Tagged: Zhang Yimou

Hero (China/Hong Kong 2002) – Narrative analysis

(These notes were written for a student event on Film Narrative. Hero was the case study film. The students had seen the whole film, so there are major SPOILERS here – you have been warned!)

Everyone is familiar with the conventions of the Hollywood film narrative. This isn’t a reason not to study Hollywood – or to take the conventions for granted. Hollywood, as befits the dominant institution in cinema across the world, is highly dynamic and constantly evolving in terms of film narrative. However, it is often difficult to analyse the films you know best. It helps to have some ‘distance’ from the films we study and one way to do this is to study some films that are ‘not Hollywood’ in order to make comparisons. Often by ‘comparing and contrasting’ similar films from different systems we notice much more about them than if we looked at only one system.

Maggie Cheung as .. in the red sequence

Maggie Cheung as Flying Snow in the red sequence

Hero is a film that is recognisable as a traditional Chinese genre, first from literature and then from cinema. The wu xia pian or ‘martial chivalry film’ has gone through several cycles of popularity in the cinemas of the ‘three Chinas’ (‘mainland China’, Hong Kong and Taiwan) since the early 1950s. The genre has been affected by events outside China, not least the worldwide success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (US/China/Taiwan/Hong Kong 2000). The director of Crouching Tiger was Ang Lee, a Chinese-American who made the film as a tribute to the films he had enjoyed as a child in Taiwan.

Hero could not have been made on the scale (i.e. with the budget) that is apparent on screen without the success of Crouching Tiger. Although Hero has a Chinese director, Zhang Yimou, he is known in the West for his ‘art films’, most of which have been melodramas – not ‘action films’ in the Western sense. The four big stars of Hero are divided into two who are widely known for ‘non-action’ roles in Hong Kong Cinema (Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung) and two genuine martial arts stars who have moved from Hong Kong to Hollywood (Jet Li and Donnie Yen). Because of these ‘global considerations’ and the backgrounds of the individuals concerned, Hero could not be a straight ‘martial chivalry’ picture – and this means it will have found different audiences, who will have ‘read’ the film in different ways.

Narrative Structure
Hero uses the narrative device known as a ‘flashback’. The film starts in the present (a ‘present’ 2,200 years ago) and then Nameless begins to tell his story, allowing narrative time to be ‘re-wound’. But there is a twist since it becomes apparent that Nameless may not be a reliable narrator. He is prompted by the King to remember things differently, so that we experience some of the same events twice with different outcomes as the stories are re-told. Towards the end of the film, the narrative returns to the present and in this final sequence we experience events in parallel – what is happening to Nameless in the palace and what is happening to Broken Sword and Flying Snow in the mountains.

This kind of narrative structure is not unique, although it is unusual. It fits a genre set in a ‘pre-industrial society’ where there are no cameras or audio recorders, no ‘evidence’ of what happened. It is part of an ‘oral tradition’ where people tell stories and within a wu xia it works because one aspect of a duel between warriors is ‘sizing up’ an opponent. Defeating an enemy is not all about action. It also involves psychology and out-thinking an enemy. Interestingly, one of the most famous films that used a similar structure was Rashômon (Japan 1950) – a film which director Zhang has referred to as an influence. Rashômon is set in 12th century Japan where a man is murdered and his wife raped. The accused is allowed to tell his story, which is very different from the wife’s. Then he changes his story and a witness gives a fourth version. The film raises the question “what is truth”. In Hero we get at least three different narrators. Nameless begins the story, but is then interrupted by the King and later by Broken Sword, both of whom recount their own experiences which Nameless would not necessarily know.

The different versions of events in Hero refer to an assassination plot (and a great romance) but the film does seem to end with a ‘resolution’. Nameless dies a hero’s death and Flying Snow dies with Broken Sword dead in her arms. China is eventually unified. But is this the end of the ‘story’? Because of the history of the writer-director and the nature of the wu xia genre, what do we take away from the story? Are we confident that the second version of events is more truthful than the first?

