Zhang Yimou

His austere roots long behind him, Zhang Yimou has no problem with directing lavish historical blockbusters and hanging with QT, as he explains in an exclusive Seattle Weekly interview.

Having directed movies for almost 20 years, collecting three Oscar nominations along the way, Zhang Yimou now sits at something of a career high point. In New York, he's at the helm of the latest production at the Metropolitan Opera, The First Emperor, which opened last week. In Beijing, he's collaborating with Steven Spielberg on the opening and closing ceremonies for the 2008 Olympics. And at the American multiplex, he's finally gained recognition (and commercial value) with his recent slew of martial arts opuses: Hero (which grossed $53 million in the U.S.), House of Flying Daggers ($11 million), and the new Curse of the Golden Flower. "Actually, this isn't a typical kung fu movie. It's the story of an imperial family," Zhang says of his latest, speaking in Mandarin during our recent sit-down in Manhattan. "It's very dramatic, almost comparable to a Greek tragedy." Make that a Greek tragedy plus CGI and a huge cast of extras. Curse is nothing like Ju Dou or Raise the Red Lantern, those intimate, Oscar-nominated period dramas that brought him to the attention of Western audiences during the early '90s. Today, some of his longtime devotees are scratching their heads over his newfound affinity for wuxia pian, big budgets, and computer effects. (Curse cost $45 million to make, a huge sum in China, where it's expected to surpass the local box-office record of $31 million set by Hero.) Is Zhang just chasing the money? "You can't duplicate the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," he answers "That kind of phenomenon can happen only once. This genre actually has a long-standing tradition in China, beginning with Bruce Lee. It's popular among the Chinese audiences, especially the youth. That's why Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li are such movie icons. This is the reason so many Chinese directors want to make films of this type. It's our fighting chance at competing with Hollywood movies." Indeed, says Zhang, Hollywood has eaten up 95 percent of the Chinese market, and the native industry has gone through some serious soul-searching. Nearly all of Zhang's fellow Fifth Generation directors, who began working in the '80s, have expanded their repertoires to fit the increasingly international and commercialized film climate. "Many Chinese people think we should have retired by now, but you still see Fifth Generation directors making headlines," he continues. "Although we've never gotten together to come to a consensus, Fifth Generation directors are all pursuing more mainstream projects. The Chinese audience actually welcomes the trend. But there's always the debate of whether we should be making these films, and whether they signal progress or regression. "My feeling is that there's no need to impose artistic limits on Fifth Generation directors. Nowadays, it's increasingly difficult to differentiate between art and commerce. The direction we're heading is probably to make artistic films that also attract an audience. We have to compete with Hollywood films. We can't simply indulge our artistic impulses and neglect the audience. Making commercial films is a good exercise for Fifth Generation directors. Once you are adept at the mainstream approach, you can rejuvenate your artistic spirit. Otherwise you'd be making films that'd earn awards, but no one would go to see them." On the subject of commercial appeal, Curse notably reunites Zhang with one of China's biggest stars, Gong Li, herself no stranger to Hollywood after Miami Vice and Memoirs of a Geisha. Following an 11-year separation from his former muse and lover, Zhang believes the role of an empress presiding over a declining Tang dynasty is tailor-made for Gong because of her age (41) and acting range. He declares, "Actually, there aren't many actresses in China who can play this role. Because this is quite a well-known character in a stage play, audience members have certain expectations about how the role should be performed. I believe actors view this role as a challenge, so I expected [Gong] to accept the role. "America has so many fine actors. One time Quentin Tarantino and I were discussing this. He said that he always wrote scripts with certain actors in mind, but if those actors were unavailable, he still had another 10 to choose from. Naturally, I am a little envious because there aren't so many great actors in China. If Gong Li didn't have time, then we'd be out of luck." info@seattleweekly.com

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