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How Times Have Changed, or Have They?

December 17, 1995|Maggie Farley | Maggie Farley is a Times staff writer based in Hong Kong

BEIJING — It's Shanghai in the 1930s, a time of gangsters and casinos, betrayal and bloody revenge. A young country bumpkin has been summoned to the city to be the servant of Jewel, the moll of his relative, a clan boss. At a rollicking nightclub, he gets his first introduction to Jewel and the excesses of the city.

"Look at me," she lilts as she meltingly struts her stuff onstage with a quiver of red feathers and soft flesh. "You know you want to," she says as she fixes her eye provocatively on an entranced high-roller and smoothes her hands down her body, adding, "Look at me."

A lowlife gangster crows, "What a slut!" But he is clearly delighted, and the boy--like Chinese audiences and perhaps as a stand-in for director Zhang Yimou himself--is awe-struck. Jewel is beautiful, haughty and cruel. But by shadowing her in Shanghai's underworld, the boy learns that life is not always what it appears.

That could be the theme of not only Zhang's films but also his off-screen life? as well. After picture after picture of his has been banned, his latest film, "Shanghai Triad," appears to be his attempt at a straightforward shoot-'em-up gangster tale that would pass without comment from the Chinese bureaucracy. And, indeed, censors did approve the script for its dark look at the corruption under Nationalist rule before the 1949 Communist takeover.

But a close viewing of this work may suggest a political message--the bad old days of the '30s are not so different from the corruption and chaos of the bad new days of the '90s. Indeed, on the Shanghai set earlier this year, a crew member wore a sweatshirt proclaiming: "What appears bad is not necessarily bad. What appears good is not necessarily good. The whole story takes place in what seems like the old Shanghai, but it is not just the story of old Shanghai."

This subtle subterfuge--a careful balance between accommodation and creation--has become a hallmark of Zhang's career, necessitated by China's mercurial, restrictive government.

His films alternately banned and praised by the same regime, Zhang never knows what will happen next. After he sent his last film, "To Live," to the Cannes Film Festival without government permission, officials interrupted the shooting of "Shanghai Triad," forced Zhang to utter self-criticism and forbade him from further foreign co-productions--and then last month publicly praised "To Live" at the Shanghai Film Festival, citing it as an example of China's world-class cinema.

Despite the bureaucratic hurdles, Zhang was able to complete "Shanghai Triad," and its selection as the opening movie of the New York Film Festival in October came as a welcome reward.

But at the last minute, irate Chinese officials demanded that festival organizers cancel a screening of "The Gate of Heavenly Peace," a penetrating documentary on the 1989 crackdown at Tiananmen Square, or risk having "Shanghai Triad" yanked from the schedule. Prevented from doing this because Sony Pictures owns the film's American distribution rights, the officials made Zhang the proxy for their punishment, forbidding him to attend the premiere.

He was not banned then from traveling overseas in general; he went to Taipei early this month for Taiwan's equivalent of the Oscars, though he's forbidden to appear at any event where Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui might be--like the awards ceremony.

But authorities have always made it difficult for him to go anywhere, anyhow--forcing him to return all the way to his home province in southern China to seek approval from local officials there for any overseas trips.

"The political climate for filmmakers right now is still very difficult," he says. "I just have to play it by ear."

Besides political tangles, Zhang also had to contend with other drama off-screen.

While his lush and worshipful camera work betrayed nothing, Zhang's career-long relationship with his partner and muse, Gong Li, who plays Jewel, was crumbling as they filmed this latest picture.

Since he discovered her at Beijing's Central Academy of Drama eight years ago, Li has starred in all of Zhang's movies, ultimately eclipsing China's other actresses and the director's relationship with his now-former wife. But the two announced their breakup the day after filming ended, and Li now plans to wed a Singaporean tobacco magnate.

"She is a very intelligent, sensitive actress," able to convey his intentions in an unexpected, surprising way, Zhang says. "Her expression is better than you had imagined. Particularly those rather emotionally intense scenes. She acts best in very emotional movies, and she herself is a very passionate person. So I feel very glad about all these years of cooperation."

In "Triad," she performs one production number in a Marlene Dietrich-style tuxedo, perhaps a nod to their Dietrich-Von Sternberg-style relationship.

For his next project, Zhang is leaving behind the trademark exoticism of Li and historical settings. He said he wants to make a film about "young people and modern urban life" that will ground him in China's present.

Meanwhile, Li is finishing up "Temptress Moon," a gangster film set in Shanghai in the 1920s, directed by Chen Kaige, Zhang's rival and former collaborator. It is a move that will probably invite direct comparison with Zhang and "Triad" and prompt judgments as to whether Li can shine without his careful direction.

He thinks she will and says he would be happy to work with Li again.

"I don't think I'm that important to her appeal," he says pensively. "Most of my previous movies with Gong Li have been about a strong woman who battles against a seemingly inevitable fate. I'm going to have to start looking for some new subject material."

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