Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Shadow (Ying)

Director Zhang Yimou on the set

SHADOW (Ying)                   C                    
China  (116 mi)  2018  ‘Scope d:  Zhang Yimou

It’s something of a disgrace that the man who discovered and directed leading lady Gong Li in films like RED SORGHUM (1987), JU DOU (1990), RAISE THE RED LANTERN (1993), THE STORY OF QUI JU (1992), and TO LIVE (1994) eventually altered the course of his career and became a willing sycophant for the autocratic regime, losing any sense of credibility in the West, no longer displaying that critical distance from government policies or positions, now part of the establishment, where he was once one of the rising stars and most influential members of China’s Fifth Generation of filmmakers, the first to emerge from the chaos of the failed Cultural Revolution and Mao Zedong’s last decade in power, with the elder generation describing their films as elitist, suggesting art films only serve the intellectual elite, resulting in little widespread distribution throughout China.  His early films were praised abroad but criticized at home, with his first three films banned by Chinese authorities due to its scathing portrait of an all-powerful patriarchal authority that never relinquishes power, with party officials making life difficult for him afterwards, routinely harassing him and denying work permits.  Despite expanding economic reforms, Chinese censors restricted film content, more so in film than the other arts, according to Zhang, deliberately forcing artists to acquiesce, where they were particularly incensed by his submitting TO LIVE to the Cannes Film Festival without their permission, officially banning the film, though there is evidence it continued to be screened in China, so the authorities prevented Zhang from traveling abroad to attend film festivals.  Gong Li as well, China’s most sought after actress, regularly complained that she needed to obtain permission to perform in films outside China.  Curiously, Zhang took the pragmatic approach when he was initially denied admittance to the prestigious Beijing Film Academy due to his age, at 27 well above the 22-year old age limit, so he appealed, explaining to the Ministry of Culture that the Cultural Revolution had stolen ten years of his life, with authorities granting his appeal, as Zhang’s parents were persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, with both children sent to countryside re-education farm labor camps.  Apparently linked to this concession in a quid pro quo agreement, after the success of RED SORGHUM, Zhang secretly agreed to make a mainstream propaganda B-movie for the government, the rarely screened CODE NAME COUGAR (Dai Hao Mei Zhou Bao) (1989), which allowed them to clear financing and censor review clearance for JU DOU, suggesting early on in his career Zhang capitulated to government requests.  The same could be said for the subject matter in his film THE STORY OF QUI JU where he agreed to make a Communist Party-approved film on a contemporary theme, with actress Gong Li playing an unglamorous peasant girl, told in a more social realistic, near documentary style.  After his relationship with Gong Li deteriorated in the mid 90’s, his career hasn’t been the same since, known for his love of producing lavish spectacles, best known today for being the official state pageantry director and artistic inspiration behind the magnificent opening ceremony of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, 1080p HD Beijing 2008 opening ceremony artistic performance part YouTube (58:40). 

That being said, Zhang hasn’t made a relevant film in 25 years, where the history behind NOT ONE LESS (1999) may describe the arc of his career trajectory, perhaps best expressed in a review by Shelly Kraicer, Not One Less : review by Shelly Kraicer, a long-time Beijing resident, also a programmer and scholar of Chinese and Hong Kong cinema: 

Zhang Yimou’s ten feature films to date, beginning with Red Sorghum in 1987, have evoked heated attacks and passionate defenses, both within China and in the international film community. Not One Less is no exception. Released in China in early 1999 to official and critical approval and audience enthusiasm, the film hit a roadblock at the Cannes International Film Festival later that year. Although the circumstances are not entirely clear, preselection comments by Cannes officials suggested that the film was seen as being insufficiently antigovernment, and too propagandistic. Faced with his film being relegated to “un certain regard” (the secondary, noncompetitive series), instead of being included in the prestigious “official selection” (the high profile competition at Cannes), Zhang published a letter in the Beijing Youth Daily publicly withdrawing Not One Less (and his other new film, The Road Home) from the festival, and objecting to what he perceived to be a narrowly politicized attitude towards Chinese film: “It seems that in the West, there are always two ‘political criteria’ when interpreting Chinese films, [they are perceived as being either] ‘anti-government’ or ‘propaganda.’ This is unacceptable.”

