Story of Qiu Ju    

Although this film was briefly banned in China for perceived criticism of their legal system, it is not really a critique of China’s bureaucracy, so much as an adventure through the frustrations of dealing with bureaucracy which is largely universal. Based on the humorous novella The Wan Family’s Lawsuit by Chen Yuan, it is set in rural China, in an area sufficiently remote that the way of life was significantly different from life in the cities, different enough to seem decades in the past.

Young married woman Qiu Ju (Li Gong) finds herself in the unfamiliar maze of the legal system when her husband offends the village chief, who responds by kicking the man severely enough to place him in hospital. Outraged, Qiu Ju demands an apology and compensation, only to receive further insults from the chief. Although late in pregnancy, she travels from the township police, to the county police, to higher and higher levels of the legal system in search of satisfaction, exhausting herself and her meagre funds in the process.

The film’s humour derives both from Qiu Ju’s obsessiveness; the confusing and frustrating justice system, especially from the perspective of an inexperienced farmer; and the repeated inadequacy of the law to understand and deal effectively with this simple injury case. The story is depicted in an understated and frank manner, entirely from Qiu Ju’s point of view, and makes the simple account amusing and watchable. 

1994 – To Live   

This ambitious, sweeping historic panorama is primarily a family drama, following a young couple and their descendants from the 1940s through the 1970s; but it also serves as a recent history of China, its political and social developments, over the same period. Its portrayal of the rise of Maoism and the Cultural Revolution were sufficiently sharp to result in Zhang’s being barred from filmmaking for two years following its release. The film itself was banned in China until 2008. However, To Live was a tremendous critical success, taking three awards and a Palme D’Or nomination at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival as well as a BAFTA award for Best Film and numerous other nominations. It remains a favourite among critics and film lovers around the world

Married couple Fugui (You Ge) and Jiazhen (Li Gong) are well-off landowners in the 1940s, who become destitute when Fugui gambles away their fortune. The film follows their struggle to re-establish themselves as they raise their children. As their family grows and they adapt to comparative poverty, they endure the decades of change resulting from the Communist revolution, are harried by both the nationalist and Maoist armies and pressured to participate. As they try to improve their prospects, the Cultural Revolution places the family and their neighbours in constant danger of being declared counter-revolutionary for the most trivial of reasons, and places friends and associates at odds with one another.

Zhang does well at capturing the energy and chaos of the Communist uprising, and even more, the upheaval and oppressiveness of the Cultural Revolution period, the difficulty of getting anything useful accomplished in the face of constant bureaucratic tangles and endless suspicion, along with the fear of being reported as having anti-Communist views for the flimsiest of reasons. Rather than employ the vivid and flamboyant tableaus common in his work, Zhang focuses intently on a single family, making their difficulties central, and keeping the characters and their struggles poignant and compelling.

The film is at once an honest depiction of the era, a touching family drama, and a celebration of the endurance of ordinary people during a turbulent and dangerous time. 

1999 – Not One Less  

This charming, light but engrossing drama won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival as well as multiple awards throughout Asia. It uses non-professional actors and a rustic setting to give a realistic, almost documentary-like feel to the story.

One of several Zhang Yimou films set in the Chinese countryside, it begins in a one-room schoolhouse in a remote mountain village, so underfunded it must ration chalk. When its teacher must leave for a month to deal with a family crisis, no substitute is available, and the village official asks Wei Minzhi, a thirteen-year-old girl, to fill in. The girl, barely more educated than the children she is expected to teach, is determined to earn her month’s wages, including the promised bonus for ensuring that none of the students leave school within the month. When one of the boys decides to seek his fortune in the nearest large city, the story becomes a small-scale adventure.

The young substitute teacher finds strength and leadership qualities within herself, and the students in her class manage to work together to journey to the unfamiliar and frightening city, find the boy, and bring him safely home. As in many of his films, Zhang manages to mildly and affectionately caricature the isolated and uninformed villagers even while paying homage to their determination and resilience, in this case personified in one youthful teacher. 

1999 – The Road Home     

Zhang’s reputation continued to spread with this poignant family drama, which took the Grand Jury Prize at the Berlin Film Festival and the Audience Award at Sundance, among other awards. 

It is primarily a simple love story, once again set in rural China, and told mainly in flashback. As a man returns to his childhood village to arrange his father’s funeral, the story of his parents’ meeting and courtship is presented through extended glimpses of the past. When workmen come to a remote village to build a new schoolhouse, young village girl Zhao Di (Zhang Ziyi, best known for her later role in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) takes notice of the handsome young schoolteacher helping with the construction.

