Yimou Zhang.  The impressive resume of Yimou zhang starts with the unmitigated triumph of 1991’s Raise the Red Lantern. Red Sorghum 4 years prior was the work of a clear talent and in the early 2000’s we had a flash of utterly breathtaking martial-arts genre visual spectacles (particularly Hero but also House of Flying Daggers). These four films are the strengths of the case for Yimou Zhang. There’s consistency there— but he also has an entirely different wing of his career where he made naturalistic or work that bordered on neo-realism (Not One Less, The Road Home)—closer to the Dardennes or Kiarostami (though not on their level of quality). Raise the Red Lantern is sort of the blending of the two. The fact that Yimou Zhang only has two films that made the top 100 of their respective decade is disconcerting for the purposes of this list. But there’s depth here- 11 archiveable films and counting is outstanding.

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primary color and production design detail in Curse of the Golden Flower

Best film:  Raise the Red Lantern. It makes a serious bid for the greatest use of color in cinema history—and that’s where we start. Throw in the devastating narrative and Gong Li’s performance (also amongst the decade’s best) and we have a big…fat… masterpiece.

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total archiveable films: 11

top 100 films:  0

top 500 films: 1 (Raise the Red Lantern)

truly one of the greatest single cinema images of the 1990’s– from Raise the Red Lantern

top 100 films of the decade: 2 (Raise the Red Lantern, Red Sorghum)

most overrated:  To Live. It’s at #896 on the TSPDT but that’s Yimou Zhang’s #3 and I’m at #5. I haven’t seen it in ages though- 15 years maybe. I’m overdue.

most underrated:    Hero. It should be on TSPDT top 1000 and isn’t. Behold the visuals (below). Utterly remarkable. Yimou Zhang’s use of primary color would make the great masters who worked in color proud from  Fellini (Juliet of the Spirits) to  Kurosawa (Ran), to Antonioni (Red Desert).

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gem I want to spotlight: House of Flying Daggers. It’s hard to mention Hero without getting to House of Flying Daggers. It’s an overwhelming 1-2 punch in the early 2000’s from the martial arts master.

stylistic innovations/traits:  I think it starts with the use of color for Yimou Zhang. It’s such a vital part of his best four films (and in the damn title for two of them). These are true achievements of mise-en-scene and production design. His films changes genre from social-realism to martial arts expressionism (and again, Raise the Red Lantern gloriously in-between). You have to mention Gong Li here as well as a key collaborator. She’s in 7 in Yimou Zhang’s 11 archiveable films and she is, of course, up there on the list of best actresses of all-time (#32) because of it.

You have to mention Gong Li here as well as a key collaborator. She’s in 7 in Yimou Zhang’s 11 archiveable films and she is, of course, up there on the list of best actresses of all-time (#32) because of it.

top 10

  1. Raise the Red Lantern
  2. Red Sorghum
  3. Hero
  4. House of Flying Daggers
  5. To Live
  6. Ju Dou
  7. Curse of Golden Flower
  8. The Story of Qiu Ju
  9. The Road Home
  10. Shanghai Triad

By year and grades

1987- Red Sorghum HR
1990- Ju Dou
1991- Raise the Red Lantern MP
1992- The Story of Qiu Ju
1994- To Live
1995- Shanghai Triad R
1999- Not One Less
2000- The Road Home
2002- Hero HR
2004- House of Flying Daggers HR
2006- Curse of Golden Flower R

*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film

MS is Must-see- top 5-6 quality of the year film

HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film

R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives