TORONTO - Normally the weekend box office is about a predictable as a Jay Leno monologue: You simply choose the lowest common denominator with the biggest stars. You adjust for any horror movies that may be opening (always a big draw, regardless of cast), and multiply by tens of millions of dollars. But then something happened at your neighborhood movie theater last September that skipped weird and veered straight into unheard of: Zhang Yimou had the No. 1 picture in the country.
Zhang Yi-who? Read on.
For the two weeks around Labor Day, with students headed back to school and adults back to work (admittedly, a slow time at the box office), the No. 1 film in America was not moronic, forgettable, or a comedy starring Robert DeNiro, or Ben Stiller, or both. It was a movie called Hero.
It was a Chinese production, and shot entirely on the mainland - with art direction that seemed to draw in equal parts from the Peking Opera and Siegfried and Roy. It was also subtitled and slow (or rather, "methodically paced," in movie critic-ese). The subject was the birth of Chinese dynasties - and it even reflected Communist ideals in how the happiness of the film's hero was nothing compared to the good of the nation.
And the filmmaker, Zhang Yimou, who spoke no English, was known to the average Western moviegoer (if he was known at all) not for his art house successes in the 1990s like To Live, or his visually sumptuous epic spectacles such as Raise the Red Lantern. His latest, House of Flying Daggers, opened Friday; and we'll get to that one in a second.
If Zhang Yimou was known to many people in this country, he was known for being censored - harshly - by Chinese authorities. He was known for his life story, which contains a lot of epic spectacle itself. His movies were withdrawn from film festivals, turned into political hot potatoes, made the cause celeb at award shows, often banned from being screened in China itself.
Eight years ago, for example, at the Cannes film festival in France, Yimou was restricted from attending by his government, and the uproar was loud:
"The best director in the world today is Chinese," Martin Scorsese said at the time, "and what has happened? He's not here."
Zhang was at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall, a sign in itself that things have changed for him.
During an interview, he goes into a long explanation of those years that starts with a weary smile and ends with the director jamming an index finger into the table to underline a point. I nod and wait for the translation. His translator leans in and listens. She writes down a few words and a sentence on a her lined yellow tablet, and when he finishes his heated explanation of his years of being strong-armed by the Chinese government, she says:
"Yes, there was censorship."
I smile and nod and wait.
I helpfully say: "And then..."
"And yes, censorship. It is a reality in China. But what you refer to, that is in the past. It is over."
Remember the scene in Lost in Translation where Bill Murray is filming a whisky commercial and the Japanese director gives a long, impassioned set of instructions and the translator replies:
"He say, 'With more feeling.' "
That's what this was like, for part of the time at least. When we spoke, it was just a few days after Hero had landed an $18 million opening weekend in North America. We were in a hotel bar. I glance across the room, desperately hoping to catch the eye of someone who speaks Chinese and is possibly listening in on our cracked conversation. And instead I spot Zhang Ziyi, the glamorous heroine of Hero and House of Flying Daggers (and the title character in the upcoming adaptation of Memoirs of a Geisha), and she is carrying on a completely understandable conversation in English with a journalist from Texas and they are laughing and joking around.
I sigh. Zhang sighs.
Not only is this awkward, but he seems to realize the translation being provided is simplistic, yet he's unable to help. Zhang speaks no foreign languages and has never made a film outside China. He is in his early 50s, his hair is cropped short. His face is gaunt. His stare is expressionless and intimidating.
His youthful movie star appearance is only now beginning to age; indeed, Zhang began his career as an actor in action films. He wears a long-sleeved black T-shirt and fatigued cargo pants that look 30 years too old for him. But then again, the acclaimed filmmaker had just landed a second wind.
In the East and the West.
Here, he has become something of a nexus of Asian movie talent breaking through to the American mainstream. Action heroes like Jet Li and actresses like Gong Li - they've all landed their biggest hits working with him. But in China, he's something like Steven Spielberg times a billion.
"Everyone there on the street recognizes him," Zhang Ziyi said. Hero is the No. 1 box office hit of all time in China. And No. 2? House of Flying Daggers.
In both movies Ziyi plays mysterious women who know their way around a sword. She's best remembered as the young student in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but is quick becoming a symbol of the next generation of international cinematic glamour, complete with a Maybelline contract.
It's much the way Greta Garbo exemplified the exotic before World War II; if so, you might say Zhang Ziyi plays Marlene Dietrich to Zhang Yimou's Josef von Sternberg - a muse and her seemingly omniscient mentor.
He gets what he wants, she said. Zhang is a very demanding presence on a set, "but you don't need to prepare anything. I don't remember all my dialogue. You can just feel fresh and show up, and everything is already in his mind. You don't have to worry."
Zhang Yimou discovered Zhang Ziyi when he was casting a shampoo commercial during a period when he was closely watched by the Chinese government. "There was a roomful of long-haired girls," he remembers. "She left an impression with her pure, delicate appearance, and later when I started to shoot The Road Home, we tracked her down and cast her."
