Auteur Film Theory: Zhang Yimou
Zhang Yimou is one of the most renowned Chinese filmmakers of all time. According to Michael Berry, “No other director in China has generated as much respect, adoration, controversy, and criticism as Zhang Yimou” (Berry 110). The auteur film theory, one that claims that the director has main artistic influence on a film, seems to fit Zhang Yimou and his vast collection of work. His films are similar because of his unique use of color, cinematography, literary adaptation, portrayals of oppression, and social criticism. Although not all of his movies are the same, in this paper I will prove that Zhang Yimou fits the auteur film theory because of the many similar structural and narrative features that reoccur in his films.
One common structural element that seems to be a part of all of Zhang Yimou’s movies is his emphasis on color. In Yellow Earth, in which he was cinematographer, the color pallet was mainly plain except for red as in the wedding ceremony and Cuiqiao’s coat. His work as cinematographer clearly influenced his later work, and emphasis on the color red was also seen in The Road Home when Zhang Ziyi’s character Di was making a red banner for the school, a sign of good luck. Red was also an important color in Raise the Red Lantern; it was the color of the lanterns and symbolized power given to the wife that evening, as well as tradition. Also in To Live the color red was used to represent death at the end of each period of time when Fugui’s friend, his son, his daughter died. Zhang Yimou also used color to denote a change in seasons or time as in Hero, where for each version of the story the costumes change to a different color. There was also a similar color pallet change throughout House of Flying Daggers as the seasons changed. In Michael Berry’s interview with Zhang Yimou, he asks him specifically regarding his use of colors. Mr. Zhang says, “I don't have a real logical explanation for my attraction to colors…perhaps it has to do with my personality or disposition, or maybe my background growing up” (Berry 116). Although Zhang Yimou may not have a specific reason for using colors as such an integral part of his movies, it is clear that they do help define his films. Zhang Yimou’s creative use of color throughout his films provides us with clear evidence that he fits the criteria for the auteur film theory.
In many of his films, Zhang Yimou also seems to use literature adaptations that portray characters that were repressed by some kind of social or political power. Tragic characters such as Fugui in To Live, Songlian in Raise the Red Lantern, Cuiqiao in Yellow Earth, the nameless hero in Hero, and also Mei in House of Flying Daggers. In all of these films the main character either dies or suffers a great loss in their lives. These films also often deal with the empowerment of women against traditional norms or political power such as Flying Snow in Hero, Songlian in Raise the Red Lantern, Di in The Road Home, and Mei in House of Flying Daggers. Also Zhang Yimou casts many of the same actors to play these roles, such as Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi; he was influential in launching both of these actresses’ careers. Most of his screenplays are adaptations of Chinese literature, with some exceptions such as Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Of his many literature adaptations Zhang Yimou has said, “Literature has had an extremely powerful impact on my work, but at the end of the day, I always feel that I am only a director.” (122). From this passage Zhang Yimou illustrates his need to use other peoples’ literary works, but ultimately he adds his own artistic vision on the film. The many common narrative and story features in his films point to Zhang Yimou as the ultimate author.
Some would say that Zhang Yimou’s earlier films were more critical of Chinese government and politics, but recently they have eased in social criticism. His earlier fifth generation films such as Yellow Earth, Raise the Red Lantern, and To Live prominently feature social criticism, especially of the communist government. In Yellow Earth, the soldier Guqing gathers songs that are eventually of no use, showing the inefficiency of the CCP; also the many long shots and the drought show the CCP’s powerlessness compared to nature. In Raise the Red Lantern it features a microcosm of Chinese society under communist rule; the wives seemed to represent different groups of people in Chinese society. The first wife seemed to represent those that were submissive and did not question authority, the second wife seemed to represent true Maoists, the third wife seemed to represent the rebels that were killed, and the fourth wife seemed to represent silenced intellectuals. In To Live, we see many hardships in Fugui’s life because of communist rule. He tries to avoid any situation that would label him counter-revolutionary, and so forces his tired son to a school event where he is accentually killed. Also at the time of his grandson’s birth, the Cultural Revolution had forced doctors out of the hospitals, so his daughter dies in labor. At the end of the film, Fugui doesn’t say communism will bring greatness, as he did to his son earlier; this is similar to Yellow Earth when Cuiqiao is cut off in her song and doesn’t say the full name of the communist party. In all of these films Zhang Yimou surely was trying to express some political criticism against the CCP and of the Cultural Revolution.
Even though Zhang Yimou’s fifth generation films were often featured social criticism, in recent films such as The Road Home, Hero, and House of Flying Daggers Zhang Yimou seems to avoid these political issues and cater to western audiences. In response to this criticism he has said, “The most attractive subject matter for me to make films about is the Cultural Revolution” (Berry 129). From this passage we can see that the Cultural Revolution is a subject very close to Zhang Yimou’s heart that he wishes to portray. However presently there is a ban in China on making films about the Cultural Revolution; for instance his film To Live was banned for this reason (129). Some critics think that his recent films are an attempt to cater foreign markets and the Chinese government, but it seems that the real reason for this shift is that he has been working under censorship constraints. His films do seem to be catering to western audiences and to the CPP. However his recent films still have many of his key artistic characteristics; Hero and House of Flying daggers still feature his signature use of cinematography, color, and repressed figures. It does seem that Zhang Yimou is unable to openly portray the Cultural Revolution in recent films, although they still stylistically belong to him.
Zhang Yimou’s films are most all distinctly Zhang Yimou, and have similar artistic characteristics. Of his films Zhang Yimou said, “All of my films may have been successes or failures, but at the very least, they were all my films; I had an attachment to each one and was really involved with every aspect of the production.” (Berry 126). From this passage it is clear that Zhang Yimou is not a passive director, but a hands-on artist with a lot of power over the final artistic product of his films. Although Zhang Yimou’s films are all different, they all have similar themes and were heavily influenced by his artistic style. His use of color, cinematography, literary adaptation, and depictions of repressed figures and political ideals show throughout most of his films. Zhang Yimou’s films can surely be considered to fit the auteur film theory.
Berry, M. (2005). Zhang Yimou: Flying Colors. In Speaking in images: Interviews with
Contemporary Chinese filmmakers. 110-36. New York: Columbia University Press.
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