Questions of colour, cinematography etc.
The writer-director of Hero, Zhang Yimou, trained as a cinematographer in the Beijing Film School and emerged in the early 1980s as one of the ‘Fifth Generation’ of Chinese filmmakers. Several of the filmmakers from this period became famous around the world as their films received screenings overseas and won prizes at festivals. In the late 1980s China emerged from a long period of isolation from the rest of the world and many of the films seen in the West were interpreted as saying something about the history of China under Mao Zedong in the 1950s to 1970s – not directly, but by means of metaphor.

Zhang Yimou began as a cinematographer and then moved on to become a director. He quickly established a reputation as a director with enormous visual flair and in particular, the use of colour. At the beginning of his directing career he made three ‘period melodramas’, Red Sorghum (1987), Ju Dou (1990) and Raise the Red Lantern (1991). Ju Dou was set in a dye-works and you can probably work out from the other two titles that ‘red’ figures strongly in these films. All the films are very carefully ‘composed’ and controlled, so that each image is almost like an art photograph. At the centre of each image is a very beautiful woman, played in each case by Gong Li. In his last few films, Zhang has used his new protégé, Zhang Ziyi, who in Hero plays Moon.

A cinematographer who rivals Zhang Yimou for visual style in East Asian cinema is Chris Doyle. Although Australian by birth, Doyle settled in Hong Kong to learn his trade and became associated with the films of Wong Kar-Wai. Through this connection, he, like Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, gained a profile in the West. Doyle has been a very ‘experimental’ cinematographer pushing forward the boundaries of what can be achieved on film. The combination of Zhang and Doyle was bound to be special in some way. Complementing the two is Tan Dun, the composer of the score for Crouching Tiger, but generally not a prolific composer for cinema, being known in China and internationally for his symphonic work for the concert hall. The score uses traditional instruments and chants, but is also carefully mixed with sound effects, e.g. in the fight between Nameless and Sky, the sound of rain, the clatter of the blind musician’s stick, the clash of metal when sword meets spear etc.

Zhang Yimou’s previous work is relevant to an understanding of Hero, simply because it sets up an expectation that the colours in the films design will in some way have a political message. There are five sequences where a colour either predominates are is made ‘significant’ in a scene:

  • The King of Qin’s palace is grey/black, enlivened only by splashes of red. This forms the beginning and the end of the story and the overall feel of this sequence extends into the first fight between Nameless and Sky;
  • Red dominates the first version of the story by Nameless in which he describes the calligraphy school, the attack by the Qin army, the stabbing of Broken Sword and the subsequent fight between Flying Snow and Moon;
  • Blue becomes the colour for the second version of the story;
  • Green is the colour for the story that Nameless doesn’t necessarily know since it covers the first meeting of Broken Sword and Flying Snow and also the failed assassination attempt;
  • White is the final colour, dominating the deaths of Flying Snow and Broken Sword and alternating with the black sequences back in the palace.
Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung in the green sequence.

Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung in the green sequence.

What meanings might we give to each of these uses of colour? Zhang Ziyi only appears in the scenes away from the palace so she doesn’t appear in the ‘black’ scenes. In an interview she gave this response to a question about the other four colours:

. . . Hero uses the four colours, Red, Green, Blue and White, to tie in four different segments of the story. On the other hand, each of them also contains a different story. Green is the representation of reminiscing, blue is the struggle among the three of them [Nameless, Broken Sword and Flying Moon]. The layout is unique; it’s unlike traditional wu xia films. It has quite a bit of artistic love story. In addition, Hero is not a typical wuxia movie – its main theme is in no way the same as the past wuxia films, which are mostly about the seeking of vengeance or vying for the ultimate martial arts manual that leads to endless fights and killings. It is about the love and compassion of the heroes of the world, their magnanimity, and has a kind of international spirit. The costumes in Hero are also very special: one character, one design, and there are four different colours. I feel that it’s something very modern, in as much as being avant-garde. (www.wu-jing.org/News/M01/2002-01-Zhang-Ziyi-Hero.php)

And here is Zhang Yimou in another interview with IndieWire magazine:

IW: How did you come up with the color changes in the film: red, white, blue and green?
ZY: Hero is not a traditional martial arts movie. It’s very structurally presented. I like Rashômon, and thought I could use different colors to represent different parts in the movie.
IW: Why those particular colors, red, white and blue?
ZY: There’s no particular meaning to each color. I just needed the colors to represent . . .
IW: Points of view.
ZY: Yes, yes. Each color represents a different period and different [way of telling the] story . . . (www.indiewire.com/people/people_040827hero.html)

