Zhang Yimou

Zhang Yimou
Zhang Yimou, image source: Pressman Film

In the colorful world of Zhang Yimou’s movies, the use of color is so effective in creating visual beauty.

Recently, I bought a ticket to watch Zhang Yimou’s latest movie: The Great Wall. With Zhang Yimou’s name attached to the movie, I am safe to assume that it is visually stunning, and the story is driven by a strong female character. He is one of the most prominent film directors in Asia, with sleek nicknames like “Visionary Director” and “Steven Spielberg of The East”, as if he is some sort of movie god. With great excitement, I stepped into the cinema and started my adventure into the world of Zhang Yimou.

Zhang Yimou amazes his audience with his excellent cinematography and effective use of color through his movies like Raise the Red Lantern (1991) and Hero (2002). His movies are more than just eye candy as his storytelling is powerful enough to move people’s emotions — my world felt shattered when the character Flying Snow let out a mournful scream in Hero. His movies are depiction of human nature, such as love and strong spirit to overcome hardship. They are as real as life, as many of his stories end with tragedy, unlike typical fairy tale with happy endings.

Zhang Yimou’s works received an enormous amount of recognition through countless international awards and praises by prominent people in the film industry. He is known to be pleasant to work with and his name can stir interest in talented people to want to work with him. Actually, He is more than just movie director, as he also ventures into other areas of creative arts such as cinematography, acting and stage direction.


Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li in Zhang Yimou's movies
(L-R) Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li in Zhang Yimou’s movies.

In the colorful world of Zhang Yimou’s movies, there is always a strong female character. Sometimes she is attractive with a soft hint of eroticism, but most of the time she has the endurance and strong spirit to fight against her nasty fate to pursue the life she desires. Most of the time, this female character is played by Gong Li, a beautiful face well known to the wider world; and sometimes she is played by Zhang Ziyi. These two actresses have been collaborating with Zhang Yimou for many years and are the two main “Yimou Girls” — actresses made famous by working with Zhang Yimou. Zhang Yimou is keen to tell the story from the perspective of women, who are frequently suppressed in male-dominated Chinese society, as this can bring certain dramatic tension to the story.

In the colorful world of Zhang Yimou’s movies, Chinese culture is an important element. Mentioning Zhang Yimou’s name invokes the images of red lanterns, dazzling swordplay and Chinese opera singing. Beyond these objects, Zhang Yimou is keen to show the world the personalities and spirit of the Chinese people. This influences Zhang Yimou to use the color red prominently in some of his films like Red Sorghum (1987) and Raise The Red Lantern (1991), as red is an auspicious color in Chinese culture.

In the colorful world of Zhang Yimou’s movies, the use of color is so effective in creating visual beauty. His brilliant cinematography and careful composition makes every frame in his movies look like masterpiece. One of the visual tricks of Zhang Yimou is his ability to direct a large number of people, stunning the audience with his well-coordinated choreography of a few thousand performers.

About Zhang Yimou

Zhang Yimou, a man from Xi’an, Shaanxi, came to this world on 2 April 1950. He married his first wife Xiao Hua, and they have a daughter Zhang Mo. Zhang Mo is now a film director, occasionally serving her father as assistant director and editor. Zhang Yimou and his second wife Chen Ting have two boys and a girl. Yes, he violated China’s One-Child policy and was fined heavily.

Zhang Yimou said his low-profile character comes from his father, and he got his joyous and relaxing personality from his mother. At a young age, he suffered social stigma because his father got involved with the National Revolutionary Army, forcing him to live like “having tails between his legs”, and slowly develop his humble personality. He also said he is an inward person who refuses to express his discomfort and complain, because he perceives it as embarrassment for a man.

Zhang Yimou got entangled in several controversies such as his affair with Gong Li, violation of One-Child policy and the end of his partnership with long-time producer Zhang Weiping. I won’t digress into tabloid gossip, click the links to read more.

Early Days

(L-R) Gong Li, Mo Yan, Jiang Wen and Zhang Yimou, while filming Red Sorghum (1987)
(L-R) Gong Li, Mo Yan, Jiang Wen and Zhang Yimou, while filming Red Sorghum (1987)

Cultural Revolution plays an important role in Zhang Yimou’s development as a filmmaker, where its influence can be strongly felt in his works like To Live (1994) and Coming Home (2014). During this period, Zhang Yimou went to work at farm and factory after finishing his lower secondary education. In 1987, after the end of Cultural Revolution, Zhang Yimou tried to enter the newly reopened Beijing Film Academy, but was rejected due to his age. He had to appeal to gain admittance, and was assigned to cinematography department. This was how he got stuck with the label “the Fifth Generation of Chinese Filmmakers”.

