I distinctly remember the shock of seeing Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum when it opened in London (in 1988, I think). I was prepared for the look of the film after Yellow Earth, but not for the emotional and physical violence, nor the impact of Gong Li’s first appearance as a star of Fifth Generation Chinese films. Twenty years on, I was drawn to the DVD bargain bin to watch Gong Li again in Zhou Yu’s Train. I’d seen a trailer for the film on Apple’s website, but it wasn’t released theatrically in the UK and the DVD was eventually released in the UK in 2005. Magnificent in Zhang’s Curse of the Golden Flower and wasted in Michael Mann’s Miami Vice, I was intrigued as to how ‘the most beautiful woman in China’ would look in a contemporary Chinese film.
Gong Li plays the title role of Zhou Yu, an artist in a ceramics factory who travels twice a week by train to be with her boyfriend, the poet Chen Ching (played by the Hong Kong actor, Tony Leung Ka- fai). On one of her train journeys she meets Zhang, a rural vet (played by Sun Honglei from Zhang Yimou’s The Road Home). A fourth character is also played by Gong Li (with short, curled hair) – a woman who is seemingly searching for Chen Ching, perhaps in a different/parallel time period? The film offers this odd triangle with a possible ‘third dimension’, in a non-linear narrative which jumps backwards and forwards in time.
The film seems to have confused and irritated some American audiences (and reviewers), unwilling to look beyond its undeniable beauty – the only sensible and considered comments I found were generally from IMDB’s users and bulletin boards rather than the professional critics. Surprisingly, I found only one reference to the Chinese film which it most resembles – Suzhou River (China/Germany 2000). There is a direct connection in that the same cinematographer, Wang Yu, shot both films. For Suzhou River he created a romantic and timeless vista of the river in Shanghai, but for Zhou Yu’s Train the emphasis is on the train and the landscapes of both rural China and its provincial cities (the named cities are Sanming and Chongyang, although according to Derek Elley in Variety the actual locations were elsewhere). In fact confusions over geography only add to the mystique – Sony’s press pack says the location is North West China, but the named cities are in Central/South Eastern China and some 600 or more miles apart. In Suzhou River, the two central female characters are again played by the same actor, Zhou Xun. However, Suzhou River was judged to be a small, ‘independent’ Sixth Generation film only getting an international release via its European co-funding. It proclaimed its ‘postmodernity’ through a calculated mix of memory and reproduction and a direct nod towards Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
Zhou Yu’s Train is a much bigger budget film from a more prestigious production context. The director had previously worked with Gong Li on Breaking the Silence (2000) and the music is by Umebayashi Shigeru. Although it doesn’t bear comparison with Umebayashi’s great work on In the Mood For Love or for Zhang Yimou (Curse of the Golden Flower), it still adds greatly to the film. There is another Wong Kar-wai connection in the presence of editor William Chang and a further indication of ambition is the presence of producer Bill Kong, another collaborator with Zhang Yimou, as well as Ang Lee. Kong was also a producer on Tian Zhuanzhuang’s remake of Springtime in a Small Town (2002) which was another title that came to mind as I watched Zhou Yu’s Train.
The prestigious nature of the film and its presentation in the West, possibly drew audiences who might not have seen the other films I’ve mentioned here. Perhaps because it seems to offer a straightforward romance, there is less chance that the audience will be prepared to consider it as an ‘art film’? I’m not sure. I enjoyed watching the film but I can see that its non-linearity was perhaps more confusing than in a similar film, like Suzhou River, where the generic clues (film noir etc.) lead us to expect twists and turns and mysteries.
In thematic terms, I took the film to be dealing with some interesting issues. Zhou Yu is clearly a modern woman, unmarried in her thirties and without dependents. She represents a challenge to Zhang and something of a threat to Chen, who takes himself off to Tibet, perhaps afraid of her energy in trying to make a long distance relationship work. The distance that Zhou travels for her twice-weekly trysts is a feature of a society which to a certain extent institutionalised separation/exile from the 1920s onwards. The railway takes on quite a different role from that it has in North American and European contemporary cinema (but perhaps it is shared by Indian cinemas?). The lack of family and ‘tradition’ (and really of ‘authority’ in any form) is quite refreshing, though Zhou is following in her father’s footsteps (he worked on the railway) and the use of poetry in the film does refer back to traditional modes of romance in Chinese fictions.
As well as the remarkable Gong Li herself, there is a great deal of attention paid to landscape and conventional shots of trains. If nothing else, the film does refer to the obvious connections between rail travel and romance. Mostly, the train works as metaphor – its constant toing and froing and the sense of movement between urban and rural life. I was also struck by the use of wide-angle lenses in the indoor scenes and of compositions in long shot for the train and city environments.
But for me, the most pleasure came from Gong Li’s performance. I was taken with the striking difference created between the two characters she played, achieved by changing hairstyle, costume and body movement/gesture. Several commentators admit to being confused about time periods in the film and I think that this might be triggered by Gong Li as the fourth character, who in her denim jacket and short, but styled, hair seems much more ‘modern’ than Zhou. As Zhou, I realise that Gong Li was dressed as I’ve never seen her before – in simple, timeless dresses (rather than the traditional dress of period Zhang Yimou films or the ‘smart’ business dress of Miami Vice. The simple dresses allow her to move more freely and there are several shots/sequences in which the director seems to emphasise this (especially when she is shown running after the train in slow motion). Dress and movement allow her to seem ‘girlish’ (and a mature woman at the same time). In short, she is terrific and well worth pursuing through the bargain bin. I hope she gets more contemporary roles in Chinese Cinema. With her only serious rival, Maggie Cheung, seemingly in retirement, she is sorely needed. Unfortunately, she seems to be mainly employed on American-financed films – I hope the Americans learn how to use her skills and star persona effectively.
I’ve always associated Chrysants with Japan, so it was a surprise to see thousands of them in Curse of the Golden Flower.
I went into this screening not knowing what to expect. I’d seen the trailer and got a sense of lukewarm reviews, but neither really prepared me for the film. I shouldn’t be surprised that I was very taken with it – after all, I’ve never been really disappointed with one of Zhang’s films. He remains for me one of the top players in the premier league, whatever political confusions his films create.
The first task in responding to the film is to try to categorise it. Despite the use of the term by several critics, I don’t think the film is a wu xia, at least not in the sense that I have understood the term. The main characters are not warriors following the code of a dedicated master and displaying ‘super skills’. There are opera techniques in the fight scenes, which are choreographed on an epic scale, but not with the romantic intensity that ran through Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Instead, I think that this is melodrama/opera with clear links to European/Indian/Japanese films/theatre.
In terms of melodrama, I’ve never seen this use of colour in anything else (I saw a digital print and the effect of slightly different contrast and shades might mean the 35mm print looks more familiar). Zhang does it again, I guess. The music was the only problem for me. By the end of the film I’d got used to it, but earlier it just didn’t seem to fit.
Above all, the film offered two pleasures I hadn’t ever imagined I would see, the return of Gong Li to a Zhang Yimou film and the chance to see Li and Chow Yun-fat together. I could have done without all the thrusting bosoms, but Gong Li’s wonderful face drew my attention all the time. If the film isn’t really the third film in a trilogy, it might just be a return to Zhang’s first trilogy (and indeed his first Gong Li trilogy). The film that Curse of the Golden Flower most reminded me of is Raise the Red Lantern. The Gong Li character is proud, haughty and independent, plotting to achieve some power for herself but finally defeated by the implacable nature of patriarchy in Imperial China, just as she was in the earlier film. No doubt the China watchers in the West and in China itself are working on readings. I did think of the Tiananman Square massacre and I could see the film as a critique of both patriarchy and the internal plotting of the ruling elite. On the other hand, Chow Yun-fat’s Emperor has risen up from a relatively lowly position to assume power and he intends to keep it. Perhaps Zhang secretly wants to celebrate this? As usual the posters on the IMDB bulletin boards are claiming the film as ‘communist propaganda’. You takes your choice. I want to know why I’m not getting to see the film Zhang made before this, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles. UK distribs please note.