Zhang suggests that there is no relationship between the particular colour and what happens in the sequence. Perhaps we should be suspicious of any director who makes this kind of statement (he could be ‘playing’ with the interviewer, or perhaps he was just bored). Even if Zhang did not consciously choose a colour, we as the audience will respond to colours differently. Red is most often associated with ‘passion’ and ‘danger’. This is true in every society – red is the colour of blood. It has a further meaning in China where it could be a reference to the victory of communism. Blue is often a cold colour associated with water, whereas green is often associated with calm. White is slightly problematic since in some cultures it relates to purity and in others to death. White is the colour of mourning clothes in many parts of Asia.

If you want some more ideas about what the possible meanings of the colours might be, a detailed discussion is available on this website: www.spcnet.tv/movie/hero/movie_hero.shtml This review raises many interesting points about the mise en scène of Hero. Author R. Hu suggests that it bears all the signs of Zhang Yimou’s approach to mise en scène: “the use of water, blood red colours, pigments, drapes/fabric, aerial shots and box-like architectures”.

The palace of Qin is a good example of the ‘enclosing architecture’ (Zhang has said that he chose black to represent the Qin Dynasty), as is the interior of the calligraphy school. Contrast this with the ‘open’ exteriors, in particular the lake and the desert. Hu’s review is very long and detailed and it is only possible to highlight some of the points here, but you might like to consider:

The King of Qin’s version of the story which is shown in blue and has a strong circular motif (think of the circle of library scrolls within which Nameless performs the trick with the cup). This is repeated but with a subtly altered mise en scène in the white sequences. The circle represents the king’s view of strength and unity and blue is suggested as the colour of imagination (this is how the king would like the story to have unfolded?).

A great deal seems to hang on the ‘excess’ of water and the contrasting drought in the desert scenes. How many times does water seem to be important? When Broken Sword first meets Flying Snow it is by a waterfall, when Nameless fights Sky it is teeming with rain. When are the other times that water is featured?

“Although much is said about the various colour themes in this film, yet many do not similarly acknowledge the distinct construction of the mise en scène belonging to the various colour schemes. From the box-like enclosure of the Black/Grey sequences, we move into the disjunctive and disunited labyrinth of the Red sequence that contrasts with the perfect unity of the Blue sequence, the fluidity of the Green sequence and the vast expansions of drought and negative space of the desert scenes in the White sequence. The final moments of the film brings the viewers back full circle into the coffin-like confinement of the Black/Grey sequence which begins the film. Yet interestingly, the final shot of the movie is that of the Great Wall of China which though is a wall meant to exclude and confine, yet nevertheless expands into the distance so far, its end is that of which cannot be perceivable by the naked eye.”

Narrative resolution
The reactions of audiences towards the film in the West (it is more difficult to assess what they might be in China) often contrast what they perceive as a technically brilliant film with a rather disturbing political message. The ‘hero’ is a man who sacrifices himself to allow the King of Qin to unify the warring states and establish the Chinese Empire. This does not go down well in the West and many commentators have criticised Zhang Yimou who in the past has been both praised and damned for the assumed political messages of his films (equally, but in the opposite way, in Beijing and Washington). Much of the debate hinges on the final text that appears on the screen. In the Miramax version in the West it says ‘Our Land’, but Chinese scholars have suggested that the Chinese script actually means ‘under heaven’ or ‘the world’. Is the act of sacrifice that Nameless makes for ‘Chinese’ people or for all people?

It might be helpful to consider the importance of all the emphasis on the calligraphy and the symbol of the sword in the film. This importance comes from Broken Sword. Who is the real ‘hero’ of the film? Is it Nameless who certainly seems to be the main protagonist? Is it the King of Qin who creates the Empire of China? Or is it Broken Sword, from whom the whole idea of sacrificing oneself for the ‘greater good’ comes? It might be worth exploring what you think is the purpose of the love story between Broken Sword and Flying Snow and how this relates to the resolution of the film’s narrative.

If we want to understand the complexity and depth of the filmic narrative, it is essential that we know something about the genre elements in the film and what these might mean in terms of the expectations of the audience.