Zhang Yimou was many years older than his classmates, earning him the nickname Lao Mou Zi, meaning “old Mou”, a popular nickname used by the Chinese mass media to address Zhang Yimou. This is an important period because many of his cinematographers in filmmaking projects are his ex-classmates, making his work silky smooth because they have known each other since university days.

The huge age gap was making him embarrassed and uncomfortable at the cinematography class. He found the directing class more comfortable, not because of keen interest, but because the students there were older. He joined the directing class and the seed of film directing was sown there. He asked for book recommendation on directing, and got 40 to 50 titles. He borrowed all those books to read. I think this is an important point because I believe his absorption of huge amount of knowledge contributes a lot to his success. He went from a factory worker with no filmmaking knowledge to a successful film director with tons of ideas in his head.

In 1983, Zhang Yimou started his career as cinematographer in the movie One and Eight, which was directed by his ex-classmate Zhang Junzhao. He gained more fame, awards and recognition as cinematographer in Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth (1984). Then, he shot The Big Parade (1986) as cinematographer before venturing into acting in Old Well (1986) and won multiple awards for his acting performance.

Zhang Yimou’s directorial debut, Red Sorghum (1987) sealed his fate as one of the most prominent film directors in China, showering him with many international film awards. The rest of his career as film director is history. He continues to direct high profile movies like Ju Dou (1990), Raise the Red Lantern (1991) and To Live (1994). His directing career reached a new milestone with huge commercial and critical success in Hero (2002), granting him great respect all over the world.

2008 Summer Olympics Opening and Closing Ceremonies in Beijing

Probably the most well-known non-movie work by Zhang Yimou is the amazing opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games in Beijing. For Zhang Yimou and his team of creative directors, this was a huge project that was one hundred times more difficult than making movies. This is not a joke, as someone actually shot the documentary of the whole process of making this big show, from conceptual design, dress rehearsal to the actual event. Despite early preparation, they missed some deadlines and had to rush during final preparation. You can see Zhang Yimou’s worried expression and the way he shouted angrily over the phone, which is a rare sight because Zhang Yimou is normally very calm and emotionally controlled, the stress of managing it was gigantic. I highly recommend you to watch these documentary videos because you can learn more about his management style, thought process and work ethics: video link (YouTube).

At the very late stage of preparation, Zhang Yimou was told that something was not enough to hold the grand event. Zhang Yimou agreed and he hastily brought in two well-known singers, one Chinese singer and one international singer, to perform the Olympics theme song, although initially he was adamant in doing something else in an unconventional way — a rare occasion where he backed out from his stubborn ways. The Olympics theme song You and Me was composed by Chen Qigang in pentatonic scale, and it feels different from past Olympics theme songs because it is calm, gentle and lullaby-like. It was sung by Chinese singer Liu Huan and British Soprano Sarah Brightman. This is the second Olympics theme song sung by Sarah Brightman. The first one was in Barcelona (1992): video link (YouTube).

You and Me – performed by Liu Huan and Sarah Brightman

Impression Series

The Iron Triangle: (L-R) Wang Chaoge, Zhang Yimou and Fan Yue
The Iron Triangle: (L-R) Wang Chaoge, Zhang Yimou and Fan Yue

You might ask, how can a film director successfully create the Olympics ceremonies, what is his qualification? He has been directing huge outdoor stage productions for years before the grand show, at smaller scale than the Olympics ceremonies, but equally impressive. It is called Impression Series, which is founded by the “iron triangle”: three of the top artistic directors in China — Zhang Yimou, Wang Chaoge and Fan Yue. The trio of directors were directly involved in the creative process of the Olympic ceremonies.

I have only seen one of the Impression shows: outdoor stage productions involving a large number of performers and dancers at various tourism hot spots in China. I find it visually stunning — both the performance and the natural scenery that serves as the backdrop. The performances have historical and cultural values of the local people. It is a good idea to go and watch Impression shows when you visit China, more information on this link. Perhaps one of the most famous theme songs of Impression Series is Impression West Lake, composed by Kitaro and performed by Jane Zhang:

Movies Directed by Zhang Yimou

Listed below are some of the movies directed by Zhang Yimou and their description (basic outline of the story, with no element that spoils the suspense). Please come back from time to time to this page because I might expand the list and add more movies. The movie description is based on my personal opinion, as this kind of thing is subjective. I hope you enjoy these movies and their spectacles.

Red Sorghum (1987)

Red Sorghum
Red Sorghum

This story seems like an abstract legend or tall tale of a rural village filled with lush sorghums. It is narrated by the grandson of the main characters, where he has never experienced the story first hand, as if it is a fairy tale heard from others.