Limited by custom, shyness, and inexperience in ways to approach the young man, she tries to gain his attention by any means available to her, including helping to provide food for the workers. Gentle humour comes from the girl’s combination of inexperienced naiveté and confidence in her attempts, which are often misdirected although ultimately successful. 

2002 – Hero   

Zhang’s 2002 extravaganza Hero demonstrated, among other things, that his value was well established in his home country, allowing him to not only receive funding for the most expensive film ever made in China, but approval for 18,000 members of the Chinese military as crowd scene extras, and virtually unlimited control over filming locations, set design, and the time required to satisfy the director’s requirements.

Zhang spoke in an interview of the challenges of the enormous crowd scenes, of travelling up to three hours each way to reach ideal locations and the constant constraints of changing weather conditions for outdoor scenes. With Hero, Zhang was able to maintain his exacting standards without compromise, and the finished product shows it. While being artistically triumphant, the film became a major financial success. Making an enormous profit despite its $31 (US) million budget, the film achieved an impressive box office record around the world.

Hero definitely made its mark, and some of its imagery was so memorable that it continues to appear in uncredited tribute scenes and parody versions in everything from later martial arts movies to popular cartoons. Zhang’s project received countless awards and nominations internationally, a large proportion of them for Christopher Doyle’s brilliant cinematography. Even its unfortunate delayed American release worked in its favour; after being withheld for two years, director Quentin Tarantino, a long-time fan of Zhang Yimou’s work, began to promote the film, resulting in its 2004 US release under the tag line “Quentin Tarantino presents…” 

Set in the third century BC, during China’s Seven Kingdoms period, the script is very loosely based on actual people and events. The essential plot involves an amateur swordsman (played by well known martial arts film star, Jet Li) who gains sudden fame when he successfully finds and defeats three assassins assigned to murder the king of Qin, one of the warring seven kingdoms. The king (Chen Dao Ming) himself eventually united the kingdoms, making himself the first emperor over the united China, for which he is regarded as a ruthless aggressor, yet admired because of his success at unifying the nation both politically and culturally, establishing lasting peace.

The story that follows includes complex personal relationships, political aspirations, revenge plots, and the background of the ongoing war and acts of espionage between the various kingdoms. Zhang gives his penchant for striking visuals free rein, not only in the breathtaking combat scenes, but even in the quieter moments of plotting or conversation. Zhang even indulges in unexpected forms of embellishment, from an unusual camera angle which seems to follow flying arrows toward their target, to what amounts to the use of a Greek chorus during a pivotal scene at court.

Making full use of his well known love of colour to enhance a story, he chose particular dominant colours to identify which flashbacks come from key character’s memories, which derive from the memories or speculations of the king, and which are from other sources; and more significantly as the film continues, which are genuine accounts and which are deceptions. The many layers of deceit, political manipulations, and secret alliances add mystery to the storyline as they are gradually revealed in a series of plot twists, leading to a highly dramatic conclusion. 

2004 – House of Flying Daggers  

The follow-up to Hero was a project in the wuxia genre set during the Tang dynasty—less of a serious historical drama—but rather an action-based adventure with a focus on visual spectacle. The dazzling opening scenes are set in the palatial residence of a debauched government official, where he is attended and entertained by a staff of beautiful young women. His newest employee is a young blind woman named Mei (Zhang Ziyi) who demonstrates her preternatural abilities in the memorable “echo dance” scene, in which Mei uses her heightened senses and lengthy training to perfectly copy the path of pebbles thrown against drums in the course of her dance. It emerges that Mei is an undercover member of a rebel group, an expert combatant sent to assassinate the official. From here the story expands into an adventure of capture and escape, love and betrayal, as Mei flees the police, helped by an apparent fellow rebel and admirer who may not be what he seems. The plot includes tragic romance as well as adventure, although the revolutionaries and their enemies remain central.

A highlight of the film is the dramatic, creatively staged, carefully choreographed battle scenes, as the true identity of the various characters are gradually revealed and Mei’s band of revolutionaries make themselves known. Zhang’s distinctive use of colour adds interest, from the vivid interiors to the pale green costumes of the rebel forces and the deep blue of the police forces, to battle scenes fought on brightly coloured fallen leaves, in a green bamboo grove where swordsmen use the branches as both perches and weapons, and in fresh snow gradually stained with blood. Deceptions, both political and personal, are ultimately revealed, leading to a final battle and tragic conclusion.

