Renegade no more

A pivotal scene in Ju Dou, Zhang Yimou's celebrated film examining the burden of tradition in China, features a procession full of pomp and extravagance. The main feature is an ornately fashioned coffin that bears the body of man who, during his life, had battered his wife, the titular protagonist, and cruelly exploited his adopted son. Under his tyranny, the pair became secret lovers. Yet the death resulted in no emancipation, with social strictures forcing them apart to avoid the appearance of impropriety. The procession stops near the pair prostrating before the carriage, both ready to properly and publicly convey the extent of their grief 49 times, as instructed. This is not a mere turn of phrase. As the procession stops, the pair rushes the carriage, crying and begging that the deceased remain before the carriage moves forward, literally passing over them as they lie on the floor. Once it passes, a gong rings and a man declares, "One!" They must repeat the act 48 more times. An artful montage communicates the exhausting burden of propriety and tradition, as well as the emptiness of that ritualistic gesture.

Keeping Ju Dou in mind, it is puzzling that a director who is manifestly sensitive to the tyranny of ritual has become so vulnerable in terms of promoting similar sentiments. The context, of course, was the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics in August 2008 – an extravagant pageantry that was China's golden opportunity for uninterrupted and uncritical transmission to the world. That his work in films have been both critically and commercially successful in the West make Zhang an apt choice for ambassador for what some commentators have labelled as an endeavour of 'public diplomacy'. It has also earned Zhang the moniker of China's Leni Riefenstahl, the gifted cinematographer and Nazi propagandist.

The Olympic ceremonies, as one North American telecast dramatically and ridiculously proclaimed, was "Mysterious China opening her doors to the world, showing a new face." An important audience was certainly the West, and particularly the 69.9 million American viewers who eventually tuned in. The excessive and expensive pageantry provided a Technicolor reissue and refresher course of Chinese history and culture, skipping the less-attractive episodes. It also asserted China as technologically modern, innovative and robust. In various stages of the 'Artistic' section – the middle portion, with grand performances that followed the welcoming ceremony – Zhang hit upon the great inventions of ancient China: paper, printing, gunpowder and the compass. The four inventions are really a list devised by the West; a more Sino-centric and historically rigorous list might have chose others candidates. But Zhang was happy to oblige, with a show replete with fireworks (representing the friendlier manifestation of gunpowder), thousands of dancers, gymnasts and impressive multimedia productions.

The show was a curious mix of the obvious and the obscure. A column of women in gorgeous silk gowns represented the Silk Road, while a brigade of men hoisting oversized oars lined up like ants to form the outline of a ship, commemorating Zheng He, the legendary world explorer of the 15th century. With close to a thousand performers in costumes featuring a feathered headdress chanting quotes from Confucius's Analects praising the virtues of hospitality ("Isn't it great to have friends coming from afar?"), practically every gesture and element seemed to be vetted to communicate a view of China as open.

To the US audience, living at a time when the United States faced what the military generals warned were asymmetrical and unconventional threats, the perfectly synchronised movements of the army of performers likely did not elicit an anxiety of Chinese military might. More frightening, perhaps, was the much smaller contingent of schoolchildren involved. During the flag-bearing ceremony, the children, mostly ethnic Han, shed their various masquerading multiethnic guises and re-emerged as ultra-modern (and possibly nationally indivisible) students who conscientiously and happily attend to their teachers.

As President Barack Obama had put it in a speech during his electoral campaign, "We know that they" – American children – "will no longer just compete for good jobs with children from Indiana, but children from India and China and all over the world. We know the work and the studying and the level of education that requires." America's declining economic stature elicits fresh fears of the higher test scores being wracked up by Asians. That scene of a pedagogic fantasy – modern and liberal – might be the cruellest of jabs to the tottering titan. This and the notion of Chinese economic relevance probably are a greater source of anxiety than any fear of militarism. Along these lines, if the Olympic ceremonies represented one thing above all else, it was money. Every single part of the ceremonies communicated the USD 300 million budget that had been given to Zhang to put up the spectacle.

Totalitarian callisthenics
What explains Zhang's unlikely and curious trajectory from renegade to favoured court artist? Once upon a time, Zhang was a director with sterling independent credibility – dodging Chinese censors with fake scripts, risking official rebuke by submitting his work to international film festivals, having his films banned domestically, and even being barred from making films. Much of his work dealt with serious issues that, though often set comfortably in the past, emitted a powerful resonance with the present. But in 2002, Zhang took a boldly commercial turn with the big-budget Hero, an action-epic piloted by international superstar Jet Li.

Despite its generally warm critical reception in the West and impressive box-office receipts, critics today fix Hero as the point where Zhang's aesthetic became mildly fascist. It is here that comparisons with Leni Riefenstahl begin to crop up. J Hoberman, a prominent film critic in New York, wrote, "Hero's vast imperial sets and symmetrical tumult, its decorative dialectical montage and sanctimonious traditionalism, its glorification of ruthless leadership and self-sacrifice on the altar of national greatness … are all redolent of fascinatin' fascism." ("Fascinating Fascism" is the title of an influential essay by the US critic Susan Sontag, which sought to describe the fascist aesthetic that operated in Riefenstahl's work.)

