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Posterized: Zhang Yimou returns with his best film in many years

by Nathaniel R

One of Asia's finest auteurs, Zhang Yimou, returns to arthouse theaters today with his new film Shadow, which is a true return to form for a director whose use of color in movies has few contemporary equals. The new films is shot in color but the costumes and sets are black and white making for numerous startling images. The 69 year old Chinese director's films have been up for multiple BAFTAs, Globes, and Oscars over the years and he also co-directed the very famous Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics so you might not even realize how familiar you are with his work. 

How many of his movies have you seen? Here are the posters for all 21 of his narrative features with some awards trivia, too...

Act One - Introducing Zhang Yimou

Zhang Yimou was a powerhouse right out of the gate, winning Berlinale with his debut feature, which was also the screen debut of China's all time greatest female movie star, Gong Li. The director and his muse would continue collaborating regularly. Ju Dou made them both international sensations and several hits followed in US and European theaters of the 1990s. 

RED SORGHUM (1988) - Berlinale "Golden Bear"... Gong Li's big screen debut.
CODE NAME: COUGAR (1989) - also known as "The Puma Action"... Yimou has called this his worst film. 
JU DOU (1990) - Cannes Competition / Oscar Nominee (China's very first Foreign Film nominee)

Act 2 International Sensation (1991-2006)

Yimou and Gong Li were box office draws for sophisticated moviegoers for the first half of the 1990s, and mainstream awards bodies took notice, too. Their personal and professional relationship ended with Shanghai Triad in 1995 though the former couple later reunited, professionally speaking, for two features.

RAISE THE RED LANTERN (1991) Oscar Nominee (Hong Kong's very first foreign film nominee) /  BAFTA Winner / Spirit Nominee / NBR Winner
THE STORY OF QIU JU (1992) Venice "Golden Lion" / Venice Best Actress "Volpi Cup" / Spirit Nominee / NBR Winner / China's Oscar submission (it was not nominated)
TO LIVE (1994) Globe Nominee / BAFTA Winner / Cannes Competition / Cannes Best Actor

SHANGHAI TRIAD (1995) Best Cinematography Oscar Nominee / Globe Nominee  / Cannes Competition / NBR Winner
KEEP COOL (1997) Venice Competition
NOT ONE LESS  (1999) Venice Winner "Golden Lion"

THE ROAD HOME (1999) Berlinale "Silver Bear" / Sundance Audience Award World Cinema. This was Zhang Ziyi's big screen debut. She starred in two more Yimou films soon thereafter. 
HERO (2002) Oscar Nominee / Globe Nominee / Berlinale Competition

HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS (2004) Best Cinematography Oscar Nominee (also China's Oscar submission though it wasn't nominated for foreign film) / Globe Nominee / BAFTA Nominee
 (2006) Best Costume Design Oscar Nominee (also China's Oscar submission though it wasn't nominated for foreign film) / NBR Winner /  *Gong Li and Zhang Yimou reunite professionally 11 years after their breakup*


Act Three - Waning... and a Comeback?

For the past ten years you might say Zhang Yimou has been flailing a bit, weirdly westernized years after his fame with strange decisions to work with Christian Bale (Flowers of War) and Matt Damon (The Great Wall) as stars of Asian stories. Perhaps it made sense at the time but both films were poorly received. Faring better were his riff on the Coen Bros noir Blood Simple called A Woman, a Gun, a Noodle Shop and a second reunion with Gong Li in Coming Home. 

His best film in at least 15 years, Shadow, is now upon us, winning him the Best Director prize at the Golden Horse Awards, a prize he'd never won before despite his rich career.

A WOMAN, A GUN, A NOODLE SHOP (2009) Berlinale Competition 
THE FLOWERS OF WAR (2011) Globe Nominee / China's Oscar submission (it was not nominated)

SHADOW (2019) Now in Theaters. Go see it. It's FABULOUS and it  won a few prizes at the Golden Horse Awards

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Reader Comments (18)

A LEGEND. I’ve seen Raise the Red Lantern (an AMAZING film and one of the best female roles of all time), To Live, House of Flying Daggers, and The Great Wall (sadly).

May 3, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterbeyaccount

My boyfriend is from China and Zhang Yimou is his favorite director, so we've watched Ju Dou and To Live together. The most interesting thing I've discovered that I never would have realized without my boyfriend is that Yimou does a great job gently criticizing the Chinese government but never going far enough to truly offend them. He's masterful at this high wire act. The best example of this is in The Story of Qiu Ju which pokes fun at the bloated bureaucracy of the Chinese government, but also shows that even poor peasants have the opportunity to receive justice (unlike in capitalist societies, which is the implicit message). I've seen seven of Yimou's films. Raise the Red Lantern is probably his masterpiece, but my heart lies with The Story of Qiu Ju, which surprised me with how funny it was.

May 3, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterDame James

He is one of the best: visually and thematically.

Always making great cinema.

I hope his new film is excellent.

May 3, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMarcelo - Brazil

Raise the Red Lantern; the story of qui ju; to live (all in the cinemas) ; curse of the golden flower; house of flying daggers (all on DVD) As much I loved all of them (RTRL especially) I ashamed to say that I had never worked out they were all the same director. I am now excited by Shadow. Thanks Nathaniel.