2011 – The Flowers of War

This film is a rarity for Zhang as a mainly English language film, as well as one with a Hollywood star in the lead role. The script is based on a work of fiction by prolific writer and former war correspondent Yan Geling, concerning the Japanese attack on Nanjing in 1937, an event previously known as The Rape of Nanking. The novel is in turn based on the memoirs of Minnie Vautrin, an American missionary who ran a girls’ school in Nanjing. Christian Bale stars as John Miller, an American who accepted work in Nanjing just before the invasion, and finds himself taking shelter in a local church, along with a group of charity schoolgirls who had fled the gunfire in the streets. They are soon joined by twelve women from a local brothel seeking a safe hiding place. When the Japanese soldiers arrive, Miller, posing as the parish priest, along with the other refugees and a single surviving Chinese soldier, struggle to protect the girls and find a way to escape the city. The solution is ultimately found in a brave and moving act of self-sacrifice. 

Zhang employs his singular approach to light and colour in the film, effectively but in more delicate ways than in his historical pageants, using costume colour to set the twelve prostitutes apart during the early scenes, and using distinctive images such as the church’s stained glass window and the building’s Red Cross banner in subtly symbolic ways. The battle scenes are vivid and gruesome, and the Japanese aggression portrayed as so brutally amoral that the film was banned in Japan. The main events, and the depiction of the war itself, are decidedly from the Chinese perspective; but the story goes beyond the war itself. The storyline involves rather jaded and self-serving characters who, faced with a threat to innocent lives, find it within themselves to become genuine heroes. The film may have been designed to appeal to western audiences, apart from the primary language and the presence of an American film star.

The soundtrack includes European as well as Chinese music, featuring Joshua Bell on violin; and the plot devices are more in keeping with a conventional American film in some ways. Its characters, although fully developed rather than two-dimensional types, fall into clear classifications: innocent students of an orphan school; prostitutes; Chinese soldiers; Japanese soldiers; and the sole American character, an opportunist who finds himself burdened with the fate of others. These people are pitted against one another, or against clear threats to their own self-interest, according to their category. The plot is not formulaic, however. It is emotional and dramatic but genuine, recognising the level of sacrifice being made in creative and poignant ways. It is one of the most effective war films in modern times, as well as one of China’s highest grossing productions to date.  

2014 – Coming Home   

The script for this film was, like The Flowers of War, adapted from a novel by Yan Geling, The Criminal Lu Yanshi. It is another of Zhang’s family tales, in which political realities impact on the story, but the central concern remains personal, in this case with a slowly developing mystery as part of the plot. Coming Home is a poignant, even tragic story but also a warm and touching celebration of love and family loyalty. 

Feng (Li Gong) and Lu (Daoming Chen) are a close and happy married couple who are separated for years when Lu is imprisoned for anti-Communist leanings. He once attempts to escape and contact his family but is forcibly recaptured as his wife watches. On being released, he returns home only to find his wife has developed a form of post-traumatic amnesia and no longer recognises him. As Lu becomes reacquainted and reconciled with his now-adult daughter, Dandan, he learns more about the family’s situation during his incarceration, and family secrets are revealed. Feng, informed that her husband has been released from prison, continues to prepare to receive him and look out for his arrival, while sadly oblivious to her husband’s actual presence, regarding him as a stranger.

Zhang uses a particularly delicate touch to bring across the love and unselfishness behind the characters’ actions, as Lu works patiently to understand his wife’s condition and the reasons behind it and to find a way to help her recover her memory and see him for who he is at last. 

2015 – Lady of the Dynasty  

This less than stellar film is given a mention as one in which Zhang Yimou was involved as co-director, along with second co-director Zhuangzhuang Tian, under novice filmmaker Shiqing Cheng as the sole credited director. The exact reason Zhang agreed to this collaboration is unclear. Zhang also brought in his former classmate at the Beijing Film Academy, Hou Yong, as the cinematographer, which added a great deal to the movie’s questionable quality. It is based on a Tang Dynasty epic poem, Song of Everlasting Regret, which tells the story about royal concubine Yang Guifei. The film suffered setbacks pre-production, including the withdrawal of its original production company, the dismissal of its original director, and the loss of most of the original and preferred cast members, leaving only the popular film and television star Fan Bingbing as the ill-fated concubine. 