First chance this week to get to screenings in the China 07 season (10 years since the handover of Hong Kong). At Cornerhouse on Wednesday I watched Judou (dir. Zhang Yimou, China/Japan 1990) in the cinema for the first time since the early 90s. Somebody appears to have found the original UK 35mm print lurking in the ICA basement. The projectionist told me that it was ‘fragile’, but apart from the usual scratches at reel ends it played fine and the colours were just sensational. Judou is one of the most visually spectacular films I’ve ever seen and one that depends to a large extent on colour grading, especially the reds for which Zhang Yimou is famous. According to various sources, this was one of the last films to use the original Technicolor process. I don’t know if this is true, but it’s rare to see anything like Judou today.
I’d skimmed through a VHS copy before the screening in order to prepare some notes for my introduction, but I sat and watched the film all through, mesmerised by its beauty and promising myself a Zhang Yimou feast. I’ve just bought some DVDs from YesAsia.com The Chinese DVDs of Red Sorghum and Shanghai Triad are terrible with poorly dubbed sound and awful colour (thankfully Apple’s DVD player lets me tweak the colour) — but they are very cheap. The ‘digitally remastered’ Hong Kong DVD of Raise the Red Lantern is excellent.
It was intriguing to go back and watch one of the early collaborations between Zhang Yimou and Gong Li in the same week that The Curse of the Golden Flower opens in the UK. I’m looking forward to the opening, though I’m a little apprehensive after Gong Li was wasted in Miami Vice last summer.
Today I joined Keith to watch The Arch (Dong fu ren) in Bradford. We both enjoyed the film, but were a little puzzled by the season’s notes (presumably written by Mark Cousins). They tried to suggest that this was a film which heralded a new direction for Chinese Cinema in 1970 – essentially pre-dating the breakthrough of Yellow Earth in 1984 (or “pre-figuring the modernity that was to come”). I’m not sure about this. The Arch is certainly unusual and I’m not sure I’ve seen many films from Hong Kong/Taiwan of this vintage in order to make comparisons.
The Hong Kong print we saw was in good condition and at first I thought it was going to be a fairly slow romance set in that indeterminate past (the notes say the Ming Dynasty) often featured in Hong Kong Cinema. But as it got going it soon became evident that it was indeed a melodrama with a familiar central figure played by Lisa Lu (an actor with a long list of Hollywood credits), a woman who is driven to desperation by the rules of patriarchy which prevent her from having an emotional/sexual life in middle age (40!). Without reading the notes beforehand we both felt that this was a film with elements of Indian and Japanese cinema and possibly influences from further afield as well. A black and white melodrama in 1970 already feels slightly old-fashioned and the various devices that the notes suggest are ‘pre-figuring modernity’ are all more associated with 1950s and 60s cinema: freeze frames, use of soft focus/blur and what seemed like optical special effects that would not have been out of place in the 1920s.
The production context of The Arch is difficult to research. (One of the other audience members told us that the dialogue was Mandarin. At least one of the web references I was able to follow claims it as Cantonese. My ear is not reliable and I don’t understand either language, but by the sound I would have guessed Cantonese.) It was written and directed by Cecile Tang (Shu Shuen) who, according to IMDB, was 29 when she made the film. She then made four more Hong Kong features in the 1970s. The film was produced independently and was apparently photographed by Subrata Mitra, famous as Satyajit Ray’s cinematographer in Bengal in the 1960s. This isn’t corroborated on IMDB but perhaps explains why some of the shots looked familiar. The editing is attributed to Les Blank, a well known American independent filmmaker with a string of credits as director, cinematographer and editor. Overall, the film appears to be a conventional melodrama presented in a hybrid style. It obviously depends on audiences, but I saw several shots (the departure of the daughter across a lake, for example) that could have come from Mizoguchi and the use of visual devices that reminded me of early Kurosawa. I don’t think the Yellow Earth connection is valid, but programming the film alongside Judou and Two Stage Sisters as part of the evolution of Chinese melodrama makes sense.
The third film directed by Zhang Yimou, Judou forms the the second part of the trilogy of period melodramas that the director made with the young Gong Li. It followed Red Sorghum (1987) and preceded Raise the Red Lantern (1991). Viewed in 2007 when director and star have been reunited on the third part of another, rather different, trilogy with The Curse of the Golden Flower, Judou reminds us of both the range of Zhang Yimou’s visual imagination and of his central role in the renewal of Chinese Cinema after the rigours of the Cultural Revolution.
