Leading Chinese director Zhang Yimou is busy combining majestic scenery, art, ethnicity and music, as his latest performance in breathtaking Lijiang shows. He was interviewed by Lan Anh Nguyen.
Ancient Lijiang: Setting for Zhang Yimou's Latest Work
LIJIANG, China (Asian Eye/IPS Asia-Pacific) - In this ancient town in China's Yunnan province, a festive atmosphere filters through the wooden restaurants along the waterways that embrace the city and its people. Even when it rains, tourists still flood the narrow alleys, taking in Lijiang's rich heritage. By the time sunset comes, the men have gotten drunk and women have become bold enough to start exchange songs, singing in high pitched and flirtatious ways.
Part of this unique scene is subtly depicted in 'Impression Lijiang', a spectacular outdoor performance directed by China's leading director Zhang Yimou that made its debut on the foot of Yulongxue, or Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, on Jul. 28.
The one-hour daytime performance, featuring around 500 amateur local actors in a natural setting, is a powerful epic of the local culture and people that make up Lijiang, whose main ethnic group is the Naxi -- just one of the more than 20 ethnic communities Yunnan is home to. 'Impression Lijiang' is also expected to be another magnet to attract more tourists to Lijiang old town, noted for its architecture and system of waterways that made it World Heritage site in 1997.
Zhang Yimou, together with two associate producers who are also well-known artists in China -- Wang Chaoge and Fan Yue -- also successfully directed 'Impression Liu Sanjie', the first outdoor performance in the mountain and river scenery of Yangshuo, a world-renowned scenic resort in China. 'Impression Liu Sanjie' opened to the public in 2003 and instantly became a hit.
Such performances are what Zhang is busy with right now, and he plans to launch a series of similar performances at historic locations across China.
"I spent two years shooting a movie in Lijiang," said Zhang in an interview her after the premiere of 'Impression Lijiang'. " A lot of people were touched by the natural beauty here, and we knew it could be an ideal place for such a performance."
Snow never melts on the peaks of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, creating a breathtaking background for the show that is performed on a man-made stage at the foot of the mountain. The performers, dressed in the ethnic costumes -- most notably Naxi -- dance, sing folk songs and perform ancient rituals, depicting how local people have overcome hardship and enjoyed their simple lives for thousands of years.
The songs tell of how women work hard to make a living for the family, and how men get together, get drunk, sing and write poem to make the women proud.
'Impression Lijiang' reaches several climaxes, as actors ride horses on the stages and hundreds of men take part in a soul-lifting, solemn drum performance.
Photograph by Lan Anh Nguyen - Beating the drums at the foot of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain
Zhang said this is a first time an outdoor performance in the daytime was organised. Nobody has done it before, and even 'Impression Sanjie' was supported with special lighting and visual effects.
The show also created jobs for 500 local people from 10 ethnic groups who have been selected from 16 towns and villages. The show is divided into two parts -- 'Snow Mountain Impression', an one-hour performance by the foot of the mountain, and 'Ancient City Impression', for another hour. It is now showing daily to a vast audience -- mostly Chinese tourists -- and big enough so the organisers do not find it necessary as yet to promote the show in the international market.
Zhang is probably the busiest director in China at the moment. His movie 'Wearing Golden Armor Across The City' is in the post-production period. A high-profile opera is to open at New York's Metropolitan Opera Theatre in December, and then there is the much-expected opening of the Olympic Games of 2008 in Beijing.
"The theme of the Olympics 2008 opening will be 'One World - One Dream'. I hope that we'll impress the world with Chinese culture," Zhang said.
An interview with Zhang Yimou
Zhang Yimou is one of the China's most recognised movie directors, whose movies like 'Red Sorghum' (1987), 'Judou' (1989), 'Raise the Red Lantern' (1991) and 'To Live' (1994) have received prestigious international awards. At the premiere of 'Impression Lijiang', we talked to him about his current work and what lies ahead.
Q. You are working on several projects at the same time: a movie, the outdoor performance, the opera in New York, and the opening of the Olympics. Tell us how you are making this happen?
Zhang Yimou: I try to manage the time, and of course, there are a lot of sleepless nights. The movie 'Wearing Golden Armor Across the City' was developed from a famous Chinese drama, and Gong Li plays the empress. It is in the post-production phase, and we plan to release the movie in China and the U.S. markets all together, around Christmas, at the same time as 'The First Emperor', the opera.
Q. You haven't made a movie with Gong Li for a long time, but now you are working together again. Why?
Zhang Yimou: Among all Chinese actresses, I feel she'll make the most appropriate actress for this character. First, it's because of her age, as we need someone in her thirties and forties to play the empress. And more importantly, her performance skills and her style.
Q. Many of your movies touched subjects that are deemed sensitive, such as 'To Live', a movie about the hardship of people during the Cultural Revolution. How did you manage to make the movie?
Zhang Yimou: In the Chinese censorship system, they would read the script and approve the script first. So we were allowed to make the movie, but when the visual was finished, it didn't pass the censors and it has never been released in China.
Q. Why is history a favourite subject in your movies?
Zhang Yimou: Actually most of my movies have historical topics, only a few of them are contemporary films. Around two-thirds of my movies have historical topics. It's because China has a long history, and there are a lot of topics to cover. Besides, historical movies actually give more room for imagination, creativity and flexibility. It's more difficult to do contemporary films because they have to deal with current issues, society and politics... and because of sensitive nature of these in China, the room for creativity is actually much smaller.
Q. Do you want to do contemporary movies?
Zhang Yimou: There is a possibility that I will do these, but to go back to the question you asked earlier, it's hard to get in-depth (in contemporary movies). If you want to do so, you have to get through many sensitive angles. . . .It's basically more challenging than the historical theme.
Q. Have you ever considered making international movies?
Zhang Yimou: No. I don't understand foreign languages, so it's hard for me to handle the culture issue. I'd rather do things (where) I'll be able to tackle all the sensitive angles in, rather than an international movie because it will be always a tourist viewpoint rather than in-depth international stories.
Q. You have turned some Chinese actresses into international stars. Who's going to be the next talent found by Zhang Yimou?
Zhang Yimou: I don't know. But in the movie I just finished shooting, I used a young actress, Li Ma. She is 18 years old, which is the same age as Gong Li when she made her first movie. I can't tell the future. Hopefully, she'll be successful in the future.
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