The Big Parade
Raise the Red Lantern
Fists of Fury
Peking Opera Blues
A Chinese Ghost Story
A Better Tomorrow
Once Upon a Time in China
A Touch of Zen
A Terra-Cotta Warrior
In a coincidence of programming in New York City a selection of the commercially most successful Hong Kong movies of the 1980s ran at the same time as a retrospective of work (some of it only marginally released in its country of origin) by the director and cinematographer Zhang Yimou, who lives in the People’s Republic and whose recent film Raise the Red Lantern was showing independently in New York. The contrast could hardly have been more extreme. While confirming that both China and Hong Kong have produced some of the most exhilarating films of the 1980s, the two series seemed to differentiate not so much two regions or political systems as two universes, universes nonetheless scheduled to merge seamlessly in five years, when Britain’s 150-year-rule over the Crown Colony finally ends.
Zhang Yimou is by now the best known of China’s “Fifth Generation” directors. Their movies, such as Zhang’s Red Sorghum (1987), Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth (1984), and Tian Zhuangzhuang’s Horse Thief (1986), were the first to break decisively with the rigid dictates of Maoist “cultural work.” Out of imposed muteness came a film language consisting of splendid images seen in isolation—an empty sky, a river basin, a weather-roughened face, a ceremonial procession—hemmed in by a strained terseness suggesting multiple layers of historical, political, and social meaning that could not be directly stated. Nothing, it appeared, could be more challenging in the wake of the Cultural Revolution than sharply defined pictures devoid of any obvious didactic purpose, surrounded by silence and open to multiple interpretations. (An analogous strategy can be observed in the works of contemporary Chinese poets such as Bei Dao and Duo-Duo.)
The actions which make up the narrative of Red Sorghum—a bride jostled by the peasants carrying her to her wedding, the same bride raped in a field of sorghum, a rite of purification by burning, a punitive beating, celebratory orgies of drunkenness, a worker rebelliously pissing into a vat of newly made wine, a protracted final scene of wartime torture and massacre—are virtually undifferentiated occasions for the deployment of exquisitely modulated textures, compositions, and color combinations. The movie comes to resemble an aesthetic ritual dedicated to the proposition that fire, blood, and wine are merely different aspects of the color red.
Likewise in Zhang’s most recent film, Raise the Red Lantern (1991), the meticulously catalogued horrors suffered by a rich Shanghai merchant’s concubines during the 1920s run parallel with the contemplation of architectural harmonics and the symmetrical grace of even the most oppressive of domestic ceremonies. An ostensible study of deprivation becomes at the same time a celebration of visual pleasures.
Not far offscreen, both before and after Tiananmen Square, are pressures from a bureaucracy without whose approval the movie cannot be made or distributed, acting in the name of a largely voiceless mass audience on whose level of understanding bureaucratic approval ostensibly hinges. In the absence of a clearly measurable …