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Archive for the ‘Zhang Yimou’ Category

Three Views On Chinese Movies In The 2000s: Part I

Having spent part of my Christmas holidays watching THE FOUNDING OF A REPUBLIC, my heart is bursting with patriotic fervour.  Compelled by the nationalist frenzy, I’ve decided to pay homage to “Father of the Nation” Sun Yat-Sen and his Three Principles of the Statue of Sun Yat-Sen at the Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall in TaipeiPeople by looking at the 2000s in Chinese movies from three different perspectives: the Most Valuable Film of the 2000s, the Best Films and Personal Favourites of the Double Zeros.

Now that I’ve protected the Kozo Entertainment Group’s interests in the Mainland market (surely, with millions of sites to monitor, government censors can’t possibly have the time to read past the first paragraph), let’s start with perspective number one: The Most Valuable Film of the 2000s.

Based on the concept of the Most Valuable Player award in sports (those outside of North America probably know this award as “player of the match”), my pick for the Most Valuable Film of the 2000s wasn’t the most technically accomplished movie of the decade or the one that was most artfully rendered.  It is, however, an outstanding film that had a huge impact on Chinese movies in this past decade:  CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON.

Released in 2000, CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON is, to date, the most commercially successful and globally acclaimed Chinese film ever.  At box offices worldwide, it earned over US$213.5 million.  At various film awards across the globe, it won a staggering seventy-three awards and prizes.  At the world’s most prominent film awards, the Academy Awards, it won in four categories after being nominated in ten.

Besides making an impact internationally, CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON had a huge impact on the course of the Chinese movie industry.  After the Asian Economic Crisis of 1997, there wasn’t much interest in making lush, historical costume epics.  In between 1997 and the release of CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON, the only costume epic of note was Chen Kaige’s THE EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN.  Movies were mostly small budget affairs consisting of offerings like Milkyway Image’s crime films or Wong Jing’s exploitation flicks. The big money was reserved for commercially driven projects like the special effects extravaganza STORM RIDERS or the star-driven vehicle TOKYO RAIDERS.  Big-budget costume epics were viewed as risky ventures with little or no chance of financial return.  By making a profit of close to US$200 million (the film cost US$17 million to produce), CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON revived investment into big-budget costume epics and made the genre in vogue for major Chinese directors.

From left to right: Zhang Yimou, Feng Xiaogang, Peter Chan Ho-Sun

From left to right: Zhang Yimou, Feng Xiaogang, Peter Chan Ho-Sun

Take, for instance, Zhang Yimou, the man behind the opening ceremony for the Beijing Olympics.  Zhang’s three films before CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON made its splash were the low-key affairs THE ROAD HOME, NOT ONE LESS and HAPPY TIMES.  Zhang’s next three films: HERO, HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS and CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER.

Before CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON, Feng Xiaogang was known mostly for making successful Lunar New Films for the Mainland market.  He stepped out of that genre by making THE BANQUET and THE ASSEMBLY.

Venturing into elaborate costume epics wasn’t limited to Mainland directors.  Tsui Hark, who had been off making “Hollywood” films like KNOCK OFF and TIME AND TIDE, came back with THE LEGEND OF ZU and SEVEN SWORDSPeter Chan Ho-Sun, famous for urban romances HE’S A WOMAN, SHE’S A MAN and COMRADES: ALMOST A LOVE STORY, threw his hat in the ring by directing THE WARLORDS and producing BODYGUARDS AND ASSASSINS.  For his first Asian movie since HARD BOILED in 1992, John Woo — renown for his slick modern action movies - made RED CLIFF and RED CLIFF II.

With the emergence of China as an economic power in the 2000s, it is possible to legitimately argue that investment in big-budget costume epics would have happened eventually but it is impossible to argue against the idea that CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON was a catalyst in the choices that major Chinese filmmakers made in the past decade.  There can be no doubt that the runaway success of CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON in late-2000/early-2001 set the table for Chinese filmmaking in the 2000s and is, undeniably, the Most Valuable Film of the decade.