Hero has been described as a ‘wu xia pian’. Mandarin and English are different kinds of language and therefore translations are open to interpretations. We will work with a translation that suggests ‘martial arts chivalry film’. Such films are not well-known in the West with only Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Zhang’s follow-up film to Hero, House of Flying Daggers (2004) getting any kind of wide release. Western audiences are aware, however, of more contemporary martial arts films from Hong Kong, such as those of Bruce Lee in the 1970s and Jackie Chan in more recent times. Also, many audiences are familiar with the choreography of martial arts as it has been imported into Hollywood action films – everything from The Matrix trilogy to the Charlie’s Angels films.

Wu xia is a distinct genre and the martial arts ‘action’ is located in a period setting and in the context of specific conflicts related to the honor codes of the warriors. This means that:

  • the films are rooted in the specific cultural context of pre-modern China;


  • the repertoire of these films will share certain elements with similar genres in other cultures, e.g. the chanbara or ‘swordfight’ film from Japan and the ‘swashbuckler’/musketeers/knights tales from Europe and America. There could also be links to westerns and gangster films – those in which a notion of honour, loyalty and responsibility are important.

The important cultural roots in China mean that the actions of ‘warriors’ in wu xia are linked to forms of philosophy and traditions of training which involve apprentices and masters (so that in Hero, Broken Sword is attempting to master calligraphy and marry it to his swordfighting skills and Moon is his apprentice/page etc.). Warriors recognise each other according to the ‘schools’ which have trained them and will often remark on the quality of skills demonstrated. Other elements include:

  • ‘super powers’ – warriors are able to leap high and long and to hang in the air, their swordplay is more accurate and swifter than seems possible and they can defeat whole armies of lesser warriors;
  • related to these super powers, wu xia may also involve other fantasy elements including witchcraft, ghosts, out of body experiences etc.
  • the contests between warriors often take place in a specific location, away from the fictional world of mere mortals – often in a world of mountains, rivers, lakes and forests (jiang hu)
  • jiang hu is often in a state of ‘chaos’, caused by wars or corrupt officials who have recruited warriors to do evil things – the good warriors therefore have a mission to restore the balance in jiang hu and the ‘real world’
  • the mission may focus on some form of lost sacred object, often a scroll, a sword etc.
  • narratives will often focus on a hero with a mission who has to overcome some form of disability (thus blind or one-armed swordsmen are not uncommon);
  • families or ‘surrogate’ relationships are important, so that the son or daughter of a warrior may follow a parent into training;
  • the tradition of female warriors is not new and can be traced back to 1920s cinema in China (see Reynaud 2003). The modern female warrior possibly dates from an important Taiwanese film directed by King Hu, A Touch of Zen (1971).

Looking through this list of elements it is clear that Hero does use several elements from the repertoire.

  • male and female warriors (Nameless, Sky, Broken Sword and the King), Flying Snow and Moon, all except the King with ‘super’ powers;
  • there is a sense of jiang hu in the location of significant duels at the lake and in the forest etc.;
  • there is a sense of ‘chaos’ – arguably created by the King’s initial actions and then the hatred and revenge engendered in Nameless and Flying Snow in particular;
  • the focus on calligraphy is strong and Broken Sword’s mission to bring swordsmanship and brushwork together is a driving force in the narrative.

However, as the filmmakers have indicated, Hero is not a ‘pure’ or traditional wu xia. There are other elements that are important. The romance between Broken Sword and Flying Snow is essential to an understanding of the narrative. The questioning of the love of one for the other, the ‘tests’ of love, the anger and jealousy at suspected betrayal etc. are all elements from the love story. (Even if the jealousy was not ‘true’, it still features as an element.) These elements don’t invalidate an approach to the film as wu xia, instead they make it a richer and more complex text because they are essential in any reading of the narrative.

References and Further Reading
David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson (1997, 5th edition) Film Art, London and New York: McGraw Hill
Gill Branston and Roy Stafford (2002, 3rd ed) The Media Student’s Book, London: Routledge
Nick Lacey (1998) Image and Representation, London: Macmillan
Nick Lacey (2000) Narrative and Genre, London: Macmillan
Sharon Lin Tay (2004) Review in Sight & Sound, October

The explication of basic concepts in genre offered in this pack is extended in the resources pack on Key Concepts: Genre published by BFI Education Projects and itp publications in 2001.

http://members.tripod.com/~journeyeast/wuxia_pian.html (David Bordwell)
http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/03/26/sexual_politics_chinese_martial_arts.html (Reynaud)

Essay or discussion questions on Hero

1. How is the art of calligraphy represented in the film? Which of the characters is most associated with calligraphy and what is it that they do?

