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Organizer and Chair: Qing-Yun Wu, California State University
Discussant: Hsin-Sheng C. Kao, California State University, Long Beach
Zhang Yimou was the first Chinese director who brought Chinese films into the international popular market and fascinated the world audience with Oriental rituals, distinct colors and primitive passions. Some critics have criticized his film for lack of depth. In fact, all Zhang Yimous films are based on contemporary Chinese novels of intricate plots and meanings. The secret of Zhang Yimous success lies in reducing the complexity of a literary text and turning it into a simpler story of spontaneous visual power and direct filmic communication. Although the story is simplified, its embedded meanings are usually deepened. As a result it becomes more universal and avant garde, instead of being merely ethnographic and realistic. So far there has been no focused comparative study of Zhang Yimous films with their original fiction. The following three papers are part of our effort to stimulate this study. S. Louisa Weis paper will identify the four strategies that Zhang Yimou has employed to de-center literature from a dominant position that it has enjoyed for thousands of years and reforge the authentic history/stories of China through an art that audiences from all over the world can appreciate. From a different perspective, Hua-yuan L. Mowrys paper will measure Zhang Yimous indebtedness to contemporary Chinese writers as well as his contribution to Chinese literature by introducing "hard-to-comprehend" Chinese fiction to a much wider international audience via his films. Focusing on the differences between Zhang Yimous films and their literary originals, Qing-Yun Wus paper will discuss two major filmic transformations: changing the story but keeping the blood (theme/spirit) such as in the films Raising the Red Lantern and To Live; or keeping the story line but changing its blood as in the film Judou. It is through such drastic transformations that Zhang Yimou revealed his literary sensitivities and cinematic talents.
Zhang Yimou: Making a National/Chinese Art International
S. Louisa Wei, University of Alberta
After Zhang Yimou brought back home to China the Gold Bear from the Berlin Film Festival in 1988 as the first Asian to receive the honor, he has often been called a "hero." He is called a "local hero" in the West since he has revealed on the silver screen a China that the West never saw (if only dreamed) before; meanwhile, he is crowned "a cultural hero" in China since he has made a national artChinese filminternational. Nowadays in China, "cultural heroes" not only need the wit and courage of "business heroes" but also have to face challenges from both domestic and foreign critics. As a central target for film critique by critics and scholars alike, Zhang Yimou has not only been accused of selling an exoticism to the Westerners, but also has been condemned as a "prisoner"who is trapped in the prison house of the post-colonial discourse. But through an analytical study, I will demonstrate that Zhang Yimous process of making the national/Chinese film international parallels and interacts with the process of translating contemporary Chinese literature, especially the avant garde or experimental fictions, into film works.
Being known as a master in translating literature into film, Zhang Yimou never attempts to represent the literary work on the big screen in the conventional sense. He always changes both the story and the telling of it so that his film adaptation rivals the original fiction, and sometimes causing a greater sensation. As his first strategy, Zhang Yimou moves the original setting into rather isolated family compound or a barren landscape of Northern China. Second, he focuses the camera on his female protagonist and decreases the depiction of male characters. Third, he paints the screen with a red that original literary works do not have, pointing at a folk aesthetic against an intellectual one. Lastly, he invents some folk customs/rituals to weave into the original story in order to vitalize the visual and sound effects. I shall analyze how, by making these changes, Zhang Yimous film de-centers literature from a dominant position that it has enjoyed for thousands of years, and at the same time retells the authentic history/stories of China through an art that audiences from across the world can appreciate.
Image and Word: Zhang Yimous Indebtedness to Chinese Literature
Hua-yuan L. Mowry, Dartmouth College
As a cinematographer, as an actor, and ultimately as a director, Zhang Yimou stands out, arguably, as the most versatile of the PRC film makers. Following the hot waves of Zhang Yimous films in the Western movie theaters comes enthusiastic study of those films in the classrooms. I found that teaching Zhang Yimous films along with the original literary texts upon which they were based is a most effective means to help the instructor and students to get insights into both Chinese cinematic art and contemporary literature. My paper grows out of a film course I co-taught recently. Re-seeing Zhang Yimous films in light of their original written texts, I intend to measure Zhang Yimous indebtedness to the writers on whose works he bases his films.
This paper will compare two films with the written texts upon which they were basedthe films are Zhang Yimous 1987 Red Sorghum and his 1993 To Live. It will treat matters surrounding Presentation and Representation in the context of two differing media which nevertheless have more or less the same backdrop from the literary, social, political and artistic (including cinematic art) points of view. Major questions addressed will be in the areas: thematic issues; imagery and symbolism (written word vs. color, voice, sound, and image); characterization and dramatization; and filmic borrowing, transformation, and artistic creation/recreation. My analysis will affirm Zhang Yimous contribution to contemporary Chinese literature and art by his introduction of excellent fiction to a much wider audience via his films.
Screen Versus Text: Filmic Transformations
Qing-Yun Wu, California State University, Los Angeles
This paper will discuss two basic filmic transformations of a literary text: changing the story body but keeping its blood (theme/spirit) such as in the films Raising the Red Lantern and To Live; or keeping the story line but transforming its basic theme/spirit as in the film Judou. It has two parts. Part one interrogates Zhang Yimous invention of central images such as the enclosed forbidden mansion (Raising the Red Lantern) and the puppet show (To Live). It demonstrates how Zhang Yimou conveys a type of Foucault/Kafka vision of human existence/imprisonment newly acquired by Chinese young writers such as Su Tong by simply transplanting the story from the accepted Oriental screen of garden to a forbidden mansion that resembles the Western panopticon in the middle ages. It also reveals how Zhang Yimous invention of a puppet show transmits effectively a type of Camus vision of the absurdity of life and Sartres existentialism and humanism shared by the Chinese in the 1980s and 90s.
Part two focuses on the major differences between the film Judou and the original story Fuxi Fuxi by Liu Heng. In an ancient Chinese myth, Fuxi and Nüwa were blood brother and sister but married in order to produce offsprings for the sake of the continuation of humankind. Liu Heng chose "Fuxi, Fuxi" as the title of his story, because he intends to explore a mans dilemma between procreation and lust/sexual pleasure. The story develops around the theme of a males double punishment by impotence and virility and the conflict between culture and nature. Procreation is no longer a natural necessity but a cultural/familial burden. The paper will discuss how by naming the film Judou, Zhang Yimou shifts the center from the male to the female. Correspondingly, the film highlights sexual pleasure over procreation and intensifies the struggle between a patriarchal tradition, which sanctions sex merely for the sake of procreation, and female and male transgressors. Two parts of the paper merge together to heighten Zhang Yimous literary sensitivity and cinematic talents. It demonstrates that Zhang Yimou transformed the literary texts not to cater to the Western audience, but to capture the spiritual truth and lead the cultural change of Chinese society in the 1980s. Judou was banned, not because it washes Chinese dirty linen before the West, but because of its subversion of the entrenched social and family structure in China.