Next time: The Best Films of the 2000s


The impact of CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON wasn’t limited just to the Chinese movie industry, it had an effect on Hollywood as well.  Paying, once again, tribute to Sun Yat-Sen and his Three Principles (still with me Mainland censors?), here are three ways the afterglow of the film manifested itself in the West:

1. It made Zhang Ziyi a commodity in Hollywood.

Without her breakthrough performance as Yu Jiao Long, there is no doubt that in the minds of most people over here in North America, she’d be mostly anonymous.  Only people who had an interest in foreign films would possibly know of her and, even then, they may not remember her name.  Most people would have thought of her in this way: “… that plucky country girl from that Zhang Yimou film - what was it called?  THE ROAD HOME?”

Instead, CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON planted her firmly into the consciousness of movie fans.  From 2001 to 2004, she probably had her pick of “compelling hot babe” roles in Hollywood action films.  Her fame certainly helped land her the lead role in MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA and got her membership into the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.


2. It deluded people into thinking that Ang Lee was the right person to direct HULK

In January 2001, at the height of the CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON phenomenon, Ang Lee was contacted by Universal Pictures/Marvel Studios to direct HULK1.  While many viewed CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON as a straight-up wuxia action film, it was, in reality, a human drama film with wuxia touches.  It wasn’t about the quest for a sacred sword or a hard-core tale about revenge, it was about a young girl finding her identity and the unfulfilled love between two warriors.  CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON had more in common with past Ang Lee films like PUSHING HANDS, SENSE AND SENSIBILITY and EAT DRINK MAN WOMAN than classic wuxia movies like COME DRINK WITH ME or DRAGON GATE INN.

Predictably, HULK fizzled at the box office and Ang Lee returned to his human drama roots with the widely acclaimed BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN.

3. It helped the box office success of HERO in North America

Despite two years of dithering by Miramax, the company which owned North American distribution rights to HERO, the film opened on 2,031 screens and took in US$18 million on its opening weekend.  The result set three milestones at the time2:

  • Best end of August opening
  • Second best opening for a foreign language film (behind THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST)
  • Widest release for an Asian film

None of that happens without the momentum and goodwill created by CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON.  It’s unfortunate that HERO squandered it all with that intellectually stimulating but emotionally disheartening ending.  While HERO went on to make US$53 million in North America, subsequent releases did not open nearly as wide and, as a result, did not do as well.  HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS took in US$11 million while KUNG FU HUSTLE earned US$18 million.

It’s hard to blame Zhang Yimou or HERO for the result, the ending was an artistic choice.  It’s just unfortunate that the film was positioned as a mainstream movie even though it had an art film ending.  People go to mainstream movies to be entertained, they don’t go to learn lessons or have intellectual constructs presented to them.  AVATAR has made US$1 billion because, at its heart, it’s old-school entertainment.  The good guys beat the bad guys and the guy gets the girl.  If entertainment value was sacrificed for greater emphasis on environmental protection and the virtues of nature, AVATAR tanks.

The ending of HERO, which told viewers that unification and peace for the people are more important than personal vengeance, was fine as an intellectual argument but unsatisfying as a capper to a kick-ass martial arts movie.  Let’s say OCEAN’S ELEVEN was released in 2010 in the current economic environment.  Wouldn’t it leave a bad taste in viewers’ mouths if Danny Ocean and friends decided to turn themselves in and return their score after their elaborate scheme because they didn’t want to see the workers in the hotel and casino lose their jobs?  I think that the ending of HERO soured many, many moviegoers on the genre and effectively killed any mainstream momentum that CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON fostered.

Image credits: Taiwan Tourism Bureau (Sun Yat-Sen statue), Star East Asia (Zhang Yimou), China Daily (Feng Xiaogang), Ming Pao (Peter Chan Ho-Sun), Universal Pictures (HULK)


1 “From ‘Tiger’ to U’s ‘Hulk’ for helmer”.  Variety.  January 12th, 2001.