The first half of the movie is about happiness and celebration of life, where the story is heightened by the energy injected by clatters of music instruments and loud, male chant in unison. A few cardboard-character villains and off-screen murder add suspense and excitement. The second part is much darker, where the cruel Japanese soldiers attack the village. The villagers have to endure hardship and torture and the violence can shock the audience to the core.

Gong Li plays Jiu’er, the grandmother of the narrator. At first she is just an ordinary village girl, who is sold by her father for the price of a donkey, to a sick man who owns a distillery. In a twist of fate, she gains power and rules as the boss of sorghum wine distillery, where a group of strong, young men work happily for her. One of the young man is played by Jiang Wen, who adds romantic tension, comic relief and male machismo to the story, and becomes the grandfather of the narrator. The subtle hint of eroticism and the appearance of strong female character is like spices in a meal that excites the audience.

The cinematography is saturated with heavy red tint. I speculate that it was caused by expired film stock, because Zhang Yimou, in his interview, said that before he received foreign investment in his filmmaking, he was using expired film stock, where the colors turned out incorrectly. No doubt, the red tint works effectively, providing the movie a layer of mystery, metaphor and subtext.

This visual masterpiece is Zhang Yimou’s directorial debut, where he earned various international recognitions, such as the 1988 Berlin International Film Festival Golden Bear Award and gained attention from the wider world. The original story is the work of Mo Yan, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2012. This is Zhang Yimou’s first collaboration with Gong Li.

Raise the Red Lantern (1991)

Raise the Red Lantern
Raise the Red Lantern

Gong Li plays Songlian, a university student who reluctantly marries into the Chen family as the fourth mistress, after her father’s death. As she steps into the huge labyrinth of the Chen mansion, she is well treated like a princess with premium foot massage and brightly lit red lanterns. As the story progresses, she is dragged into the game of power-play against the other concubines to compete for the master’s attention.

The master’s face is never clearly revealed, or at least he is never seen in close-up, emphasizing the women as the main players of the story. On the game table, the first wife has already cemented her position by giving birth to a son decades ago. She seems wise by conceding, and remains peaceful throughout the story. The second wife is a very sociable and skillful player; with sweet mouth and cheerful smile, she can make people like her, gain alliance and manipulate the game to her advantage. The third wife is an opera singer who gains the master’s attention with her beauty and entertainment value, but she is too direct with others and gets jealous easily. Things get worse when Songlian’s personal maid tries to join the game and make things complicated.

As a young woman, Songlian is a bit blunt and not too diplomatic, causing her to offend a few characters. Later, she is seduced by the game, and attempts to play dirty, but she miscalculates her move and lands herself into deep trouble. The game is cruel, as the losers are punished severely, leading to their ultimate destruction beyond salvation.

The movie is visually stunning, with vibrant red lanterns in front of the grey background. Zhang Yimou invented the lantern ritual to enrich the visual of the story. The beautiful and carefully crafted interior of the mansion is mesmerizing, with a lot of Chinese cultural elements on display. The opera singing and the sound of the flute penetrates deep into the psyche. The cinematography reveals a lot about the characters, who appear in the frame-within-frame composition, as if they are permanently trapped in the tradition with no escape.

This movie offers a lot of metaphor and subtext, leading many film critics to come out with various interpretations. Some think it is the indirect depiction of Chinese government and its people, others think it is the rape of women in the male-dominated society. For me, it is about the fate of oppressed people who are forced to yield to the society.

Many people fall in love with this movie’s beautiful visuals and interesting story. It is definitely one of Zhang Yimou’s must-watch masterpiece.

Hero (2002)


Color is the main element in this movie. The story is driven by prominent colors of black, red, blue, white and green. The five colors represent the five elements in Chinese metaphysics, and this pattern is reused in Zhang Yimou’s five-color army in The Great Wall (2016). Zhang Yimou collaborated with Christopher Doyle, arguably the best cinematographer in Asia, to create this visual masterpiece. Under Zhang Yimou’s effective use of color and Doyle’s excellent camera work, this wuxia epic transcends into fine poetry and spirituality. Every frame of this movie looks like high-quality painting that keeps the audience in awe.

This masterpiece is further enriched with Tan Dun’s music, where Itzhak Perlman’s violin and the hypnotic drum beats keep the audience enchanted. The characters are played by some of the finest actors in Asia like Chen Daoming, Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, in front of jaw-droppingly beautiful scenery in China. The action is skillfully carried out by veteran martial artists Jet Li and Donnie Yen, especially in the chess court battle featuring a guqin performance that gives the fight a Zen-like quality. The autumn fight scene and blue lake swordplay are equally unique and memorable.