2. What is the role of the character Moon in the film’s narrative? What does she do and how significant is her role?

3. How strong is the love between Flying Snow and Broken Sword – how is this love represented?

4. How would you describe the ‘quest’ or ‘mission’ that drives the narrative of Hero?

5. List the main sequences in Hero according to the dominant colours (of costume, decor etc.). How would you explain the difference between the red, blue and green sequences?

6. How many of the ‘genre elements’ of wu xia have you seen being used in Hollywood films? Select one or two examples and explain how the same elements might be shared by Chinese cinema and Hollywood – and how they might be used differently.

7. How would you describe the King of Qin? Is he a sympathetic character or is he a villain? What kinds of evidence do you take into account in your decision?

8. There are several fight scenes in the film. How does the director attempt to make each fight different so that we don’t become bored?

9. How is sound used in the film? Are there moments you remember when a particular sound or passage of music is essential to understanding what is happening? Or does sound always simply support the image?

10. Why do you think water plays such an important part in several of the fight scenes?

Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (China/Hong Kong/Japan 2005)

Mr Takata and translator Jasmine.

Mr Takata and translator Jasmine.

Back to the DVD bargain bin again for another Chinese film not released theatrically in the UK. This time it’s Zhang Yimou’s 2005 film made between House of Flying Daggers and The Curse of the Golden Flower. Ironically, I watched this low-key film just a few days before Zhang Yimou stunned an enormous TV audience with his Olympic Games opening ceremony.

My take on Zhang Yimou is that he has proved to be adept at three different kinds of directorial activity: the expressionist melodrama (e.g. the ‘Red’ trilogy, including Raise the Red Lantern, the action spectacular and the neo-realist drama. Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles falls into the third category. The film is built around the weighty star persona of the Japanese star Takakura Ken, often referred to as the ‘Clint Eastwood’ of Japanese Cinema. All the Chinese characters in the film are played by non-professional actors, as in Zhang’s earlier Not One Less (1999). Takakura Ken plays Mr. Takata, a Japanese man in his seventies living quietly in a fishing village and long estranged from his only son, Kenichi. When the son is hospitalised in Tokyo, his wife contacts the old man, who learns that his son’s wish is to return to China to film a folk opera ‘Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles’ in the Western Chinese village where he has spent several years of research. The father, realising that the son is seriously ill and that he wants to do something to bring about a reconciliation, determines to go to China and film the opera himself, despite being unable to speak the language.

The trip is long and complicated and Mr Takata relies heavily on his translator Jasmine. A number of obstacles are thrown up, not least the temporary replacement of Jasmine by a local guide with only rudimentary Japanese. In the final part of the film, Mr Takata builds a relationship with a small boy who is himself the son of a father he hasn’t ever met (the man who is supposed to perform the central role in the opera).

The film runs a number of risks, not least that it will become overly sentimental and that it will lead to a feelgood ending – the kind of resolution often expected of a Hollywood film featuring a revered old actor and a ‘cute’ child. But this isn’t a Hollywood film and though there is an emotional charge to the narrative, Takakura Ken and Zhang Yimou are too highly skilled to mess it up. They both work exceptionally well with the non-professional cast. Perhaps the Eastwood comparison is apt. Takakura Ken does very little, but has enormous presence, matched only by the jaw-droppingly beautiful cinematography in the mountains. The ending of the film is not contrived and audiences prepared to think about the narrative as well as engage with the emotion should find it very rewarding.

The American reviews of the film are mixed. Some recognise its qualities and praise it highly, others find it ‘lightweight’. There are even some attempts to see the film as ‘propaganda’ for Chinese officialdom and the ‘happy lives’ of the village folk. It is of course a matter of taste, but I would argue that the film sits easily in the neo-realist tradition. The story is not contrived, the behaviour of characters makes sense in the situation and we learn something about human relationships – what’s not to like?

