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.
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.
total archiveable films: 11
top 100 films: 0
top 500 films: 1 (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).
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.
- Raise the Red Lantern
- Red Sorghum
- House of Flying Daggers
- To Live
- Ju Dou
- Curse of Golden Flower
- The Story of Qiu Ju
- The Road Home
- 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|
|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
I just caught Raise the Red Lantern yesterday and I thought it was brilliant! It is a very strong and effective film. So firstly, it was gorgeous and it also helped that Gong Li was simply sublime. I also thought that it had multiple layers: first it works as a devastating story, then it works as a study of the role of women historically, and at last I think you could make a case for an allegory. I found that it represents a system, some kind of totalitarian government, how it treats its people and how the individuals react to that themselves. What is intriguing as well is the way that without necessarily complying to the system or meaning to really hurt anyone, Li’s character becomes responsible for the death of two people, showing how eventually everyone becomes corrupt.
@Georg – very well put- thanks for sharing!
I watched Hero recently and was absolutely amazed. Drake, I hope you rewatch this one soon and raise it from a measly HR to its rightful place as a gargantuan masterpiece.
Here is the review I put on Letterboxd just after seeing the film:
“Any sensible person with even a smidge of appreciation for visual splendor or any other sort of beauty ought to see this film immediately. I was highly skeptical when I noticed this movie on a list of cinema’s most beautiful creations – now I’m partially wondering why the list-makers didn’t place it at number one.
“This is an epic to rank comfortably among the likes of Lawrence of Arabia and Ran. It is an action picture of a caliber to easily match any other. Zhang’s use of color design is one of humanity’s most successful attempts to please the human eye. The masterful editing is purposefully disorienting, but nonetheless thoroughly engrossing. Every narrative beat stabs hard. Each fight scene may be immensely fantastical and impractical, but one does not go to a movie to be confronted with a portrait of real life.
“There is not a single available cinematic technique not utilized.
“Hero was nearly the most expensive Chinese movie ever made at the time of its release. It’s worth every dollar spent, every arrow prop manufactured, and every clang of swords colliding.
“I’m simply flabbergasted.”
*Note – the place where I saw it ranked as one of the all-time most beautiful movies was the YouTube channel Cinefix.
I’ll add a little more, beyond my review. Zhang has effectively slapped together the structure of Rashomon, the style of Ran, and the combat influences of wuxia cinema here, with gorgeous results. He formally segments each telling of the assassins’ stories by choosing a specific color palette for each. On this page you’ve included brilliant shots from three of the most striking scenes – the red (much of which is also yellow and orange), blue, and green fights. There’s also the gray and brown sequence, the yellow and white segment, and the dark gray and blue sections taking place at the king’s palace.
I mentioned in the review that the swordfight sequences are fantastical, and that’s definitely true – one includes two characters literally flying hundreds of feet across a lake, and one depicts a group of people bombarded by immense deluges of arrows without receiving the tiniest bit of injury. However, even these scenes are spectacularly choreographed and spendidly shot. This is a memory piece where no member of the story is telling the complete trurth, so the superheroics are a bit more logical than they might be in a typical action movie.
The film is not all action, though – far from it. Some of the greatest directorial choices are made in moments of other moods, including the red segment as characters simply walk down hallways; Zhang tilts the camera side to side in order to create unease, and there is also a great use of rack focus at one point.
This is a cinematic masterwork whose visual beauty may be placed in the same conversation with 2001, Barry Lyndon, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Conformist, Last Year at Marienbad, In the Mood for Love, and others without too much disingenuity. I will admit that Raise the Red Lantern may be a slightly more perfect artistic work, but I think Hero’s ambition leads it to at least an equal claim for being Zhang’s best (I haven’t seen any others besides these two). I have real trouble choosing the leader among RTRL, JFK, and Silence of the Lambs for 1991, but at this point I feel fairly satisfied with Hero as 2002’s greatest, over Punch-Drunk Love and 25th Hour. I think both films hold a possible claim to being the greatest example of both mise-en-scene and color usage within their respective decades.
I think Zhang is worthly of placement as one of the best color masters, and also one of the great mise-en-scene masters. I will admit that his blocking of bodies is frankly not comparable to Ozu, Kurosawa, Wes, and Welles, but his splendid wide shot compositions of grand, ancient architecture are more than adequate,
@Graham– whoa! high praise. I have not seen it in some time. I’m overdue. Thank you for sharing.
I have more to say; I can’t stop talking about Hero haha, though I admit it’s possible some of my praise is an overreaction.
First, there is much to say about the narrative and thematic elements. The Rashomon influence on the story structure is huge, though the extent of the inspiration is not entirely clear until halfway through the plot. Hero also leads to a significantly different conclusion than Kurosawa’s film. I’ve heard that Zhang was actually criticized by a few publications for maintaining too autocratic and imperial a political stance in regards to the Qin king. Along with the fact that this should have barely any effect on one’s perceptions of the movie’s artistic quality, it is a trivial and also untrue reading. I interpret the key phrase that Broken Sword inscribes in the sand (translated as “the world” “under heaven” and “our land” in different subtitlings; mine said “all under heaven”) not as a message advocating for the emperor’s complete conquering of the world without inhibition, as the critics seem to think. To me, it is instead a message for general unity and peace, affirming that all the people – the Qins, the Zhaos, the king, the assassins – all live within the same world and deserve equal opportunity for peaceful existence. Broken Sword is the pacifist among the characters, despite being the most skilled (at least according to the nameless protagonist, whose words should be considered with a grain of salt). Needless to say, this is not a message movie, it’s an action epic.
