The Personal Is Political for a Chinese Director

Zhang Yimou talks about history, violence, and China's rush toward materialism - and how these affect his films

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When movies are at issue, China's government has a remarkable talent for embarassing itself in public. And the country's most renowned filmmaker, Zhang Yimou, is often the figure at the center of the storm.

The most recent incident was touched off when Zhang's old-fashioned mobster epic, ''Shanghai Triad,'' was selected by the New York Film Festival for its coveted opening-night slot. Angered by the presence of a completely unrelated movie in the festival - a documentary called ''The Gate of Heavenly Peace,'' about China's democracy movement - the Chinese authorities revoked permission for Mr. Zhang to attend the gala screening of his film.

The result: more press coverage for ''Shanghai Triad,'' for Zhang himself, and for the documentary than would ever have happened otherwise.

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Something similar happened when China kept Zhang from the Cannes Film Festival two years ago. His drama ''To Live'' was being honored with a slot in the official competition, irking authorities who found the movie too critical in its view of recent Chinese history.

A press conference for the director went forward as planned - with a conspicuously empty seat at center stage, reminding the world that a towering artist would have been present if not for governmental petulance. ''To Live'' is still unreleased in China.

And fans in the United States still remember when Chinese authorities tried to have Zhang's brilliant ''Ju Dou'' yanked from the Academy Award race, simply because the film's sardonic melodrama struck them as too downbeat for international consumption.

Zhang didn't make it to New York in 1995, but he did make it to Cannes in May, and I seized the opportunity to continue an intermittent dialogue I've had with him since our first meeting eight years ago. Meeting with a handful of journalists on a sunny balcony of the Grand Hotel, he proved as outgoing and articulate as ever.

Unlike most of Zhang's previous pictures, beginning with the rowdy ''Red Sorghum'' and continuing through works like the elegant ''Raise the Red Lantern'' and the ironic ''Story of Qiu Ju,'' the new ''Shanghai Triad'' is a straightforward genre piece with few subtexts or complexities. Set in Shanghai during the 1930s, it centers on a teenage boy who becomes the servant of a ''Godfather''-type crime boss and his mistress, a brassy cabaret singer.

''There's not much politics in this film,'' Zhang acknowledged through an interpreter. ''To be honest, after the 'To Live' incident, I am a bit tired.''

Still, the picture does make implicit comments on the current state of Chinese life through its portrait of Shanghai's excesses some 60 years ago.

''In its depiction of the world the boy enters,'' Zhang explains, ''the film has parallels with today's China - in terms of how materialistic society has become, and how this influences people's views of money and [their] chase after material goods, and how this affects human relations.... If you go to China today and talk to people, they'll be telling you [only] how they want to make money and improve their livelihoods. We want to convey that in the movie.''

To carry this message, Zhang selected the ''Godfather'' genre rather than a format that might appear more neutral. The choice suggests that his views of current Chinese trends are not optimistic, and his conversation bears this out. ''I think the country will become more and more materialistic,'' he says. ''We're heading in that direction. I'm interested in asking the question: As our livelihood improves, how can we maintain our more human side? From this point of view, one can say [the film] is somewhat political.''

Another timely issue raised by ''Shanghai Triad'' is that of violence - on the screen and in the world.

''In the 2,000 years of [Chinese] history,'' Zhang says when asked about this, ''there are many cruel tales of violence. It doesn't exist just today, or in the last 100 years. In the vision of [former Chinese leader Mao Zedong], violence is normal.... Power struggle [in China] has been a normal way of power transition - to eliminate the enemy physically. In today's Chinese cities, this question keeps popping up - whether to eliminate one's enemy physically.''

All of which has led Zhang to a strong reaction against violence in his life and work, including ''Shanghai Triad,'' which contains some mayhem but treats it with more restraint than one finds in typical Hollywood productions.

''I am someone who abhors violence,'' he says with conviction. ''There's not much gangster violence in my own experience, but as I was growing up there was a lot of violence connected with politics ... which turned family members against each other. I saw people beaten up for political reasons, and my family has repeatedly been struggled against. All this made an impression on me.... I keep thinking about why violence exists in such a way, to tear people apart.''

Zhang is also fascinated by the stories he's heard about real mobsters of the 1920s and '30s, whose activities went beyond the realm of crime and into the political arena. ''My intention in the film is not to depict organized crime coming to China,'' he explains, ''or how violence exists in gangster movies. I'm interested in violence and human relations - how violence affects the humanity behind the characters.''

These thoughts helped motivate Zhang's treatment of the gangster's girlfriend. She enjoys a superficially easy life but knows she can't trust any of the dangerous men who hover around her. Eventually she confides in a woman she meets when the gang is in hiding, and she starts to grow closer to the young boy at the center of the story.

''They're not from the same class position,'' Zhang notes, ''but there's the beginning of a relationship between them. What my movie wants to say is that it's important to build up understanding between people, to get rid of hostility and opposition.''

If such understandings do come about and flourish, the result could be an improvement in Chinese life. ''I think the Chinese people have been thinking about this issue,'' Zhang says of social conflict and violence, ''and are heading toward a more liberal answer. I think China will take some time to become a more liberal society, however, and it won't be as simple as Westerners might think, because [the nation] is carrying a big [historical] burden.''

The character of the girlfriend is played by Gong Li, who has starred in all of Zhang's major films. She was also widely praised in 1993 for her work in the popular ''Farewell My Concubine,'' directed by Chen Kaige, another member of the ''Fifth Generation'' group that revitalized Chinese cinema after the tumultuous Cultural Revolution period.

Gong and Zhang ended their long-term personal relationship while ''Shanghai Triad'' was in production, and some observers feared this bad ''chemistry'' might sour the movie. But happily, most critics have applauded her for yet another rich performance, reconfirming her as one of today's most versatile actresses.

''She is a very good actress,'' Zhang enthusiastically agrees. ''We have a very successful collaboration, and without her, many of my movies would not be so good.''

Accordingly, he seems open to the idea of future teamwork with her.

''Any good director likes to work with a good actress,'' he says. ''There's a Chinese saying: As long as there's the right time element and the right people are together, anything is possible.''

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