The first film of the Fifth Generation of Chinese directors to reach the West and to receive major critical attention was Yellow Earth (1984) directed by Chen Kaige. The striking visual qualities of that film, and of Chen’s follow-up, The Big Parade from 1986, were both attributable in large part to the cinematography of his classmate Zhang Yimou. Zhang also appeared as an actor in the Old Well (1986) and when he moved into directing he shared the credit with his colleague Yang Fengliang on Judou, as he had on the commercial thriller Codename Cougar (1989). Despite the joint credit, Judou has always been seen as primarily a ‘Zhang Yimou film’. Zhang did not photograph his own films and on Red Sorghum and Judou he worked with Gu Changwei. Yang Lun, who photographed Raise the Red Lantern, also worked on Judou.
Unlike Chen and Tian Zhuangzhuang, the other Fifth Generation director to achieve critical acclaim in the West, Zhang was from a ‘bad class background’ and he struggled to be accepted for the Film Academy. All the Fifth Generation films challenged the orthodoxy of cinema in the People’s Republic since 1949, but Zhang’s did so by means of revitalising the female-centred melodrama and the attractions of traditional genre cinema, presented by a visual artist with a genius for colour and composition. Where Chen and Tian might explore more ostensibly cerebral issues, Zhang’s approach was seemingly more basic in its appeal to eroticism and visual splendour.
Red Sorghum mixed family melodrama and the war with Japan in the 1930s and proved to be a massive commercial success in China. Its success overseas also enabled Zhang to get funding for Judou (mainly from Japan) and Raise the Red Lantern, films that were then viewed in the West as ‘arthouse’. The theme of all the films in the trilogy is the oppression of young women in the highly patriarchal system of China in the 1920s and 1930s. The popular success of Red Sorghum was not repeated in China with Judou, largely it would seem because the film fell foul of the Communist Party censors. There are major problems with any discussion of how films like Judou played in China on their release. We have little access to any reliable statistics on film distribution and audience numbers. The decisions taken by the censors in this period are not explained and do not seem to be consistent. Decisions may be made for personal, idiosyncratic reasons or because of changes in Communist Party policies. (Tony Rayns in the Monthly Film Bulletin review of Judou in April 1991 suggested that the official concerned had no real knowledge of film culture as such.) The result is that Western commentaries on Zhang’s career have often depended on perceptions of how the films were being seen by the authorities in Beijing. Films like Judou were perhaps more warmly received because they were thought to be banned in China, whereas later films such as The Story of Qiu Ju (1992), also starring Gong Li and written by Liu Heng, author of the novella Judou, were treated with some suspicion because they were thought to be ‘Party approved’.
Zhang’s long career has survived many changes in both official Chinese cultural policy and international film culture. It is worth noting that his directorial career began in the Xi’an Studio in Central China where he was able to experiment away from the more hierarchical major studios in Beijing and Shanghai (which would also be more accessible to the censors). The fact that Zhang has remained in China as a Chinese filmmaker (albeit often funded from overseas) suggests that he has always been to a certain extent his own man, making the films he wants to make despite how they may be perceived in terms of official ideologies. However, he has found himself caught in a trap which sees him as a ‘popular filmmaker’ in China and still as something of an arthouse director in the West – despite the big box office success in America of Hero in 2004. (But then, Hero was renamed ‘Jet Li’s Hero’ in North America, shifting attention to its star.)
Zhang Yimou is a visualiser, a creator of filmic narratives most often developed from previously published stories. All three films of the trilogy are based on stories that had been published only a few months before the films’ release. Zhang’s skill is in presenting the stories in a visual way and this he achieves through careful collaborative work with cinematographers and production designers. Judou is primarily about the use of sets rather than landscapes and much of the action is shot in the enclosed spaces of the dye works. As Rayns suggests, this inverts the approach taken in Red Sorghum where the action is often viewed from outside the brewery. But it is followed by a similarly ‘interior drama’ in Raise the Red Lantern. Also inverted is the sense of lives destroyed by outside forces (i.e. the Japanese invaders) in Red Sorghum. In the two succeeding films, the impetus for destruction comes from within.
