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Arts & Culture

Zhang Yimou and the Beijing Olympics


Zhang Yimou directing Gong Li in Curse of the Golden Flower (Sony Pictures)

Zhang Yimou is a survivor. He survived China's Cultural Revolution, when he was sent off to the countryside to work. He survived battles with Chinese censors. And he has survived the criticism of a new generation of Chinese filmmakers. Some of them accuse Zhang of pandering to western tastes. Zhang Yimou has survived by recreating himself every few years.

Zhang, the acclaimed director of the recent Hero and House of Flying Daggers , recreates himself yet again as he takes on the task of overseeing the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympic Games. An enormous undertaking both in terms of the scale of the work and the tricky politics involved in presenting his Communist host country to the rest of the world amidst criticism of human rights abuses. On Friday, he dazzled audiences with a eye-popping mix of Chinese cultural traditions and high tech flamboyance. And even though a bit of that sheen is wearing off with accusations of " fakery " in the telecast, Zhang still put on one helluva show.

I realize that this does not qualify as film yet I mention because Zhang Yimou is a fascinating person who has reinvented himself a few times during his career. In 1966, the Cultural Revolution caused the Chinese film industry to fall dormant and the film school to close down. People like Zhang Yimou were sent to the countryside as part of a nationwide movement to have China's urban youth educated by peasants. When the Cultural Revolution ended a decade later, Zhang gained admittance to the newly reopened Beijing Film Institute. The Institute's first graduating class rejuvenated the industry and became known as & 'the Fifth Generation.' but the Cultural Revolution left its mark on these new filmmakers. Zhang's first film, Red Sorghum , focused on a peasant girl sent off on an arranged marriage and later dealing with Japanese invaders in World War II.

Because of strict government censorship, Zhang and his fellow filmmakers had to learn the subtle art of allegory-- making films that questioned the status quo without seeming to. Zhang has had his share of censorship problems but as Christian Gaines, then director of the Hawaii International Film Festival, said in 2000, "He's very smart. Not only in terms of his filmmaking technique but also in terms of the politics he has to deal with."

So as the Olympics wind down and we head into the closing ceremonies, I hope you consider the surprisingly successful and varied career of Zhang Yimou not only in terms of the brilliant films he has created but also in terms of the difficulties he has had to face and triumph over. There should be a gold medal for a clever survivor like him.


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