Accessibility links

Famous Chinese Film Director Says He's an Artist, Not a Politician


China's most famous filmmaker, Zhang Yimou, says he is an artist, not a politician. He made his comments recently on the sidelines of meetings of the country's top policy advisory group, where he was serving as a delegate.

For the past two decades, Zhang Yimou has helped bring Chinese film to international audiences, with movies like Red Sorghum and Raise the Red Lantern.

However, early in his career, many of his films were banned in China.

What led to involvement in Olympic Games?

Now he headlines some of China's most high-profile artistic events. The one he is best known for is directing the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

He says was willing to do it because he saw how enthusiastic Chinese people were about the Olympics.

Zhang says some westerners may think he was cooperating with the Chinese government. However, he says he did it for the Chinese people.

Zhang's new project

Zhang is following up his Olympic success by directing the live gala and fireworks show for celebrations, later this year, to mark the 60th anniversary of China's communist government. He also is planning to make a film to mark the occasion.

And, in another symbol of his official acceptance, he served as a delegate to the just-concluded annual session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference -- the nation's top government advisory body.

Zhang says his job is still mainly focused on making movies. He rejects western criticism that he has become a political figure.

Politics or art?

In Communist China, there always has been a fine line between art and politics.

Michael Berry, who teaches contemporary Chinese culture at the University of California at Santa Barbara, says this idea goes back to the founder of the People's Republic of China, Mao Zedong.

"Basically, art was to serve the workers, peasants and soldiers, to have this very utilitarian, pedagogical use," Berry said. "You weren't there to paint a beautiful painting, just to admire it. It was there to educate, to help raise the awareness of the masses and to have a very strong political utility."

Berry, who, as a graduate student, served several times as Zhang's interpreter in the United States, says he feels Zhang definitely loves the art and craft of filmmaking. But, at the same time, Berry says the director cannot escape the political dimensions of what he does.

"I think there's no way around that. Once you're directing, not only the Olympic ceremony, but now the 60th anniversary celebration, of course these are overtly political events and he's helming them. So, there's no escaping that," Berry said.

Most of Zhang's movies can now be shown in China, including several big budget blockbusters he made more recently. They were commercially successful, even though they received mixed critical reviews.

Pushing the envelope

One movie that is still banned is To Live, which Zhang says is probably because it deals with the tumultuous decade in Chinese history known as the Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976.

Berry says he thinks Zhang has not given up his interest in the Cultural Revolution, but may just be waiting for an opportune moment to re-examine it or other sensitive issues.

"I think he's got a lot of tricks up his sleeve, so to speak, and I wouldn't be surprised if, for his next movie, he makes a film that nobody would ever expect and maybe one day something that people would feel is subversive or critical. I don't think that's beyond him," Berry said.

Back in Beijing, Zhang described the western criticism of him as a vicious circle.

The filmmaker says he does not make comments on other people's comments about him.

He went into great detail about China's elaborate film censorship system and pointed out that, despite his fame, he is not an exception to the rules.

XS
SM
MD
LG