Since then, Zhang has basically gone the route of a Chinese version of Hollywood, where he’s responsible for creating the blockbuster era of Chinese films, churning out mythical portraits of ancient times, basically historical costume dramas displaying a lavish production design that might be described as eye candy, as they’re easy on the eyes, often spectacularly staged with wuxia martial arts fight choreography, heavily digitalized, beautifully shot with opulent color schemes, but no content whatsoever that would cause any governmental concern, no comment on contemporary China, safely playing it by the book, making entertainment for the masses. A quick glance at the List of highest-grossing films in China reveals a kind of mindless Hollywood fantasy world that bears no relation to reality.  Of course, the same could be said for the US, as Hollywood typifies this blatant social disconnect.  Unfortunately, Zhang Yimou has gone from being one of the best art house directors to a standard bearer of the mainstream.  An earlier film Coming Home (Gui Lai) (2014) was an attempt to reunite the old band, working again with Gong Li, hoping to revive that old magic, adding a storyline about the Cultural Revolution, but it was overly sentimentalized, stripped of any significant message or power, turned generic, where the real interest was seeing actress Gong Li onscreen again.  Zhang’s latest is an attempt to return to the box-office success of HERO (2002), at the time the highest financed and also the biggest box-office hit in China, the first Chinese-language movie to place No. 1 at the American box office (where it stayed for two consecutive weeks) and went on to earn $53.6 million dollars, with Zhang helping usher in an era of cinema as spectacle, kind of like Hollywood in the 50’s when films like BEN HUR (1959) were all the rage, winning 11 Academy Awards out of 12 nominations.  Similarly, SHADOW was nominated for 12 Golden Horse Awards (the Chinese equivalent), winning four, with Zhang winning Best Director.  While you’d think that might carry some weight in the West, it doesn’t, as the film played to largely empty theaters here in Chicago and was gone after a single week.  This somewhat insipid drama is a rip-off of Kurosawa’s KAGEMUSHA (1980), where a warlord convincingly uses a body double, leading to a climactic battle scene, but lacks the epic splendor, as Kurosawa utilized 5000 extras for the final battle sequence, where countless bodies have been replaced by CGI digital technology, where cheaper alternatives create a drearier and murkier look, made to resemble the look of black and white Chinese brush paintings, occasionally veering into the ridiculous. 

Throughout Zhang’s career, he’s specifically known for his mastery of color, never more operatically on display than CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER (2006), working with the same cinematographer here, Zhao Xiaoding, so it comes as something of a surprise that this film is neutered or decolored, mostly shot in various shades of black to gray, or white, only occasionally resorting to color in mostly symbolic gestures.  Combining an imperial court with a wuxia spectacle, the story pits two feudal powers during the third century historical period of the Three Kingdoms in China, where an exiled king secretly plots to regain control of former land currently occupied by a rival power, revealing a kingdom divided by the Pei royal court and the city of Jing, but both are protected by an ongoing peace agreement.  Largely told from the perspective of various members of the court, none are particularly well developed characters, revealing little depth, playing largely exaggerated symbolic roles as opposed to real identifiable people, starting with the royal family, featuring a petulant, overly narcissistic King Pei (Zheng Kai, aka Ryan Zheng) and his equally frivolous younger sister Qingping (Guan Xiaotong), protected by Commander Ziyu (Deng Chao) and his wife Xiao Ai (Sun Li), though Ziyu has been seriously wounded by his rival in Jing City, Yang Cang (Hu Jun).  Going against the King’s wishes, Ziyu challenges Yang to a duel, which irritates the King, thinking this could thwart his overall plans to stay in power, making a politically conciliatory offer to unite his sister and Yang’s son in marriage, but the return offer is a humiliating gesture, accepting her only as his concubine.  While this causes dissension in the ranks, with an angry General quickly resigning in disgrace for not immediately retaliating in force, Qingping is so outraged at her brother going behind her back that she agrees, developing her own personal plot of revenge.  Behind the scenes, however, Ziyu has an underground hiding place beneath the palace where he remains mortally wounded.  Taking his place in public is a body double, or shadow, Jingzhou, played by the same actor, where only Xiao Ai is aware of the deception.  Jingzhou was ripped from his peasant home in Jing years ago and has been secretly trained by Ziyu for the inevitable rematch with his counterpart Yang, encapsulated with a thorough philosophical understanding of yin and yang, shadow and light, where the principle of duality is everywhere.  Using mythological cliché’s and stereotypes galore, betrayals, plots and double plots lead to inevitable confrontations, city against city, commander against commander, including a variety of one-on-one match ups, filled with jingoistic belligerence, mirroring today’s nationalistic fervor, all taking place in a deluge of rain, where the battleground is a colorless monotony of gloom, with red blood spilled everywhere, leading to a fatalistic Macbeth style atmosphere of death and doom, choreographed by Dee Dee (Ku Huen-chiu), a longtime stunt double who worked in Jet Li classics from the 90’s.  While this kingdom is completely built on a foundation of deception and lies, without an ounce of nobility anywhere to be seen, it exists in a morass of moral ambiguity, with Xiao Ai concluding, “Some things don’t have a right and wrong.”  What’s disconcerting here is the elevated status given to obedience, as if servitude is the highest calling, where Jingzhou represents a subjugated slave warrior mentality, much like Spartacus (1960), yet instead of fighting for his freedom, his essential persona is fulfilling his master’s wishes, especially the way he’s trained, a metaphor for Chinese citizens serving the authoritative Communist state.  Not exactly uplifting, this film allows for no other alternative.  

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