In China, cultural critic Zhu Dake labelled Zhang's work in Hero and after as "totalitarian group callisthenics", explaining that "the aesthetics of mass games is a form of fascist aesthetics." Cui Weiping, professor at the Beijing Film Academy, agreed with this assessment, explaining that the effect of such an aesthetic is to "make an individual succumb to some mysterious, heavenly and invincible power." Again invoking Sontag, Cui points out that Riefenstahl also employed footage of landscapes that she argued would, by their sheer beauty and danger, awe the audience into submission to a greater power. "The impression of supremacy," Cui writes, "comes also from the high level of uniformity emphasised by the director."

Hero began a new chapter in the Zhang oeuvre, with two more film with wide release extending the genre and marking an increasingly close relationship between the auteur and Beijing. But putting aside the indictment of a suspect fascist aesthetic, the Chinese government may have more prosaic and direct reasons in supporting Zhang's new work. With Hong Kong's cinema suffering a protracted recession, the opportunity to absorb and collaborate with the talent and cultural capital offered an opportunity to revitalise Mainland China's frail industry with ambitious projects that could compete internationally as well as in China's cultural orbit.

Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, hailing from Taiwan but utilising talent from Hong Kong and Mainland China, served as a persuasive formula. Both Crouching Tiger and Hero belong to the Wuxia genre, a form encompassing popular novels and action movies featuring exaggerated martial arts, with romantic characters set in ancient China. Hero and each of Zhang's subsequent entries in the genre fared well both in the mainland and elsewhere, with Hero earning in excess of USD 177 million. Moreover, by setting its stories in a comfortably distant and mystical past, the new Wuxia dilutes any possible direct political meaning.

Hero introduces an innovation to the format, by reconciling a seemingly unstable dialectic between the traditionally renegade hero with a sympathy for figures of authority that rarely feature as good guys in the genre. Hero's protagonists plan to assassinate the empire-building Qin Shi Huangdi, only to discover an idealistic core to the ruthless warlord seeking to unite "all under the heavens". The narrative can easily be read as supporting China's numerous efforts at 'unification'. Moreover, Zhang's version of Wuxia can be seen as corroborating Beijing's insistence on the viability of its 'One China' policy. This corroboration was evident not only in the content of the film, but also in its production and distribution: the film had a Hong Kong genre and Taiwanese, Mainland, and Hong Kong stars – even someone who subscribes to a form of Tibetan Buddhism, in Jet Li.

Zhang's betrayal
Interestingly, there are very stark antecedents to the lavish aesthetical vision of Zhang's latter works. Ju Dou, for instance, set predominantly in a cotton mill where giant swatches of fabric extend feet above stewing vats of dye, exhibits the director as master aesthetician. Indeed, his following film, the even more highly regarded Raise the Red Lantern, intensified this aesthetic effort to evoke the stifling environs of the newest wife in a bureaucrat's home. These examples of films that argue for freedom and individual liberty have an undeniable continuity with the values of his later works, in urgent opposition to the argument of his having a fascist agenda. His neo-Wuxia films provide Zhang with the broad canvas that he loves, not to mention the budget to realise his ambitious aesthetics.

The curious failing of Zhang in his pursuit of 'big ideas' through big-budget blockbusters is that these big ideas tend to be both quite simple and lacking in nuance. It is as if the edges blur amidst all the magnification. Zhang's real betrayal, however, lies not in his aesthetic choices or his relation with the state, but rather in his silence as China persecutes artists who are now engaged in the same work he did earlier in his career. The younger filmmakers of China – the so-called Sixth Generation – may have shifted their lens from the rural, but they make critical documents about the increasingly globalised and alienated lives of the Chinese people. With a more immediate subject matter and a fresher and bolder style, the Sixth Generation constitute the new avant-garde of cinema in the mainland. And they suffer under the same censure and pressures suffered by the previous generation. Lou Ye's Summer Palace, featuring the pro-democracy demonstrations of 1989 at Tiananmen Square (an event that led Zhang to alter the ending of Ju Dou to reflect his sorrow at the violence), has earned him and his producer a five-year ban from making films. Unfortunately, for filmmakers such as Zhang, their eventual reconciliation with their government seems to allow no empathy for the younger colleagues.

Well deserved as criticisms of Zhang may be, there is a danger in a critique that relies too heavily on language drawn to describe Nazi Germany, particularly with the growing (albeit still tentative) tendency of China towards media diversity. That Riefenstahl directed a documentary of the 1936 Berlin Olympics – another landmark event planned by a regime seeking legitimatisation through an exhibition – comparisons with Zhang and Beijing are well-nigh irresistible. And with Zhang announcing not only his plan to direct a movie to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Communist China (from a few government-approved scripts), but also his plan to direct the official celebration gala – which will undoubtedly include parades of its military might and hardware – new chapters of his work will undoubtedly be open to additional criticism of its possible fascist and militarist dimensions.

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