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Watching 36 year-old Zhang Yuan's films is like walking through a Rorscharchian gallery--viewers' reactions reveal not only their psychological bias and perspective on society, but also the goal of Zhang's underlying artistic project. Unlike the majority of Chinese filmmakers today who make appeasingly jovial movies, Zhang sees his work as social stimuli. It is telling that he prefers to be called an "artist" rather than a "filmmaker."
Defying common labels seems to be a habit with Zhang. While he is categorized as a "Sixth Generation" director, Zhang balks at the reductionist labeling prevalent in Chinese cinema. While Zhang is right when he says "discussing directors as cohesive generations collapses varied styles into one," generational labels do help identify key changes in cinematic practice. Unified by a stylistic break from the past and disillusionment born out of the Cultural Revolution, Fifth Generation directors searched history and literature for a native, pristine China.
From this movement emerged the visually stunning Yellow Earth, Red Sorghum, and Raise the Red Lantern. Zhang Yuan's films embody a directional shift in Chinese film. Instead of turning backward in time to locate and problematize the Chinese experience, Zhang turns inward. His films capture modern psychological tales rather than distanced histories. However, the Fifth Generations' affinity for setting their films in the pre-Revolutionary past was more than stylistic choice-it was practical necessity. State monopoly funding of films and a wary censorship board forced any critique of the regime to be shrouded in allegory. Zhang bypassed the necessity of oblique distance by circumventing the State entirely: his second film, Beijing Bastards (1992), was the first independently financed film in post-1949 China.
Even before shooting Beijing Bastards, Zhang knew that the first film to capture the lifestyles of China's contemporary Rock and Roll stars would be censored. His desire to document the society in which he lived--not the one in which the State wanted him to live--forced him to turn to friends and foreign corporations for money. Unlike many of China's other young directors, Zhang does not censor his own ideas to win State approval for his films. Consequently, only his first film, Mama (1990) has been released in China to date, although pirated Video Compact Discs (VCDs) of Beijing Bastards are not uncommon. Even though the government has been unreceptive of Zhang's work, he maintains that "the government shouldn't fear me. Directors are like little children: simple, honest." Whether or not they should fear Zhang, it is clear that the State still resists honest treatments of the human experience.
In another departure from previous Chinese cinematic practice, Zhang does not base his films on literature, but rather writes screenplays based on real-life. East Palace West Palace (1996) sprung from a newspaper clipping about police officers' interrogation of gay me. In all of his films, Zhang positions the marginalized of society at the focal point. Zhang argues that "by representing the marginal you get a better picture of society. It is through the marginal that the character of society emerges".
Influenced by German artist Kthe Kollwitz (1867 - 1945), Zhang's films capture struggle and pain without victimizing the subject. Zhang reduces life to its most basic elements-the individual and the interpersonal--and makes moments timeless. Unlike China's more commercial directors such as Feng Xiaogang, Zhang is not trying to play to a popular trope but to create a work of art that "could be seen 500 years ago or 500 years in the future and still be relevant."
The relevancy of his films to everyday life is undoubtedly what causes the censors to choke. Brutal observations of dysfunctional personal and family life in modern China do not fit into the State's project of socialist utopia. By making films that force the Chinese to look into amirror of their own experiences, he seeks to "provoke Chinese people's thinking about their real lives and stir their memories of what has happened in the past." Yet even Zhang seems wary of his own medicine: he has not let his family see his films because watching them "invokes too much pain."
However, it is not pain itself that Zhang seems to fear, but what viewers' reactions to his films will portend for China's future. Will their disquieting force cause viewers to question their personal and societal conditions or wallow in the pain? Zhang may finally get his answer when Crazy English and Seventeen Years open to Chinese audiences later this year. Like A Lan in East Palace West Palace, Zhang will finally get to turn the table on both the State and his compatriots: "You've asked me a lot of questions. Now why don't you ask yourself?"
East Palace West Palace (1996) plays at the Harvard Film Archive November 12th and 13th at 9pm. Zhang Yuan won the Silver Omb for best direction and best screenplay for East Palace West Palace at the 1996 Mar del Plata Film Festival.
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