Saturday, August 16, 2008

Zhang Yimou's China, pretty as a picture


Zhang Yimou's China, pretty as a picture


Zhang Yimou knows how to make Chinese silk flutter.

He knows best how to raise the red lanterns, unleash flying daggers and un-hex the curse of the golden flower.

So last week the Chinese director - initially a renegade but ultimately the Chosen One of the Communist Party - staged a four-hour pageant as the Olympic curtain-raiser aimed at nothing less than the immortalisation of his country's beauty and myth.

Zhang reached deep into the repository of Chinese civilisation and orchestrated an exotica of humans and colours, an opera of movements, fabric, fairies, light, hymns, drums, calligraphy, tai chi and Chinese astronauts.

At times it was wondrous. At times it was frightening in its audacity and synchronisation - the collectivism of bodies, the Great Wall of Willpower.

Like most of Zhang's late films, it was all beautifully structured. No humour, slips, bloopers, loose ends, buck-toothed girls, Tibet.

Olympic ceremonies have become a stage that the host nation uses to project its image as it prefers the whole world to perceive. In the case of Beijing, it is the image of an ancient superpower that has cast off its trauma and humiliation to reclaim the pride of the past and the prospects of modernity.

They did everything to convince us, including hiding a buck-toothed girl with a celestial voice, and substituting her with a doll-cute one who lip-synched Ode to the Motherland.

This came from the order of a Chinese Politburo member who had qualms about having a buck-toothed singer on TV. London in 2012 will have a tough time trying to top that level of dental care.

It was not a surprise that the Party picked Zhang to run the kick-off show. If Zhang Yimou couldn't translate, and cosmeticise, the rich trove of Chinese culture into spellbinding visuals and exhibit them to the world, then nobody could.

Zhang is a prominent member of the Beijing Film Academy's "Fifth Generation" who graduated in the 1980s. Sifting through the bitter ash of the Cultural Revolution, the Fifth Generation mavericks - Zhang, Chen Kaige, Tian Zhuangzhuang - marked their careers by making films that abandoned the traditional form and subject and confronted the darker side of China's legacy.

Zhang's Red Sorghum, Ju Dou, Story of Qiu Ju, and Raise the Red Lanterns, all starring Gong Li, form a sweeping narrative about poverty, cruel fate, social prejudice, state injustice and gender inequality.

No wonder his films were banned and the government stopped him from receiving the top award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1994.

All of that changed in the late 1990s. Zhang, who saw the horrors of Mao's campaign but also experienced the market-driven wonder of Deng Xiaoping's boom years, began making expensive, grandiose cinema that exoticises the Chinese image to full commercial effect.

Films like House of Flying Daggers, Hero and Curse of the Golden Flower serve up lively arabesques of martial arts, pompous design, lush costumes that sometimes border on narcissism. They are popular movies that sell both at home and abroad, and as Zhang's fans praise his splendid vision not unlike traditional Chinese operas, detractors pour scorn and accuse him of selling-out, of lusting after money, even of cosying up to the authoritarian rulers.

It is true that Zhang's later films - a prototype of the Olympic ceremony - turn away from the plucky realism of his earlier opuses. But the spirit of defiance is not dead among Chinese filmmakers. If the Fifth Generation has warmed, the Sixth Generation graduates of Beijing Film Academy have picked up the cue, and their brand of oblique, subtle and poignant critique is pointed at China's vulgar race to capitalism. The Sixth's leading figure, Jia Zhangke, has made films like Unknown Pleasures, The World and Still Life that look at small people left behind by the country's grand march towards prosperity. His latest film, 24 City, is a semi-documentary that chronicles the industrial progress of a small town; it will be screened at the Bangkok Int'l Film Festival next month.

Without much colour and fanfare, Jia's films show how the crushing weight of modernity can squeeze the souls of people. It would've been interesting if by some insane influence the Party had picked Jia to run the Olympic ceremony instead of Zhang. But like the buck-toothed girl, that would've been too depressing for the global audience, who prefer only pretty things on their TV.

Kong Rithdee writes about movies and popular culture in the Bangkok Post real.time section.

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