Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

The Beijing Olympics and Director Zhang Yimou --Grief felt on a Change of Artist's Soul--
KITAMURA Fumio / Journalist

September 22, 2008
In the cinema world, it happens sometimes that a director who made a breath-taking debut with an excellent film gradually loses his fresh creativity as he reaches the hight of "Maestro" position. It is sad for film fans to see their once-admired director undergoing such a process of change.

Thanks to technological innovations such as video, DVD and digital broadcasting, it has become possible to watch at home many reputed films that won laurels. Being a movie fan, I watch about 150 motion pictures a year via various kinds of media, while my visits to movie theaters have become less frequent.

Through my film watching experience, I have often been thrilled by meeting films full of originality which signaled the new trend of cinema art emerging. One such joyous excitement was brought about by a Chinese film Red Sorghum directed by Zhang Yimou in 1987. This was his debut work and was awarded the grand prix (Golden Bear prize) at the 1988 Berlin International Film Festival.

Red Sorghum, shot on location in a poor Chinese village, in which the director, using bright colors and dynamic music, vividly portrayed with a moderate comic touch a young woman bought with money who kills her sickly husband in cahoots with a demonic man. Zhang, who had come through a lot of hardships during the Cultural Revolution period known as the "Rustication Movement", gave vent to his expressive volition that had long been suppressed, and made such masterworks as Ju Dou (1990) and Raise the Red Lantern (1991) one after another, following his first work that had won him such distinction.

These works had a common theme. It is an anarchical behavior of poverty-stricken people who, under oppressive circumstances, yielded themselves to unlimited desires. In China, Zhang's works drew fire from the audience and some critics as shamelessly exposing "China's ugly-side."

Almost a decade after Red Sorghum, China began to change rapidly in political, economic, social and other various fields. Under the slogan of the "open economy," free competition of the market was introduced and the scale of China’s economy rapidly expanded by leaps and bounds. In the film industry also, profit-making became priority and gorgeous entertainment movies flooded the market. The wave swallowed up Director Zhang, too. For Director Zhang, it should not be difficult to make pictures that would meet the market needs, if only he forgets his original artistic freshness.

Thus, Zhang's works gradually degenerated to something called "Hollywood-like epics," which has a disdainful connotation. Hero (2002) and Lovers (2004), for which huge amounts of production money were invested, resulting in gorgeous but empty spectacles, quite alien to the quality of Red Sorghum. Those who had been enchanted by Director Zhang must have been disappointed and lamented the waste of his talent. Because of these major epic films, however, Zhang has become one of the most famous and influential maestros.

On the occasion of the opening (August 8, 2008) and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics, the century-old dream for the Chinese came true and it was only natural that Director Zhang was appointed the general manager to supervise the events. The expectation the Chinese government had of the Beijing Olympics was to strongly impress the world with an image of China as the great powers and to inspire nationalistic sentiments in the Chinese people. Director Zhang lived up to and excelled in the task! A great pageant was unrolled with an incalculable number of fireworks exploding, kaleidoscopically changing lights, thousands of players filling the field of the stadium, wham-bang music rending the skies to an extent that even made the spectators and TV watchers weary. "An Angel Singing" of a 9-year-old girl was actually pre-recorded voices of another girl, and children wearing national costumes allegedly representing 56 ethnic groups were in reality all Chinese kids. These sort of dramatics were criticized but Zhang did not care at all, insisting that "it was artistic creation" (as reported in the Asahi Shimbun newspaper dated August 18).

In the process of urban renewal necessitated by the Beijing Olympics, poor people's homes were compulsorily requisitioned. Seasonal workers who came from the remote countryside were relocated in out-of-the-way corners. Miserable houses of low-income dwellers were covered by painted walls. The Beijing Olympics were opened and closed shutting out people who used to be the leading characters in the films directed by a young Zhang Yimou. Ironically enough, it was Director Zhang who was commissioned to produce the Olympics. Did he forget the state of mind he was in when he first started making films? Fed up with all cry and no wool at the opening and closing ceremonies, I was indefinitely feeling blue.

The writer is a former professor of Shukutoku University and former London Bureau Chief and Senior Editor of the Yomiuri Shimbun.
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

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2008年 9月 22日









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English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > The Beijing Olympics and Director Zhang Yimou --Grief felt on a Change of Artist's Soul--