BEHIND THE GREAT WALL:
understanding the allegorical film art of Zhang Yimou
by Gary W. Wright
Hidden away behind the Great Wall of China was a myth that the Middle Kingdom was the epicentre of the ‘inscrutable East’. However, a closer meditation on its art revealed the same often satirical allegorical intent as in the art of the rest of the ‘United’ Nations of Terra (UNT). A fittingly leading exemplar of China’s allegorical film art was the country’s leading film artist, Zhang Yimou. For an interest in satirically roasting American and Canadian film artists was implicitly present from his first allegorical film, RED SORGHUM (1987), inspired by the allegorical Mo Yan novel, Red Sorghum Clan (1986).
For with a group of Chinese peasants dying in their attempt to ambush a group of brutal and violent Japanese soldiers occupying China in World War II at the end of the film, Zhang implied that he felt that the leading American film artists at that time had been destroyed by the fatal helicopter crash that killed actor/director/writer Vic Morrow and child extras Renee Chen and Myca Le around 2:20 am in the early morning of July 23, 1982 on the George Folsey jr. produced John Landis set of the Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall produced Landis, Joe Dante, George Miller and Steven Spielberg film, TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE (1983). For the doomed Chinese peasants resembled American film artists like Landis, Spielberg, James Cameron, Francis Coppola, Walt Disney, John Huston, Stanley Kubrick, Leonard Nimoy and John Waters, while the leader of the Japanese soldiers resembled Marshall. Zhang underlined his implicit intent with allusions to the twilit, allegorical and implicitly Cameron roasting Spielberg film, EMPIRE OF THE SUN (1987), a film produced by Kennedy and Marshall that was also set in China during World War II.
Significantly, with the Coppola resembling peasant and his David Lynch resembling child surviving the final battle, Zhang also expressed his hope that Coppola and Lynch would survive the outraged audience backlash against film artists at the time and continue making film art. In addition, Zhang also implied a lack of interest in the computer graphic imagery (CGI) quickly developed after the TZ disaster to deal with dangerous on set effects sequences like the one that caused the TZ disaster, for CGI free was RED SORGHUM. Curiously, however, while his next film was also CGI free, his implicit faith in Lynch disappeared when he teamed up again with cinematographer Chang Wei, Gong Li-who played Wo Nainai, the beautiful young wife of the implicitly Coppola linked peasant-composer Jiping Zhao and an actor who played a skinny peasant in that film and returned to the Temple Theatre with the allegorical film, JU DOU (1990), co-directed by Fengliang Yang.
For the film saw an implicitly Lynch linked Chinese peasant named Yang Tian-qing-played by Baotian Li-fail in his attempt to succeed his implicitly Kubrick linked father-in-law as the successful head of a silk dying business. In fact, both father-in-law and son-in-law were killed over the course of the film by the son-in-law’s son, Tianbai-played as a child by Zhang Yi and as a boy by Ji-an Zeng, respectively-implying that Zhang had turned against both Kubrick and Lynch, perhaps as a result of the then current, controversial and twilit Kubrick film, FULL METAL JACKET (1987) and the even more controversial and twilit Lynch ‘moving painting’, BLUE VELVET (1986), both of which were alluded to in JU DOU. Significantly, Zhang implicitly roasted Lynch even more memorably when he teamed up again with Gong, Jiping and JU DOU editor Yuan Du on the allegorical and CGI free film, RAISE THE RED LANTERN (1991), inspired by the allegorical Su Tong novel, Wives And Concubines (1990) and curiously shot in the manner of a Kubrick film with stationary medium shots and long unedited scenes.
‘Marry a rich man and you will only be his concubine.’
