MONTREAL — CHINESE movies are enjoying a rising profile in the Western world.
This is due partly to the efforts of Zhang Yimou, whose films have proved surprisingly resonant with American audiences. "Raise the Red Lantern," his story of a poor woman who becomes a rich lord's bride, has become a long-lasting hit in art theaters - following the similar success of "Ju Dou" and "Red Sorghum," his two previous films. His latest work, "The Story of Qiu Ju," was enthusiastically received at the New York Film Festival this season and should be arriving on commercial screens in the near fu ture.
Meanwhile, films by other Chinese directors made strong impressions in the official competition at Montreal's respected World Film Festival recently. "Heartstrings," by Sun Zhou, is the gentle story of a boy's relationship with an elderly, set-in-his-ways grandfather. "Bloody Morning," by Li Shaohong, is the much darker tale of a murder committed to save "family honor" in a provincial town. Based on a novel by Latin American author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, it was banned for two years in China before recei ving clearance for festival exhibition.
What all these films have in common is an ability to comment on life in Chinese society - still caught between an ancient cultural tradition and a dogmatic, authoritarian government - while appearing relevant and dramatic to audiences in distant parts of the world.
This is not an easy tightrope for filmmakers to walk, however - as Mr. Zhang discovered when Chinese authorities tried to withdraw his "Ju Dou" from the Academy Awards race a couple of years ago, and as Ms. Li found when her "Bloody Morning" was removed from Chinese theaters shortly after its release.
Such problems with officialdom can affect a filmmaker's later work. This appears to have been the case when Zhang followed the vivid, boisterous "Ju Dou" with the static and tightly controlled "Raise the Red Lantern." It replaced freewheeling melodrama with a relentlessly formal concentration on the charms and talents of Gong Li, the gifted Chinese star who played the leading role in both movies.
It is heartening to report that Zhang's new film, "The Story of Qiu Ju," heads in a direction exactly opposite that of "Raise the Red Lantern." The new movie tells the deliciously likable story of a woman (Ms. Gong) determined to redress a wrong suffered by her husband - no matter how many officials, bureaucrats, and authorities she has to win over to her side. Zhang not only tackles a whole new style here, but masters it on the very first try, capturing the colorful details of everyday rural life with v erve, energy, and humor. It could become his most popular film with Western audiences when it hits the theatrical circuit.
Li, the director of "Bloody Morning," is in a different position from Zhang, her most famous colleague. She is just now beginning to reach for recognition in the West, partly because of the delay caused when "Bloody Morning" was shelved by her own government. Between screenings at the Montreal filmfest, I asked her why the movie ran afoul of the Chinese government, and she replied that no official reason was conveyed to her.
"I imagine they didn't want this kind of film to be thought representative of the Chinese situation," she speculated, speaking through an interpreter. She noted that her movie is "dark and rather tragic" with its tale of a double wedding, a groom who feels betrayed by his "impure" bride, and deadly violence that follows.
"I was really just trying to tell a story," she said, "but [the authorities] didn't see that. They thought I might be criticizing a certain part of the Chinese people. On points like this it's quite difficult for us directors and creative people to communicate with bureaucrats!"
Those bureaucrats may also have resented the film's implicit statement on the place of intellectuals in Chinese society - a statement that almost becomes explicit when villagers fail to stop the killing of a schoolteacher because he simply isn't important in their lives.
"This is a comment on society's attitude toward a new kind of culture and influence coming into Chinese life," Li acknowledged when asked about this aspect of her movie. "Chinese culture has been independent and singular, with a long history of not accepting outside influence and staying very true to itself. The process of having to...integrate, interact, and accept outside influence is a painful and difficult transition."
DESPITE her recent problems with official regulation, Li says conditions have become somewhat more free in Chinese cinema lately. "It feels more open than it was," she told me. "The basic steps of getting a film made are still the same. Many people must approve the script at different stages of production ... and there's a whole series of other censorships after the film is finished. Still, the opportunities to make films are increasing, since foreign money is coming in. The overall atmosphere - in choo sing what you'll shoot, and how you'll arrange and organize a production - is a little easier and more relaxed than it used to be."