May 3, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMatt

So far, 8 feature films and a segment for an anthology film based on my list of his films ranked.

May 3, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

I've seen six of these and would like to see more. It's a shame that so many are hard to come by or are sub-par transfers of movies that are so visually splendid. Of his later works, I highly recommend "Coming Home." It has the feel of an old-fashioned melodrama and a truly heartbreaking performance from Gong Li. Have tissues on hand.

May 3, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJordan

I've seen three including "The Great Wall" which was a lot of fun

May 3, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

I saw SHADOW a few months ago and did not like it at all.

RAISE THE RED LANTERN is my favourite. A would-be perfect film if it weren’t for that lazy ending.

May 3, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRoger

Roger -- oh no, i'm sorry to hear that (about Shadow).

Jaragon - i haven't seen The Great Wall but i'm tempted to for the supporting cast alone.

Dame James -- ooh, interesting to hear this. Qiu Ju is one of the only big early ones that I haven't seen so I will try to make time.

May 3, 2019 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I've seen ten of these I think though some of the early ones are a bit fuzzy in my memory. I certainly caught the really big early films like Ju-Dou, and Raise The Red Lantern. I've seen Hero, House of Flying Daggers, etc. more than once. Flying Daggers has one of the prettiest trio of stars ever, and shallowly, is probably the one I return to the most often.

The Great Wall is not really terrible, it's just a disappointment considering what the director is capable of.

May 3, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Hollywood

Except for 8 films, I saw all of Yimou's films. Some were required viewing back in the day, others were ones I seek out on my own. To Live was an old favorite because it tells the story of China through the lives of a couple -- epic in scope but went truly intimate when needed.

Two of my favorites were also the ones that did not get much press: The Road Home -- truly heartbreaking without a lot of tears spilled -- and Riding Alone For Thousand of Miles -- a beautiful story about forgiveness and redemption. One of the few films that made me cry inside the moviehouse but it may be because the film has so much resonance for me and my own family.

And lest I forget, Maggie Cheung's masterpiece performance in Hero is unforgettable and should be Exhibit A when illustrating Deleuzean affection-image (along with Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc, Imelda Staunton in Vera Drake, Fernanda Montenegro in Central Station and Glenn Close in The Wife).

May 4, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterOwl

The ones I have seen have mostly been great, although I wasn't as keen on SHADOW's monochrome colours. Something about it just frustrated me immensely even though the sets were amazing and the action scenes were exciting. I'm hoping to see some of the others I haven't seen on the big screen rather than TV.

May 4, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

I can be someone's boyfriend from China and watch a lot of Zhang Yimou's films together lol

May 4, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterIBEATMERYL

ibeatmeryl & damejames -- this is also my new goal to find a boyfriend from china that i can watch Zhang Yimou movies with :) xo sounds infinitely superior to Netflix and chill.

May 4, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterNathanielR

I saw "Shadow" in 2018 and thought it was stylish and visually very beautiful. A movie that has to be watched in a movie theater to get the full impact. Storyline wasn't as good as visuals (not a fan of "choreographed fighting scenes"), but it had some good ideas nevertheless, like the brother - sister and husband - wife chemistry and the whole idea od "using a shadow"...
I've seen 16 of Zhang Yimou's films mentioned here and I guess "Raise the red lantern" is my favourite.of these.

May 4, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterKris

my favourites from his filmography (though I have a handful left to see)


May 4, 2019 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

It was #43 on my Top 50 Films of 2018 last year:

His return to his roots was clearly dragged out and on to the point of bafflement. Most confounding was his flirtation with Hollywood which demanded a re-evaluation of his entire career. With some confusing choices that in retrospect seem self-destructive, I was, like others, convinced his career was over. His new master was the Chinese/Hollywood/block/blubber/buster scenario, a genre that I feel was a curious hole that a hard edged directer was trying to fill. Increasingly his films became recognizable in their awfulness. Junk not worthy of the author of Ju-dou and Raise the Red Lantern, not to mention many others. So, needless to say, I was delighted and enthralled by Shadow. Certainly, it was a film that I no longer saw as a possibility for him anymore. The Shakespearean reach or the near flawless direction. Boy, was I wrong!. And thankfully! It was worthy of at least 3 Oscar nominations (cinematography, costumes, editing, etc.) But, perhaps it was not eligible. My hope is that his next film, which suspiciously gets dismissed at each and every film festival so far this year. Cannes is just a repeat of this ongoing trend. It's odd considering that Yimou has been a loyal servant to the government that he serves and wants to please (Olympics, anyone?) Perhaps something else is afoot. Regardless, Shadow was such a welcome, overdue delight. It's too bad more critics were not in agreement, but, to be fair, most critics dismissed it as a continuation of his bad (blue?) period, when in reality, it was all grey, black, white and stunningly gorgeous.

May 5, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterIshmael

saw 7 of them... only "The Great Wall" isn't an exceptional film and probably his two greatest masterpieces - to my taste - are Qiu Ju and Hero...

May 5, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJesus Alonso

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