For Zhang implicitly linked the film’s four feuding mistresses of the wealthy Master Chen-played by Jingwa Ma-to the first four ‘moving paintings’ of Lynch. That is, the oldest first mistress, Yuru-played by Shuyuan Jin-resembled Lynch and evoked the loving grandmother-played by Dorothy McGinnis-grown with a magic seed in the allegorical Lynch moving painting, THE GRANDMOTHER (1970); the next oldest second mistress, Zhuoyan-played by Cuifen Cao-evoked the Lady in the Radiator-played by Laurel Near-in the allegorical Lynch moving painting, ERASERHEAD (1977); the third mistress, a beautiful ex-Chinese opera singer named Meishan-played by Saifei He-and her illicit lover, Doctor Gao-played by Zhigang Cui-evoked the freakshow Siamese twins and Doctor Frederick Treves-played by Sir Anthony Hopkins-in the allegorical Lynch moving painting, THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980); and the fourth, youngest and most beautiful and spiteful mistress, Songlian-played by Song-evoked the equally beautiful Princess Irulan-played by Virginia Madsen-in the allegorical Lynch moving painting, DUNE (1984). Indeed, at the beginning of the film, Songlian faced the camera in a head and shoulders shot and introduced the film like Princess Urulan at the beginning of DUNE, affirming the implicit link between the two characters.
In addition, the name of Master Chen reminded us that Joan Chen played Jocelyn ‘Josie’ Packard in the twilit and allegorical Lynch moving painting telefilm series, TWIN PEAKS (1990-91), implicitly reaffirming the film’s interest in Lynch. In fact, the link reminded us that Lynch openly sympathized with Chinese occupied Tibet in TWIN PEAKS, a sympathy for the plight of Tibet that perhaps contributed to Zhang’s roast of Lynch. That the scheming and spiteful Songlian destroyed the peace and harmony of the labyrinthine and Hollywood studio evoking mansion of Master Chen in an unscrupulous attempt to unseat the third mistress and become the Master’s number one mistress reaffirmed the implicit Lynch roasting intent of RAISE THE RED LANTERN, for it reminded us that the failure of the extremely expensive DUNE destroyed the peace and harmony of Lynch-and almost destroyed his moving painting career. Thus, the sight of Songlian wandering around in a lost and confused daze, in the end, after the murder of Meishan and the arrival of mistress number five who evoked Dorothy Vallens-played by Isabella Rossellini-in BLUE VELVET, implied the conviction of Zhang that Lynch had lost his way by 1991.
As for Zhang, he implied that he was not pleased with the critical response given RAISE THE RED LANTERN when he returned with Song, Yuan, Zhao and RAISE THE RED LANTERN costume designer Huamiao Tong to the Temple Theatre with the allegorical film, THE STORY OF QUI JU (1992), inspired by the allegorical Chen Yuan Bin novel, The Wan Family Lawsuit (1992).
‘Look for a guy named Zhang. Tell him your case.
He’ll write the complaint for you. He will help you.’
Fittingly, the film began with Qui Ju, a young newlywed village woman-played by Song-slowly emerging from the Chinese masses thronging a town boulevard, a perfect visual metaphor for the slow emergence of Zhang as a serious Chinese film artist. Curiously, however, Qui’s face was distraught and anxious, implying that she was not happy about the successful emergence of Zhang. It turned out that her distraught face was due to the fact that she and her sister-in-law, Meizi -played by Liuchun Yang-were transporting her ailing husband, Wan Qinglai-played by Peiqi Liu-by cart from their village to be looked at by a town doctor-played by Yu Di. For her husband had been kicked in the crotch by the headman of their village, Wang Shantang-played by Kesheng Lei-after he had insulted Wang. Curiously, after being checked by the doctor and returning with her husband to their house in their village, Qui spent the rest of the film complaining to the authorities in the village and nearby town and city to force the village chief to apologize to her husband. However, to her dismay, Qui was a little too successful in her determined and implacable quest, for to her shocked dismay the authorities took away the chief for imprisonment, in the end. Thus, Zhang implied that while he was hurt and embarrassed by the critical response to RAISE THE RED LANTERN, he was also wary of criticizing too much, lest a critic-presumably Chinese-was dealt with more harshly than he wanted by the Chinese authorities.