The performances here are also solid, though they are clearly secondary to Zhang and DP Christopher Doyle’s work as far as being the most important factor in the film’s greatness. Hero is a great counterargument against those who don’t understand the importance of directors or visual cinema and prefer story and acting. Zhang casts Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung as unrequited, regretful lovers, likely as a homage to In the Mood For Love. However, it should be noted that Wong and Zhang are substantially different filmmakers. Among the leads of Hero (there are really only six characters in both this and RTRL), I think Cheung’s work is probably the greatest. Zhang cleverly withholds narrative twists until after they have occurred; there are multiple situations when an important plot point hits but the camera is placed in such a way that we are still left in anticipation.
I think Raise the Red Lantern and Hero could be analogized as Zhang’s Ida and Cold War, respectively – not that he is similar to Pawlikowski (very different in many ways), but their relationship to each other mimics the relationship between the Polish master’s works. Ida and RTRL feel very concise and contained, with comparatively less kinetic movement of the camera than Hero and Cold War, except for one intentionally jarring, climactic handheld camera scene in each that stands as a powerful break of form. Narratively, both focus on young women thrown into unpleasant worlds to which they have eventual trouble adapting, and both present disagreements on the nature of tradition. Hero and Cold War feel much more epic than their predecessors, despite not being significantly longer in runtime (Hero is in fact shorter than RTRL) due to the larger variety of settings covered, the wider variety of cinematic techniques utilized, and the higher production scale and budget. All four movies have devastating finales.
Zhang is a very talented craftsman of symmetry. The greatest director in that department is such an obvious choice that I don’t have to name him, but I think Zhang might fall within the top three below him and Kubrick. He’s not nearly as dogmatic with the aesthetic choice as Wes, but he does select it for many shots, and it succeeds brilliantly. It’s funny I mentioned Ida earlier, considering that one of that film’s strongest aspects is the non-central composition of characters near the edges of the frame, which is the opposite of symmetry.
I recently learned that Zhang was the director of the 2008 Olympic opening ceremony in Beijing, regularly considered the greatest Olympic ceremony in history. I was only a toddling two year-old at that point with no knowledge of the spectacle, but I’ve seen clips and have heard what an epic and awe-inspiring experience it was. Zhang’s involvement explains everything.
Replace these drummers with archers and you get something straight out of Hero:
Will Yimou Zhang move up the ranking with your recent study?
@Finn- Yes, it seems just about impossible he will not move up
– 17th Zhang film watched which concludes my worthwhile study.
– Snipers is a good propaganda film. It’s based in real-time and is centered on a singular battle between two opposing squads of snipers. Zhang’s a master of the action genre when it comes to Wuxia flicks but he can still do a fine job trading fists and blades for sniper rifles. Each side is skilled and employs clever techniques to land headshots on their enemies. The Zhang’s (Snipers is co-directed with Yimou’s daughter) will often use aerial shots to show off the full scope of the battlefield and quickly display the positions of squad members.
– This film runs into common flaws with propaganda films, the soundtrack is too manipulative and while the American squad is shown to be talented, their actors turn in performances that are hard to take seriously. I don’t see Zhang Yimou’s voice here at all, he’s made many humanist films and is clearly anti-war. After following his run through the decades this is not the film I would expect from him. My guess is that he made this after being fed up with Chinese censors with 2020’s One Second, knowing they would readily eat this up. In The Flowers of War and even in The Great Wall he’s had lead Americans play a vital heroic part in his stories so it also feels inauthentic in that regard portraying them as demons.
– Mixed film but well directed. His next film releases this week in China which I hope to see sometime.
Wrapped this study up last night
1. Hero – MP
2. Raise The Red Lantern – MP
3. Shadow – MS
4. Ju Dou – MS
5. To Live – HR/MS
6. Red Sorghum – HR/MS
7. House of Flying Daggers – HR
8. Curse of the Golden Flower – HR
9. Shanghai Triad – R/HR
10. One Second – R/HR
11. The Road Home – R
12. The Story of Qiu Ju – R
13. The Flowers of War – R
15. Cliff Walkers
16. Coming Home
17. The Great Wall
– He has a tonne of range as an auteur and throughout his career is able switch between a realism and an action/wuxia mode, has great work and a consistent voice in both styles.
– A master of colour and fight choreography
– Pretty much all of these films end in tragedy or loss
– Not a fan of The Great Wall
– Hero is one of my personal favourite films, could watch it every month or so easily. Raise The Red Lantern is a great film to have as your second best.
– Already three films in the 2020s and his next one comes out this month in China, very prolific and hopefully we get more on the level of Shadow soon.
– I’d have room for him in my top 40-50 directors I’d say.
@Harry- Great work- certainly a robust filmography- “Not a fan of The Great Wall”- haha.