2 “‘Hero’ Soars to Late August Record”. Box Office Mojo.  August 29th, 2004.

Thoughts on the Opening Ceremonies for the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games

For a host of idiosyncratic reasons, I’m once again delaying the post on watching my first TVB series in years. Instead, I’m going to share a few thoughts on the opening ceremonies for the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. One of these days, I’m going to go back to doing topical posts about the entertainment circle but let me justify this indulgence by saying Zhang Yimou directed the ceremony so it falls within the purview. When I do a post on how I like to hang out at my remote mountain cabin and play my priceless Stradivarius cello for my dog Tet, that’ll be when I’ve completely turned this blog into one of those “what I had for breakfast and what colour shirt I’m wearing” type of blogs.

Actually, you guys have my Dad and my insane devotion to the Confucian idea of filial piety to thank for this post. I got up at 3:45 am on Friday morning so that I could watch CBC’s coverage of the opening ceremonies with the Old Man at 5 am. Since my Dad isn’t much of a fan of Chinese cinema — he regularly confuses Zhang Yimou with Ang Lee — he didn’t get any of my Zhang Yimou wisecracks. As I need an outlet for my referential humour, I’m inflicting my bad Zhang Yimou jokes on all of you.


PRE-CONCEIVED NOTIONS: Given that the Chinese government believes an outstanding showing as the host of the Olympic Games is in the “national interest”, it’s hard to imagine that the opening ceremonies will be anything less than spectacular. After all, eighteen months and a reported US$300 million were spent preparing for the show. With Zhang Yimou in charge, I expect the ceremony to be split into five distinct sections each with its own color-code — corresponding to the colors of the Olympic rings: blue, black, red, yellow and green. I also expect many, many hot women squeezed into impossibly tights outfits that display copious amounts of cleavage. A week before the ceremony, China Daily reported that a cast of thousands held a dress rehearsal at the Bird’s Nest. I suspect, however, that it’s actually a cast of hundreds with the rest filled in by a ridiculous overuse of CGI.


To be honest, I’m surprised that the Chinese government picked Zhang Yimou to run the ceremony because his last film was based on the Chinese idiom “金玉其外, 敗絮其內” or “gold and jade on the outside, rotten and withered on the inside”. A Freudian slip, perhaps, by the powers-that-be in China … I’m just kidding Chinese government censors. Please don’t ban this blog in the Mainland. We kid because we love.

AFTER THE CEREMONY: If one of the Chinese government’s goals for hosting these games is to announce to the world that China is ready to take centre stage in the global community, the goal was achieved … and then some. All that was missing was the unveiling of a huge “Mission Accomplished” banner from the top of the Bird’s Nest. From the opening countdown to the spectacular fireworks display that closed the show, the subtext to the precisely co-ordinated spectacle seemed to be saying: “We have the talent. We have the numbers. We have the will. We have the money. We are going to own the 21st Century.”

This wasn’t the false bravado of some punk kid who just talks the talk but can’t walk the walk, this was a full-on demonstration of something Jet Li’s character said in MY FATHER IS A HERO — a real man doesn’t talk about how he is going to do this or how he is going to do that, a real man just does it. This is precisely what China did on the hot and humid night of August 8th, it showed the World by deeds and actions that it is fully capable of being the dominant global presence or, if you will, “the man” of the 21st Century.

MORE THOUGHTS: Social and political implications aside, the most impressive part of the ceremony was the exact co-ordination of a cast of thousands. I joked earlier about Zhang Yimou’s overuse of CGI in CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER but, given the budget and resources, Zhang was able to actualize his grand vision with real, live people. The opening countdown, the bit with the 2,008 drummers, the movable type segment and the human Bird’s Nest were magnificent displays of timing and a grand payoff for months of meticulous preparation.

