It's a surprising prognosis from China's most successful director, whose early films—Red Sorghum and Raise the Red Lantern—were so grand and ambitious that they burned the country's landscapes onto the retinas of filmgoers around the world. And the bleak outlook is especially striking given that Zhang now looks poised to hit a new career high with Hero, a martial arts fable complete with superstar cast and ravishing cinematography. Last week, Hero premiered at a screening in China's official Holy of Holies, the Great Hall of the People. When it played a weeklong Oscar-qualifying run in Shenzhen in late October, people camped out overnight to cadge tickets, some of which were scalped for as much as $240 each—nearly twice China's average monthly salary.
Success is nothing new for the 51-year-old director, yet it has long been tinged with disappointment. Ju Dou (Zhang's third film) and Raise the Red Lantern (his fourth) both received Oscar nominations, but initially weren't allowed to play in Chinese theaters. To Live, Zhang's darkly humorous and ultimately tragic masterpiece about a family's struggle to survive three decades of political upheaval, won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes in 1994, but is still largely off-limits to mainland viewers.
As a result, international cineasts have at times labeled Zhang a dissident director—a role he has no desire to play. Zhang wants to work in China—not abroad or underground—and fill Chinese theater seats. Not only is he determined to work within the mainland's still conservative system, but he views the task of making movies that satisfy both censors and his own artistic standards as a healthy exercise—one that has forced him to become a better filmmaker. With Hero, he has risen to that challenge.
Maybe, for once, Zhang just wants to fit in. It's an understandable drive for someone who, thanks to the tumult of China's postwar politics, has always lived on the margins. Zhang's father fought with the nationalists in the Chinese civil war; Zhang, born two years after the communist victory, grew up in the social ghetto reserved for children of traitors. During the Cultural Revolution he was forced to leave high school, barred from applying to college, and given a job fit for the lowliest of political undesirables: as a night-shift janitor at a cotton mill in central Shaanxi province. When college entrance exams were reintroduced in 1977, Zhang was too old to be eligible. His only hope lay in the camera he purchased with the proceeds gained from selling his own blood.
His lucky break quickly turned sour when the Democracy Wall movement broke out and the minister who helped Zhang was publicly attacked for using personal influence to bend the rules. Mention of Zhang's unorthodox admission cropped up in the "big-character posters" that festooned the school's walls. Added to this uncomfortable notoriety was the stigma of being a provincial rube of questionable political background, nine years older than most of his classmates at a school dominated by native Beijingers, many of whom were eagerly joining the Communist Party. So Zhang switched to the more prestigious major of film directing—more out of a desire to overcome his underdog status, he says, than because of any interest in movies.
After graduation, classmate Chen Kaige hired him as cinematographer on Yellow Earth, the story of a young revolutionary soldier's sojourn in a drought-ravaged village along the Yellow River. Zhang's bold camera work earned the film international attention and ushered in a new wave of Chinese cinema. Together with Chen (who later went on to direct Farewell My Concubine) and classmates Tian Zhuangzhuang and Wu Tianming, Zhang became a star of the so-called Fifth Generation of Chinese directors. When he watches Yellow Earth now, Zhang says, he is embarrassed by the naked ambition of his cinematography. "It's so showy," he laughs. "You can see just how hard I was trying to prove myself."
But it was as a director that Zhang found his true calling and an all-consuming lifelong passion. With Red Sorghum, Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern, Zhang proved himself in the art houses abroad. But many mainland critics remained unimpressed, accusing him of "exoticizing" the nation's feudal past and poverty-stricken countryside for foreigners. They felt he should play cultural ambassador, using his camera to burnish China's overseas image. Chinese audiences share this ambivalence. Younger moviegoers have an almost universal description of why they dislike Zhang's fixation on the past and on the countryside: "The films are really just too far away from us," says Zhang's 25-year-old assistant, speaking of her boss's early work. "They have nothing to do with our lives." Of course they do, and far more than the Hollywood confections that are the biggest box-office hits in China. But Chinese audience members (like those in most of the world) come to the theater to be transported elsewhere, and Zhang's movies have long insisted on rubbing their noses in their native soil.
Zhang says he has learned to ignore such carping. But in recent years, he seems to have taken it to heart. In his heartwarming Not One Less (1999) he deftly sweetened a story about the bitter plight of impoverished rural schoolchildren with lighthearted humor and an almost cloyingly cheerful ending. The dusting of sugar made it palatable to audiences and censors alike without weakening its searing social commentary. But at times his compromises have yielded less success. His last film, Happy Times, was originally conceived as a tale of laid-off workers struggling for dignity while submitting themselves to ever more degrading types of work. The Film Bureau, says Zhang, ordered him to change the main characters to retirees. Zhang consented, though he readily admits that the movie is his weakest.
Zhang now steers clear of controversial subject matter, embracing instead projects that take risks in their technical execution. In 1999 he mounted an epic production of Puccini's Turandot in Beijing's Forbidden City. Last year he directed a ballet adapted from Raise the Red Lantern. The central government has conscripted him to craft national propaganda: he directed videos for Beijing's Olympic bid and Shanghai's successful application to host the 2010 World Expo. This year he's at work on an "ecofriendly" song-and-dance show for tourists produced by the Guangxi provincial government.
Hero, a stirringly patriotic hymn to China's founding myth, is similarly unprovocative, giving Chinese audiences a past they can be proud of without making them think much. Zhang concedes that the movie lacks the intellectual and emotional heft of his earlier works: "Hero is a genre piece. Its message is very simple, but it breaks ground visually. The audience will remember the aesthetics more than the story. Its message is a message of peace. But there's nothing particularly exciting about that message unless it's taken in the context of the genre, where it's something new. But, really, the audience won't be there for the ideas; they'll mainly appreciate the spectacle."
If Zhang had the freedom—if the Chinese movie industry weren't in the business of (figuratively) chopping off directors' fingers—he might make films focusing on the triumphs and tragedies of the Cultural Revolution. The stories that move him most are those that show "humanity at its finest during times of profound suffering." (His favorite films include Life Is Beautiful and Burnt by the Sun, set during the Holocaust and a Stalinist purge, respectively.) But in today's China, Zhang says, such films "simply can't be shot." It isn't just the authorities that are holding him back. "You gradually start to feel that audiences don't want to see certain kinds of movies," he says. "Chinese people now are not interested in scrutinizing their past the way they were just after the Cultural Revolution." And so, he adds, "I've made adjustments to accommodate the spirit of the times."
Hero was made in this spirit of unashamed compromise. But it is, at least, a spectacular compromise—proof once again that Zhang is China's leading cinematic visionary, even when he's been reduced to just one pinky.