Judou feels ‘modern’ in its direct representation of the emotional (and sexual) lives of its characters, yet visually it draws on compositions that evoke earlier films from international cinema. The set is very well-used. Rayns points to the way in which Zhang denies us a coherent sense of the layout of the dye works. We are aware only of the importance of the loft, the cellar, the stable, the tank in which the dyes are mixed, the winding gear for the drying racks etc. The cinematography shows us the processes in a montage style reminiscent of Soviet Cinema of the 1920s/30s but it signals emotional turmoil rather than craft and industry.
Judou is clearly a melodrama in terms of its set of characters and relationships, but it doesn’t match ideas about melodrama from other cinemas, nor indeed from traditional Chinese Cinema. Rayns points out that the social context of 1920s rural life is evident off-screen, but played down in the interior world. At the same time, the confrontations of conventional melodramas are also less in evidence, certainly on the level of dialogue or music. Instead, the film is primarily visual. The explanation for the film’s effect and its status as a ‘modern-spirited folk tale’, as Rayns puts it, is perhaps best articulated in an essay by Jenny Kwok Wah Lau (1994). She presents Judou as a film that explores a specific form of traditional Chinese painting – the ‘portrait painting’ that was largely replaced by ‘landscape painting’ after the Tang dynasty in 11th and 12th Centuries AD. She suggests that Zhan’s shot selection “makes use of the four elements in classical Chinese portraiture; that is, posture, facial expression, spacing, and environment to delineate not body forms but the spirit of, and the relation between, the characters.”
Traditional Chinese art did not of course follow the perspectives of Western art post the Renaissance, so, in compositional terms, the influence of such portrait painting ideas would automatically create tensions within a cinematic presentation (i.e. the representation of 3D space in a 2D medium). This perhaps explains why Judou sometimes feels ‘odd’. Zhang uses a number of ‘flat’, head-on formal compostions as well as several high and low angles. This play with the depth of the image is also affected by the use of lighting. Kwok Wah Lau argues that whereas conventional Western lighting techniques are used to ‘sculpt’ the image, creating depth, Zhang uses lighting in Judou to emphasise the two-dimensionality of the painting style.
The result of this approach is that more emphasis is placed on colour. Judou is first and foremost a narrative that uses colour – it is set in a dye works! In this respect it is worth considering the film alongside Hero – another occasion in which colour is primary, but one in which the functional basis for the division into different ‘story colours’ is more obvious. In Judou the use of reds and yellows and blues and blacks is much more subtle, though no less beautiful. In 1991 when the film appeared in the West it provoked admiring comments from film critics who claimed that it offered the kinds of colours not seen in the West since the demise of original Technicolor. After the traditional Technicolor process was replaced by cheaper Eastmancolor etc., one of the Technicolor plants (the one in the UK) was stripped and the equipment sold to China. It is claimed that this was the equipment used to process the negative for Judou.
The ‘portrait painting’ of Judou can be related to the ‘landscape painting’ of Yellow Earth. In Judou the effect is (according to Kwok Wah Lau) of “highly idiosyncratic expression” forcing us to react to the terrible consequences of the patriarchial oppression suffered by Judou. (Mary Farquhar (2002) points out, however, that Zhang’s beautiful women are not just to be looked at in the patriarchal gaze, “. . . these women also look back and in actively looking they also choose their destinies.” The ‘landscape’ approach in Yellow Earth is of a more distanced contemplation. However, the films are complementary in that both effectively critique the official socialist realism that characterised Chinese Cinema from the 1950s onwards. They were therefore both open to the charge of ‘negative portrayals of rural Chinese life’.
Judou appeared in the West (and was banned in China) not long after the Tiananmen Square uprisings of 1989. Because the film is so ‘open’ to interpretation in its presentation and storytelling, it is possible to read the narrative as both/either a condemnation of feudal patriarchy (subsequently overthrown by the PRC) or of the ‘old men’ who repressed democracy on 4 June 1989.
Mary Farquhar (2002) ‘Zhang Yimou’ on: www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/directors/02/zhang.html
Jenny Kwok Wah Lau (1994) ‘Judou: An experiment in Color and Portaiture in Chinese Cinema’ in Ehrlich and Desser (eds) Cinematic Landscapes, Austin: University of Texas Press
Tony Rayns (1991) Review of ‘Judou’, Monthly Film Bulletin, April
Notes by Roy Stafford for a Cornerhouse, Manchester screening 10/4/2007