Human Bird’s Nest

Segments like the tributes to papermaking and calligraphy showed off the depth of Zhang’s artistry and breadth of his imagination. It almost makes you want to forget that he killed the momentum for Chinese films in the West with HERO and buried it with HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS. :-)


- Even before all the controversy with the “Ode to the Motherland” girl surfaced, I found the use of children during the ceremony a little off-putting. Maybe it’s because I’m turning into an old grouch but I always find gratuitous use of kids in ceremonies treacly and a lazy way to manufacture sentiment. It wasn’t just Lin Miaoke that struck me as sappy, it was also the parade of children dressed in various ethnic costumes. I will say, however, that having earthquake survivor Lin Hao lead the Chinese team with Yao Ming was a nice tribute to the earthquake victims and a great way to honour Lin for heroically saving some of his classmates during the earthquake.

- Even if you aren’t a ham sup lo, I think you couldn’t help but notice the ring of girls who cheered and waved throughout the two-hour plus Parade of Nations. According to the Beijing Meteorology Service, the temperature during the ceremony was a sweltering 29°C yet those girls had an unwavering energy level. Considering that the Parade of Nations lasted about as long as it takes to run a marathon, those girls achieved an amazing physical feat. Maybe Zhang Yimou used CGI after all because it’s hard to fathom that those girls were that active for that long without having to drink water or go to the bathroom or do the things that humans need to do.

Parade of Nations

- In the lead up to the lighting of the Olympic flame, the CBC presenters were saying that the organizers were being very secretive about how the Olympic cauldron was going to be lit. One of them even wondered if there was an Olympic cauldron. While Li Ning was doing his “running on the wall”, I turned to my Dad and joked: “At the last minute he’s going to turn away and not light the flame. There’s going to be a big thing about how they’re not going to do an Olympic cauldron this time for the sake of humanity and the environment.”

My Dad didn’t get the joke and looked at me like I was nuts.

Li Ning

- Speaking of the CBC, I’d always heard from my fellow Canadians that it provides better coverage of the Olympics than the Americans get with NBC. I’d never watched an opening ceremonies in its entirety before so I have no basis for comparison but I thought the CBC’s coverage this time around was very poor. It sounded like they were ill-prepared — like they were reading, on-the-fly, information provided to them in a press kit. They also completely ignored Lin Hao when the Chinese team made its entrance. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one wondering who the little kid was walking next to Yao Ming.

- Actually, I thought whoever directed the host feed provided, I believe, by CCTV could have done a better job. I think a bird’s eye view angle from atop the Bird’s Nest was needed to fully capture the grandeur of the ceremony. It wasn’t until I checked out China Daily’s photo gallery of the opening ceremonies that I realized the magnitude of the spectacle. I hope that the official DVD of the ceremonies (available from YesAsia) does a better job of capturing the amazing artistry.

Opening Ceremonies Photo

- If I had another four hours to devote to watching the opening ceremonies, I wouldn’t mind watching TVB’s coverage. It’d be interesting to get the Hong Kong take on the spectacle. I sensed a distinct undercurrent of “yeah, it was great but they’re oppressing Tibet and they’ve got problems with human rights and the environment” in the coverage over here in the West.

- Many are voicing the opinion that this was the best Olympic opening ceremonies ever and that it will be impossible for London to top it in 2012. This sentiment reminded me of when I used to do the “this leading man/leading lady is leaving TVB” stories for my old website. I used to get e-mails saying TVB would never recover from the loss because this star or that star was a huge ratings force. TVB invariably did just fine and many of the stars who left, like Michael To Dai-Yu, eventually returned to TVB. Somehow, as technology progresses and people challenge themselves to rise above the standard set by Beijing, I think there will be an opening ceremony that meets or exceeds the one Zhang Yimou and company organized.

Image credits: Beijing New Picture Film Co. / Edko Film (CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER stills), China Daily (Opening ceremonies photos) Copyright © 2002-2021 Ross Chen