From a wider perspective, the film does begin to explore the Sino-Japanese relationship at a time when there has been some tension over the representation of the war of 1937-45. Zhang himself was responsible for the popular film Red Sorghum in which the brutality of the Japanese offensive was portrayed. In Riding Alone, we see the icon of urban Japanese action films taken to the rural Chinese hinterland and the attempts between the two to communicate on a basic human level. Interestingly, rather than film the Japanese scenes himself, Zhang appears to have delegated this task to the veteran Japanese director Furuhata Yasuo (who has worked wih Takakura Ken on big commercial pictures). The Japanese scenes are cool and quiet and visually present a sharp contrast with those in the village/towns of Western China. The two are often linked by phone conversations and this was one aspect of the film that reminded me of earlier comparisons I’ve tried to make between Zhang’s neo-realist films and those of recent Iranian Cinema. There is a scene in Abbas Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us (Iran 1999) in which an engineer from Tehran, visiting a remote village, has to climb a hill to get a mobile signal. In Riding Alone, a group of villagers follows Mr Takata around the village and onto the rooftops in a search for a signal. (In fact, the more I think about it, the more similar the two films become – in the Iranian film, the busy engineer travels to the village where a relative is dying and during his stay learns something about himself through observing village life.) I’m impressed that you can get through to Chinese villages from Tokyo on a mobile phone – there are parts of rural Northern England where getting a signal is very difficult.

The representation of Japanese technologies – phone, still camera, video camera and 4×4 vehicle – are very important in the story, but I was also reminded of recent Chinese films (e.g. the work of Jia Zhang-Ke, such as Unknown Pleasures, 2002) in which community music performances and local use of video technologies is key to the ‘New China’.

Riding Alone was distributed in North America by Sony and promoted as a Zhang Yimou film. I think it would have sold reasonably well in UK cinemas. I’d certainly recommend it.

Curse of the Golden Flower (Hong Kong/China 2006)

Gong Li and Zhang Yimou on set.

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.

Yellow Earth (China 1984)

The soldier is out of place in the village.

Yellow Earth was one of the most important films to appear in the 1980s, not just in China, but in the whole of global cinema. When it was released in the UK in 1986 it had an immediate impact and was recognised as one of the few films to be marked by a genuine attempt to create a ‘new’ kind of cinema. For the UK audience this was very much concerned with the cinematic qualities of the film – its use of colour, composition and framing and its use of sound to evoke an ‘unknown’ time and place. A similar response met Souleymane Cissé’s 1987 Malian film Yeelen which presented a different but related view of a sub-Saharan African culture. A further similarity between these two films is the background of their creative forces – filmmakers educated and trained in the context of European film culture, who then turn to their own traditional cultures to find stories to tell and an aesthetic through which to realise their vision.

All the Western scholars referenced here are agreed on the importance of the ‘auterist vision’ adopted by the trio of Beijing Film Academy graduates, director Chen Kaige, cinematographer Zhang Yimou and production designer He Qun. Where previous creative teams thought to realise Chinese films using a conventional mode of representation developed from the 1930s through the 1950s (Stage Sisters being a good example of such an approach), the Fifth Generation filmmakers on Yellow Earth looked to the traditions of Chinese painting and folksongs for a suitable aesthetic to convey a story that was also ‘different’ in its concerns. Although taken from a novel, the ideas contained in Yellow Earth were thoroughly re-worked for a film produced by the young filmmakers from their base in Guangxi, far from Beijing in Southern China. They travelled north to shoot on location and drew on a range of specifically local influences.

The ‘look’ of the film
Yellow Earth is set in Northern China on the Loess Plateau of Shanbei in Shaanxi province, where the soil is the result of a wind-blown fine silt carried to the region from the plains of Central Asia. The landscape is constantly being sculpted by wind and water erosion, producing deep gorges. Not only is the earth yellow, but the area is also traversed by the Yellow River – one of the major river systems of China. Zhang Yimou was born in the region and he went to great lengths to represent it on film – shooting at particular times of day to capture the range of yellows, ochres and browns in the soil. Traditional painting styles used bold colours and Yellow Earth also includes what have now become the almost trademark vivid reds of Zhang Yimou – all the more startling against the austere backdrops.

The framings frequently use the horizon line to comment on the importance to the characters of their environment. In a conventional landscape framing the horizon line might be place somewhere in the central third of the image, but Zhang pushes it further towards the top or bottom of the frame.

