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Zhang Yimou: Only Possible Work Environment Is China

November 14, 1995

BEIJING (AP) _ China’s top director says nothing _ not fame abroad nor censorship at home _ could make him shoot movies anywhere but China.

``I definitely have to stay in China. This is where I live, where I’m familiar with everything, where all my personal experiences have been,″ said Zhang Yimou, the director of the Academy Award-nominated films ``Ju Dou″ and ``Raise the Red Lantern.″

His latest movie, ``Shanghai Triad,″ a gangster tale starring Zhang’s longtime leading lady Gong Li as a 1930s nightclub singer, opened the New York Film Festival on Sept. 29.

But Zhang skipped the opening at Lincoln Center because, he says, he was pressured by the Chinese government. Festival organizers said Beijing was angry that an American documentary about the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy movement _ a film Zhang had nothing to do with _ was on the festival program.

At a film festival sponsored by Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute in Beijing this month, Zhang refused to go into particulars about missing the New York premiere. What is more important to him, he said, is how his work is received in China.

``When I’m making a film I’m thinking from the perspective of what’s in a Chinese person’s mind, what does the audience see, what do they make of it,″ Zhang said in an interview. ``I don’t understand Western audiences _ only very superficially. So it’s hard to see from their perspective.″

Still, there have been temptations to try. ``More than one person has asked me to make a movie abroad,″ Zhang said with a laugh. ``I could do it, but I couldn’t make a good one.″

Zhang at first modestly claimed he was not aware of what foreign critics say about his films because he does not speak foreign languages. But when pressed, he said he appreciates the warm reactions from audiences at international festivals. He was in Cannes in May for the opening of ``Shanghai Triad.″

``Naturally, as a director, I’m very happy that so many people pay attention to my films,″ he said in a quiet voice with a slightly sheepish smile.

Zhang is one of the critically acclaimed ``Fifth Generation″ of Chinese filmmakers, a small group who graduated from the Beijing Film Academy in 1984. His directorial debut, ``Red Sorghum″ in 1987, won the best-picture award at the 1988 Berlin Film Festival.

``Raise the Red Lantern″ and ``Ju Dou″ were banned in China, then later released. Zhang’s ``To Live,″ winner of the Cannes Jury Grand Prix last year, still cannot be shown here. The government was angry that Zhang’s partners submitted ``To Live″ to the Cannes festival without its approval.

Despite other changes in the Chinese film world, censorship continues with no loosening in sight.

``Everyone knows that in China you can’t make whatever film you want. When we select our subject matter, there are limits imposed by the censors. That’s the environment of our lives here,″ Zhang said. ``We’re used to it. I can still find a way to make movies.″

At the same time, there are new problems. Now that most government subsidies have been withdrawn, filmmakers face the same problem as their counterparts in the West: money. Investors want good box-office receipts, so directors must appeal to audience tastes.

Zhang’s films are known for their beautiful cinematography and their exploration of human emotions under the pressures of life in China in a variety of settings.

Some critics say Zhang and other Fifth Generation filmmakers, while appreciated abroad, are not as popular at home because Chinese moviegoers want action and foreign features, not artistic works about China’s rural life and its past.

Yet Zhang, easily recognized by his gaunt face and crew cut, attracts crowds wherever he goes. Chinese know him as the son of blue-collar workers _ someone without special privilege who made it big in the world’s culture capitals.

They also are fascinated by his longtime, now-ended romance with Gong. They made five movies together since 1990, and split up during the filming of ``Shanghai Triad″ earlier this year.

While several reporters interviewed Zhang outside the theater where the Sundance Film Festival was held, a Chinese and Western crowd gathered quietly, waiting for a chance to mob him for autographs. They were rewarded. Zhang paused to chat and scrawl his large signature on many festival programs.

Zhang is now working on a script about a subject he has never touched _ contemporary life in urban China. If all goes well, filming will begin later this year or early next year, he said.

``I always want to make different kinds of films each time,″ he said. ``That’s the way to train, to become more resilient. I want to try different styles.″

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