Zhang Yimou's films come in periods: There are the ornate, primary color-saturated lush ones that gave him early, international art house success; these include Raise the Red Lantern and Shanghai Triad. Both were nominated for Academy Awards.
Second, there are the stripped-down, sad, neo-realistic dramas about hard rural life such as Road Home that play like exhausted reactions to his years of sparring with censors over epics about harems and murderous schemes and the Cultural Revolution. It's still a touchy subject, Zhang says. Though someday, he adds, he would like to make a series of movies, "some autobiographical, some about ordinary people," affected by the Cultural Revolution that lasted 10 years.
"I had a lot of unforgettable experiences during that," he said. Zhang turned 16 when the Revolution began, and was immediately sent to work at a mill as a spinner, and later as a custodian. A year after the Revolution collapsed, he had to petition the Ministry of Culture for a spot at the Beijing Film Academy, which didn't accept students older than 22. That class - which included the two other best-known filmmakers to emerge from China, Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine) and Tian Zhuangzhuang (The Blue Kite) - became famous as the Fifth Generation, famous for their thinly veiled spectaculars about oppression.
There were repercussions.
Just as Zhang's star ascended in the West in the early '90s, his career went on life-support in the East. When a copy of To Live slipped into Cannes without the backing of the Chinese government, Zhang was not allowed to attend. In 1995, when a documentary about the 1989 Chinese pro-democracy uprising was scheduled for the New York Film Festival, Chinese authorities withdrew Shanghai Triad in retaliation. "There was a period of two and three years where I was not supposed to work with foreign investment companies, only with a few Chinese investment companies. And so I did."
To this day, he submits every script to the proper authorities.
Asked at the time why he didn't simply leave China to live and work in the West, unburdened by Chinese censors - as school colleague Chen Kaige did - Zhang once replied: "China is my earth, and if I leave it, I die."
Pressed harder, Zhang tells me that the Chinese authorities' problems with his earlier movies boiled down to "Why are you worrying about the past? And why not simply be optimistic about the future of China, rather than dredge up old problems?"
He smiles sadly.
"As a filmmaker, I need to. But there is no reason for them to worry about these new pictures," he said. "Still, I don't think anything has necessarily changed."
Except his clout.
Zhang's third (and current) martial arts period was a surprising, left-field move to American admirers, and a controversial one to critics back in China - who say he's courting western approval with big, flashy action films instead of the serious social themes he was known for.
Undeniably, though, it's a renaissance. Just last weekend, the National Society of Film Critics awarded him their best director award for 2004 - while his name is on the short list for an Oscar nomination for best director. (Nominations are due Jan. 25.)
Trouble is, for which film?
House of Flying Daggers is very much of a piece with Hero. "They are two sides of the same thing," he said. Hero tells the story of the first Chinese emperor, and appears quite sympathetic. House of Flying Daggers - about a forbidden love among high-flying, ancient cops and robbers (more or less) - is "about a woman who rebels against authority and betrays a group of people for love. That kind of thing is easier to couch in terms of period film, in terms of a martial arts movie.
"We have a saying in China: 'You use the water to paddle the boat.' You can express what you want. So I'm using genre to say something about our culture."
He's being modest.
Your eyeballs feel assaulted, not by a kinetic, fast-cutting series of chase sequences, or a relentlessly loud sound track full of crunching pop metal. By the sheer beauty of the photography and the rush of the action.
Movie musicals are close kin to martial art films. We get a little exposition, romance, and every few scenes, it all comes together in a production number. Rarely is the point made with as much obvious glee. In House of Flying Daggers, Ziyi (a trained dancer, in fact) uses a long silk robe to do an "echo dance," throwing the sleeves to beat out a rhythm on vertical drums. An army shimmies down the stalks of a bamboo forest with silent, speedy swishes. I ask Zhang if he had ever considering shooting any of his older films as a martial arts pictures, or his martial arts pictures as musicals. He nods and nods.
"It would not have been impossible. I could have added an action scene in Raise the Red Lantern. But these really could be musicals, first. In terms of structure, they are exactly the same. But it's more common in China to have a musical onstage than in a movie. And so it is unlikely."
He's being modest, again.
Zhang has directed stage productions of Tosca in the forbidden city of Peking, and even an opera of Raise the Red Lantern. The man knows something about pageantry, and for once, it wasn't lost on his government.
Hero and Daggers gave such a good, relatively uncontroversial name to the Chinese film movement, Zhang directed the successful video that helped win Beijing its bid for the 2008 Summer Olympics (and he'll likely direct the opening show). Quite a turnaround, he admits shyly.
"It's the only film I've made that hasn't been attacked," he says, then adds: "But there is this saying around China these days: 'When the Olympics take place, the sky in Beijing will be blue.' "
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: email@example.com or 419-724-6117.