The compositions in Yellow Earth draw upon traditional modes of Chinese painting, especially those of the Shanbei region which see single human figures or trees, or small groups, set against the empty terrain. Sometimes the compositions can appear to mirror those of the ‘socialist realist’ tradition derived from Soviet Cinema (see the ‘heroic’ pose in the image above), but across the film they tend to present a very different visual style:

Yellow Earth rejected the aesthetics of social realism by critiquing them through traditional aesthetic codes. It contains a limited range of set images: earth, water, sky, mountains, a tree, a boat (all from the classical landscape painting tradition), and peasants, an ox, a cave home, a Party cadre and PLA soldiers (all Maoist images). (Berry and Farquhar, 1994:95)

Yellow Earth has a minimal story line. But, although little happens as such, there is narrative development through the lyrics of the songs. These are explored in some detail by Farquhar, who demonstrates that it is through the songs (and the singing) that the central discourse about bringing the ‘new’ (the Communist ideology) to the ‘old’ (the traditional life of the peasantry) is articulated. The re-writing of the lyrics of traditional songs was a major concern for the Party – ‘new wine in old bottles’, but, as Farquhar points out, the song collector misses the importance of the voice of the young woman.

Yin and yang
Farquhar’s 1992 analysis (also alluded to in her 1994 paper with Berry) explores what she calls the ‘hidden gender identity’ in the film. She suggests that the meaning of the film is hidden in its presentation of the people, the landscape and a minimal story. She uses the Taoist concepts of the yin and yang to foreground the story. The concepts do not relate directly to ‘men’ and ‘women’ but rather to gender principles which could be manifest in all things. Thus yin refers to the moon, the Earth, Autumn, Winter, darkness, water, femininity, death and stillness. Yang refers to sun, heaven, Spring, Summer, light, fire, masculinity, life, movement.

“The yang/yin structure of the film is not one of fixed gender confrontation, or simple patriarchy, but one of disharmonious relationships” (Farquhar 1992: 156)

Since the film begins with a memorable image of sky (yang) and earth (yin) and goes on to explore several other ‘elemental’ oppositions, it is clear that this approach to an analysis offers rich pickings.

The location of the film has a further symbolic power as it represents both the mythic birthplace of the Chinese people and the base from which the Communists went forward, after the Long March in the 1930s, to eventually wrestle control of the whole country from the Japanese and the Nationalists. Uniquely, it represents the birth of ‘old’ and ‘new’ China.

Farquhar recognises that the yin/yang approach offers only one reading of what is, as many audiences have discovered, a film which hides its meanings very carefully. But whatever approach we take to the film it is clear that it represented in 1984 a decisive break with the socialist realist tradition, not only in its aesthetics, but also in its lack of a clear central social message about the revolution. Indeed, it seems reasonably clear from the film that a central tenet of Maoist thought (and practice) is being challenged. Although the soldier and song-hunter Gu Qing is a sympathetic character with noble motives, he is too distanced by his own training to be able to understand the peasant world that he encounters and as a result he does not bring the promised transformation to the lives of Cuiqiao and her brother and father.

In their different ways, many Fifth Generation films would later question how the ‘modernisation’ offered by Maoism could engage with the traditional lives of people also being subjected to the external pressures of globalisation and consumerism. Like Yellow Earth, some films would look at the earlier decades of the twentieth century for a ‘way’ in to this question. In doing so, filmmakers like Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou would also have to withstand charges of ‘elitism’ from audiences, more used to ‘easy to understand’ narratives as well as attempts by the government to curtail activities that could be seen as critical of central policies – a tall order indeed.

Chris Berry and Mary Ann Farquhar (1994) ‘An Analysis of Yellow Earth and Black Cannon Incident’ in Herlich and Desser (eds) op cit.
Mary Ann Farquhar (1992) ‘The ‘hidden’ gender in Yellow Earth’ in Screen Vol 33 No 2.
Linda C. Herlich and David Desser (eds) (1994) Cinematic Landscapes, Austin: University of Texas Press
Tony Rayns (1986) ‘Review of Yellow Earth’ in Monthly Film Bulletin, Vol 53 No 633, October

Roy Stafford 3/5/07