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Zhang Yimou is a Chinese filmmaker, actor, producer, and screenwriter belonging to the group of the Fifth Generation of Chinese directors. He was born in the city of Xi’an in 1951 into a family of doctors. Being a laborer in the times of the Cultural Revolution, Zhang Yimou became interested in photography and painting. In 1978, he entered the Beijing Film Academy, where he studied together with future Fifth Generation filmmakers Tian Zhuangzhuang, Zhang Junzhao, and Chen Kaige. Having finished the Academy in 1988, Zhang Yimou shot his first film, Red Sorghum, which received the Golden Bear award (Tasker 412). Since that time, he has become one of the most internationally recognized Chinese directors. This essay analyzes the development of Yimou’s cinematographic style by examining some of the films he shot throughout his career.
The Main Topics of Zhang Yimou’s Films
A great part of Yimou’s films is dedicated to Chinese history. This includes both ancient (The House of Flying Daggers, Hero and Shadow) and XX century history (Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern, The Story of Qiu Ju, To Live and The Flowers of War). In films dedicated to ancient history, Yimou shows significant historical events through the lives of rulers and warlords, hired assassins, and conspirators. These films are aesthetically inspired by the Chinese national fantasy, the so-called Wuxia. This genre is distinguished by the presence of many well-performed but completely unrealistic combat scenes (“Wuxia”). Using the form of a high-budget semi-historical quasi-fantasy fighter, Yimou creates colorful films that address deep philosophical and political issues which have always been relevant.
Another part of Yimou’s filmography is devoted to the twentieth century, including the period of the Republic of China, China’s war with Japan, civil war, and life in communist China. He made films about this era mainly at the beginning of his career. In such films as The Story of Qiu Ju, Raise the Red Lantern, Red Sorghum, the director touches upon themes of woman’s position in society, the problem of poverty and inequality, exploitation, and state dictatorship.
Women in a Patriarchal Traditional Society
One of the most important themes in Zhang Yimou’s films, which he has repeatedly addressed throughout his career, is the oppressed position of women in a traditionally patriarchal society. In his Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern, Ju Dou, and Shadow, all main female characters have to enter into a marriage of convenience for the economic or political benefit of their families. Nevertheless, they never lose heart and try to find a way out of the situation, but each of the heroines does it her own way.
Raise the Red Lantern’s main character, Songlian, has to marry an old rich feudal lord and become his fourth wife to help her family (Raise the Red Lantern). Despite this, she is a strong-willed woman with a sense of dignity. The character’s entourage, represented by the husband and three other wives, tries to suppress the heroine, but she does not give up and defends her honor. However, Songlian still has to adapt to the surroundings and begins to exploit a servant, forcing her to do the chores and making everyone please her after she lies about her pregnancy.
In Red Sorghum, the heroine, in contrast, gives up her feudal preferences after her husband, whom she married so that her family could get a black mule, dies (Red Sorghum). She has a kind and compassionate personality; therefore, she refuses hierarchical relations with servants, asks them to call her by her name, and treats the workers as equal in status. At heart, the heroine remains a simple girl from a low-income family and falls in love with one of the peasants.
Another example of a strong female character can be seen in the film Shadow. One of the film’s antagonists, the cowardly prince, agrees to give his sister away as a concubine to the warlord of the hostile state in order to avoid war (Shadow). Despite her tears, he says it is necessary to preserve the integrity of the state when in reality, he is willing to do anything to keep his position. His sister secretly infiltrates the ranks of the secret army and kills the warlord during the attack on the enemy city, avenging her honor.
In all of these films, however, women meet a tragic end. The Red Sorghum’s protagonist dies from a Japanese bullet; Shadow’s female character is killed in a fight with her assailant. In the film Raise the Red Lantern, the heroine goes mad after seeing the cruel execution of one of the mistresses. These women can fight the brutal reality, but the traditional Chinese world is too powerful for them, so it manages to suppress them.
Visual Components, Symbolism, and the Use of Color
The colorful image is one of the main conspicuous things in Zhang Yimou’s films. The rich visual component of the film was noted by many, including Yimou’s friend Steven Spielberg (“Zhang Yimou”). Zhang Yimou’s movies are characterized by a particular visual style. It includes the vivid and expressive use of colors, the desire to achieve symmetry of the frame, the use of slow motion, a frequent focus on nature and its forces.
The action of Red Sorghum takes place in a small Chinese village, and the visual component of the film perfectly conveys the mood of the countryside (Red Sorghum). The endless sorghum fields are always illuminated by the burning sunlight, and the sky is always bright blue. The film is shot in bright colors of yellow, brown, and red. It makes the film’s color scheme simple and even primitive, which perfectly accentuates the mood of the film and is suitable for a peasants’ story.
