Beijing — No other filmmaker defines the range of China's film industry better than Zhang Yimou. And no other Chinese filmmaker has something as close to a sure bet in China this summer with his recently opened "House of Flying Daggers." One of China's best-known directors, whose works include the critically acclaimed "Raise the Red Lantern," Zhang has over the last quarter-century produced underground, artistic and government-approved commercial films.
As a member of China's legendary Fifth Generation of filmmakers, many of whom entered the Beijing Film Academy in 1978 shortly after the Cultural Revolution, he helped lead the industry away from decades spent playing the role of government mouthpiece.
Now with his latest movie on the eve of the 100th anniversary of Chinese film, he's trying to pull off a feat that some see as the industry's best hope for survival: create a film that is commercially successful both at home and abroad. "His new movie is one of the very few that could hope to compete against Western blockbusters," said Wang Xiaoshuai, director of "Beijing Bicycle." "China has a huge population but an extremely small audience for local movies."
Like a lot of things in China, filmmaking looks a lot more impressive from afar than it does up close. Where foreign film buffs see an up-and-coming nation producing the likes of "Farewell My Concubine," "Red Sorghum" and "Ju Dou," many locals see an industry unbalanced and struggling to right itself.
A central problem, say filmmakers, actors and producers, is the government's confusion over whether it wants to promote, restrict or ignore the industry, leading in turn to a host of structural problems and a fundamental identity crisis. There were 280 films made in China last year, of which as few as 20% actually made it into theaters. The rest go directly to TV and DVD or are aired only at overseas film festivals.
High on the list of industry problems are government restrictions on what filmmakers can depict in their films. Directors have even given censors the nickname "Edward," referring to the lead character in the 1990 film "Edward Scissorhands," for their ability to leave long strings of film on cutting room floors.
Occasionally, however, Beijing's heavy-handed ways can be a blessing for filmmakers. The government banned all new foreign releases during this summer's peak movie-going season. While this was ostensibly designed to protect the morals of Chinese youth, insiders say it's actually aimed at protecting the home team against Hollywood.
Zhang has been the biggest beneficiary this year given his name appeal, hype surrounding "House" and high-profile cast. The movie -- a martial-arts love story set in the 9th century Tang Dynasty involving a conflict between government forces and a rebel group named House of the Flying Daggers -- features Hong Kong heartthrob Andy Lau, Taiwanese Japanese star Takeshi Kaneshiro and famed mainland actress Zhang Ziyi, who starred in Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." Playing around Asia, it is due to be released here in December.
Meanwhile, Zhang Yimou's previous film, "Hero," a lush martial arts epic featuring Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung and Zhang Ziyi that has drawn warm reviews, opens in the U.S. this week, two years after its Chinese debut.
Whether Zhang Yimou can bridge the traditional divide between niche Chinese films that appear in foreign film festivals and more mass-appeal domestic films remains to be seen. But the effort is being closely watched, in part for hints on how the government plans to treat the film industry at this key juncture. "He is China's Great White Hope in a sense," said Stan Rosen, a Chinese film expert at USC. The reviews for "House" in China have been mixed. China's biggest-budget film ever, at around $32 million, it's been criticized for a confusing plot and a weak ending that copies elements from "Crouching Tiger" in a blatant grab for commercial success. But its cinematography, dance and fight scenes have also earned high praise.
Zhang Weiping, a close friend of Zhang Yimou and, as president of Beijing New Picture Film Corp., a major investor, said much of the criticism on the Chinese side reflects a cultural bias in favor of literal plots. "The actress is not a normal person, but a legendary kung fu master," he said. "There's been some misunderstanding."
Zhang is known for his strong, passionate female characters, and this film is no exception because much of the action revolves around Zhang Ziyi's character. The film created some off-screen buzz as well when Zhang Ziyi was asked which of her two male costars had a better "bedroom performance" during the love scenes. Both were good kissers, she replied to reporters, but Takeshi was "gentle and considerate" while Lau was "tough and brusque."
Signs of progress