The outline of this story is nonlinear, and the plot is slowly revealed layer by layer in the dialogue between the nameless warrior (Jet Li) and the powerful king (Chen Daoming), where multiple versions of the story are told, each version is represented by a color. The story involves three great assassins that give the king endless headache: Sky (Donnie Yen), Broken Sword (Tony Leung) and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung). Despite the emphasis on visuals, this movie is far from being empty shell. It is a brilliant depiction of emotions and human nature: love, anger and the will to kill. The scream of sorrow let out by Flying Snow moves the audience to tears.

At first Zhang Yimou didn’t think of making a huge wuxia movie. When he was developing the story for Hero, Ang Li’s Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon became a huge commercial success. Investors came in to offer Zhang Yimou super stars like Jet Li, Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, and it became the most expensive movie project in Chinese history at that time, and continued to become the highest-grossing motion picture in China. Many people recognize it as one of the most beautiful movies in the world.

The Flowers of War (2011)

The Flowers of War
The Flowers of War

Bullets are flying and people are running for their lives during the Nanking Massacre. A group of school girls in navy blue uniforms take refuge at a cathedral before another group of women: flamboyantly dressed courtesans, force their way into the cathedral and make it their new mansion. Two groups of female characters with stark contrast face each other and conflict ignites between them, while they try to survive the atrocity of the war. Their conflict is condensed between Yu Mo (Ni Ni), the de facto leader of the courtesans, and Shu Juan (Zhang Xinyi), the de facto leader of the school girls, who is also the narrator, which foreshadows her survival in the war.

Christian Bale plays John Miller, an American mortician hired to bury the head priest, who gets into the cathedral but fails to get his pay. He is stuck at the cathedral when it becomes too dangerous to leave, forcing him to interact with other characters. At first, John Miller seems to be a drunk, greedy and perverted man whose main goals are to earn a quick buck and sleep with the courtesans. However, when the Japanese soldiers enter the cathedral, he witnesses act of extreme violence, forcing his compassionate side to rise to protect the women from harm, even though he is powerless.

This story is not so much about the war, but the war situation is used to portray the human nature. When the characters are pushed to the extreme, some show extremely cruel behavior, others show their most beautiful side of their soul, to the extreme of self-sacrificing for others. The flowers of war refer to two things: the beautiful courtesans, and their heart of gold, which shines through the darkest hours of Nanjing.

The Great Wall (2016)

The Great Wall
The Great Wall

European mercenaries William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) travel to China to steal the lucrative gunpowder, but they end up being captured by the Chinese army at the Great Wall. Suddenly, a large mass of dinosaur-like monsters, known as taotie, attack the Great Wall. The Chinese army that protects the Great Wall, known as The Nameless Order, has five divisions, each with a unique color: eagle (red) is the archery division, tiger (yellow) is the division that operates huge mechanical blades and catapults, bear (black) is the melee division, deer (purple) is the cavalry division, and crane (blue) is the all-women diving spearmen division; they fight the monsters bravely, and suffer casualties.

William and Tovar get involved in the fight and earn the respect of the Chinese army, especially after William demonstrates his amazing archery skill. Later, this war becomes the personal war for William, where he has to struggle to choose between the greed of running away with the gunpowder, or doing the right thing by fighting together with the Chinese soldiers to save the world.

The movie hits the right note by getting into the battle scene right at the beginning of the movie, without delay. That hooks the audience to the story as the protagonists are dragged into the conflict very early. The concept and design of the monster taotie is amazing. The monsters actually scare the audience like the running zombies of World War Z. They are numerous, hard to kill, and most importantly, they are highly intelligent, something like Alien and Predator. The monsters’ CGI is not bad as I don’t feel that it is fake or distracting. Taotie is a Chinese mythical monster that symbolizes greed or gluttony, similar to the inner greed faced by the European mercenaries.

Zhang Yimou has said it is not wise to rely too much on CGI or special effects because he believes that, up to a certain point of saturation, the audience will get sick and tired with it. So he focused more on production design like interesting weaponry and huge mechanical devices.

Jing Tian and Andy Lau gave great acting performances as General Lin and Strategist Wang, two English-speaking characters who are crucial to the story. It is worth mentioning that the Chinese soldiers demonstrate great qualities: courage, unity and the willingness to sacrifice oneself to protect China. Somehow I feel this movie is an homage to Zhang Yimou’s earlier works such as Hero (2002) and Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony (2008), where a huge crowd of people look visually stunning.

This movie production is meaningful in the sense that it is the first large-scale production that closely binds Hollywood and China together. Many international talents have the chance to work together in this gigantic project. If successful, this movie will reap great profits from two of the biggest movie markets in the world: China and North America. However, this movie is already facing problems at both ends of the globe. In North America, it got into whitewashing controversy; and in China, the box office is hurt by nasty amateur film criticism that sounds more like personal attack and cyber bullying. In my opinion, these problems arise from bad timing, as there are other movies that faced the same problems.

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