When lowly dancer Yang Guifei is chosen as wife to Prince Li Mao, she becomes daughter-in-law to Emperor Tang. She finds herself abandoned and traded in the course of political disruption. The story follows her chaotic life in parallel to the upheavals of the empire, unfortunately without successfully making her a sympathetic protagonist. The course of events is awkwardly and superfluously observed, and analysed through voice-over narration, by a pair of visiting English-speaking Europeans representing the Byzantine Empire, who are occasionally and rather irrelevantly included in the central action. Even the soundtrack is unimpressive, saccharine and repetitive.

Zhang’s influence can perhaps be seen in the impressive court scenes and some of the more effective visual techniques, but the film itself is unremarkable, an overblown melodrama with unrestrained, soap opera-level acting, and a script that makes even the steady flow of suicides, rebellions, palace intrigue, and personal conflicts—not to mention multiple injuries on the polo field—tedious and insipid.  

2016 – The Great Wall     

As Zhang’s notoriety spread, he was offered the chance to direct a fairly grand production aimed at Western audiences and with mainly English dialogue. A US/China collaboration, The Great Wall boasted an enormous budget, and featured Hollywood stars Matt Damon and Willem Defoe in lead roles. Unfortunately, it did not add much to his reputation as a director.

The script, written by a team of American action film screenwriters, was a contrived, overblown mixture of fantasy, extended CGI battle scenes, and distorted history, in which two European traders (Dafoe and Damon), circa 1000 AD, aid the Chinese military in defeating a swarm of evil, vaguely reptilian monsters attacking the digitally generated Great Wall of China. Even if making the European trader superior at combat to the trained Chinese guards can be overlooked as a white-entitlement reflex, the film is a disaster.

The plot holes and implausibilities become too numerous to count, resulting in disappointing reviews despite its impressive production design, which shows some of Zhang’s famous use of colour and flair for spectacle. Zhang’s direction keeps the actors on track, and this, along with the ornate costumes, extravagant set design, and unlikely but elaborately choreographed battles, saves the film from complete mediocrity, although the script is beyond saving.

2018 – Shadow    

Following two unfortunate projects, Zhang re-established himself with this ambitious project. Set during the Three Kingdoms (third century AD), this is a story of court intrigue, war, espionage, and political conflict, centred on one character: a man who acts as a ‘shadow,’ or double, for an official who remains in hiding.

Deng Chao plays a dual role, as reclusive military general Zi Yu, and as Jing Zhou, the lookalike who impersonates him in public. An uneasy alliance between two powerful kingdoms is threatened by competing claims on the central city, and by the erratic and corrupt king to whom the general owes allegiance. As the mysterious general’s plans are put into effect, the kingdoms are pushed toward war, their competing strategies gradually revealed, with plot twists and surprises until the final scene. At the same time, the true motivations of the various characters are also disclosed as they have their particular impact on the slowly developing military schemes; and the reiterated theme of the forces of Yin and Yang inform the action and the imagery. The concept was suggested by Zhang himself, who asked screenwriter Wei Li to work with him on a script which focused on the idea of a double. Zhang was intrigued by the idea of a common person, in close contact with power but hidden and powerless himself, with no will or even identity of his own. He wanted to take the ‘double’ story in unexpected directions. 

It is not the storyline that is most remarkable, however, but Zhang’s presentation. The look of the film is arresting from beginning to end. The many scenes of battle and single combat are as dynamic and beautifully staged as any film in the wuxia genre, and more innovative than most. At the same time, every scene, whether of combat, formal palace assemblies, or private discussions is filmed with the same attention to detail, the set design distinctive and fascinating, and often incorporating a visual reminder of the Yin/Yang theme which influences some of the action. Most noticeable is the surprising choice to film Shadow in black and white—not by the usual, and far easier, means of using black and white film, but by using colour film and taking the trouble to make the entire world black and white.

The set, costumes, and props are entirely in black, white, or shades of grey, the only things necessarily in colour – human skin, and the substantial amounts of blood during battle —shown in muted tones, so that they stand out in contrast but do not entirely cancel out the effect of a black and white set. The result is an intensely sombre mood suggested by the monochromatic background, with the clarity and realism of colour film. It is an early indication of how much trouble Zhang is willing to take with the production. 

The battle between the warring kingdoms are violent, graphic, and colourful, employing striking and constantly changing elements of style, and maintaining the level of action without losing the personal motives of each character. Particularly memorable are the battle techniques of the Pei Kingdom allies, who were advised to use a yin or ‘feminine’ approach to battle, and their synchronised use of umbrella-like weapons in one memorable scene. The final act is one surprise revenge or ambush after another, leading to a series of unexpected turns and an intriguing, slightly ambiguous ending. 

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