In contrast to Red Sorghum’s chaotic visualization, the visual component in Raise the Red Lantern is more ordered and precise. The movie can be called a one-location film, as it takes place at the same manor. The story is completely different from Red Sorghum, and Yimou decided to shoot the film another way. He used new visual techniques, such as the symmetry of the frame and the tendency to make wide shots. The director also tried to shoot outdoor scenes from the roof of the buildings without just using the same points in the house.
Both films include the word “red” in their titles; therefore, there is a lot of red color in them. In Red Sorghum, red is the color of sorghum fields, of the wine that the characters make and drink, and of blood that they spill. In Raise the Red Lantern, red is the color of lamps that are lit in the house of a mistress with whom the husband is going to sleep at night. The red color was a very important part of Chinese culture, both in ancient times and nowadays under the Communist Party rule, so the use of it conveys the director’s Chinese roots.
However, the red color in Yimou’s films can be interpreted differently. In Red Sorghum, red has at the same time a revolutionary shade. It symbolizes the characters’ happiness, as they eliminate exploitation and hierarchy and create an equal society in which they work, drink wine, and rest with joy. However, red also warns of the Japanese army’s arrival and their future atrocities. In Raise the Red Lantern, red stands for lust and sexual tension, and in Hero it symbolizes lies.
Hero can be called one of the brightest and most visually exciting Yimou films. To create this film, the director invited the renowned cameraman Christopher Doyle, who is best known for his collaboration with Wong Kar-wai, a Hong Kong director. Kar-wai, similar to Yimou, is known for his expressive use of colors and rich visual components. He also addressed Chinese history in some of his films, namely, Ashes of Time, filmed by Doyle, and The Grandmaster. Doyle helped create a completely new image that was needed to tell the epic story of the assassination attempt against the Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the founder of the Chinese Empire.
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In Hero, there is a large number of well-arranged fighting scenes, for which Yimou used various special effects. With the use of computer graphics, during fights, characters jump very high and fly over long distances, breaking all the laws of physics, with slow-motion making it even more spectacular. However, the key visual tool in the film is a very unusual use of color. The plot uses the technique of an unreliable narrator and provides the viewer with several novellas that tell the same story but from different angles (Hero). The first story is entirely false and is shot in red, the second symbolizes doubt and comprises blue color, and the third depicts true events and is done in white. Such a decision made Hero a colorful and varied film.
In Shadow, Yimou abandoned the colorful style of Hero and made his most recent film in black-and-white and grey shades. This artistic decision manages to convey the main idea of the film, which is the duality of human nature. One of the most important concepts in Chinese philosophy is Yin and Yang, the division of everything into two opposites: white and black, male and female, fire and water (“Yinyang”). The plot of the film is also based on conflicting opposites. Among them are the struggle between man and his shadow; the conflict between two warring kingdoms, one symbolizing masculine power and the other feminine power, with the Yin side ultimately winning (Shadow). The protagonists use the female element of water to defeat the male fire, and the Shadow eventually defeats his master. Thus, the use of black, white, and gray colors highlights the main theme and symbolism of the film.
Summing up, the bright visual component of Yimou’s films is one of his main features as a director. He uses the richness of color tones and the beautiful photographic work to narrate interesting stories that are full of symbolism and philosophy. In his early work, he mostly made simple, low-budget paintings of ordinary people’s problems. An important part of this was the plight of Chinese women in traditional society, who were forced to serve men. In the aftermath, Yimou became a saught-after director shooting epic high-budget historical and fantasy movies, popular among spectators, critics, and film lovers for high artistic quality. His best films from these two periods were successful at the box office and among critics. Thus, Zhang Yimou is one of the most popular Chinese directors who deserves attention for the high quality of his films.
“Wuxia, a Key to Chinese Language and Culture.” Hacking Chinese, Web.
“Yinyang.” Britannica, Web.
“Zhang Yimou.” Asia Society, Web.
Hero. Directed by Zhang Yimou, Miramax, 2002.
Raise the Red Lantern. Directed by Zhang Yimou, Orion Classics, 1991.
Red Sorghum. Directed by Zhang Yimou, New Yorker Films, 1987.
Shadow. Directed by Zhang Yimou, Le Vision Pictures, 2018.
Tasker, Yvonne. “Zhang Yimou”. Fifty Contemporary Filmmakers, Routledge, 2002, pp. 411-417.