Of course, since THE STORY OF QUI JU was released in 1992, the tenth anniversary of the TZ disaster, and since Zhang had used all of his earlier films to implicitly roast American film artists, it was also possible that Qui’s determination that her husband receive an apology symbolized the determination of Deborah Landis to secure an apology for the treatment of her husband John since the TZ disaster. If so, Zhang was warning her to gently release her anger, for fear of causing more problems. At any rate, after creating such allegorical films as TO LIVE (1994), SHANGHAI TRIAD (1995), KEEP COOL (1997), NOT ONE LESS (1999), THE ROAD HOME (1999) and HAPPY TIMES (2000)-and after being implicitly roasted by Lynch on one level in his twilit and allegorical moving painting, MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001), for Coco-played by Ann Miller-wore a Chinese-style blouse at one point and resembled Meishan, the doomed third mistress, in RAISE THE RED LANTERN-Zhang then implied that he was replying to the hugely successful, allegorical, Ozian themed and implicitly Lucas roasting Ang Lee hung fu film, CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (2000), and marking the twentieth anniversary of the TZ disaster with the twilit, Ozian themed, CGI enhanced and allegorical hung fu film, HERO (2002).
‘For ten years these three assassins from Zhao
have repeatedly plotted to kill his majesty,
so he has not known a single peaceful night’s sleep.’
Curiously, the film began with the implicitly Ang and Scarecrow linked assassin with no name-his Nameless status enhanced by the Ennio Morricone evoking strains sometimes heard on the soundtrack by Tan Dun, who also composed the soundtrack for CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON, and played by Jet Li-being transported alone in a horse drawn carriage to an audience with the implicitly Great Oz and Landis linked King of Qin-played by Chen Dao Ming. The sight reminded us that the young bride Wo Nainai was carried in a litter to her new life and home in her husband’s village by her implicitly Coppola linked husband and the rest of the celebratory and implicitly American film artist linked peasants at the beginning of RED SORGHUM, linking HERO to the first film of Zhang. After being ushered into the presence of the King of Qin, Nameless then helped the King survive an intricate plot by a twilit trio of assassins to kill him, allowing the King to go on to unite the seven feuding kingdoms of China into one great country as its first Emperor. Thus, Zhang implied his hope that Landis would at last escape the deadly and ghostly hold of Chen, Le and Morrow and the TZ disaster and help unite the feuding film studios by bringing peace and harmony back to our film art and the Temple Theatre. Indeed, the frequency with which the six main characters in the film broke the fourth wall by staring into the camera affirmed the implicit Landis addressing intent of the film, for characters breaking the fourth wall was a famous characteristic of the film art of Landis.
Curiously, the fact that Nameless revealed himself to be the final assassin but allowed himself to be stoically and imperturbably killed, in the end, by the archers of the King of Qin in a storm of arrows for the good of the unity of China also implicitly summed up the conviction of the people of the Middle Kingdom that the country was more important than the individual-including those Taiwanese individuals who insisted that they were not a part of China in a pointed message to the Taiwanese Ang that Taiwan and himself should give up their independence for the greater good of the People’s Republic. In addition, the revelation that one of the twilit trio of assassins, the implicitly Cowardly Lion linked Broken Sword-played by Tony Leung Chiu-Wai-was unable to kill the King of Qin three years before the events of the film began also implicitly linked him to George Lucas, for it reminded us that three years before the release of HERO Lucas had not been able to end the dread allegorical Zone Wars and kick off a sunlit and TZ disaster free new era of film art with the allegorical and implicitly Cameron and Spielberg roasting film, STAR WARS EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999). The fact that Broken Sword’s lover and the second assassin, the implicitly Glinda linked Falling Snow-played by Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk-was the daughter of a famous general named Zhao Zhen implicitly linked her to Sofia Coppola, a ‘niece’ of Lucas and daughter of Francis Coppola.
Of course, the sight of Broken Sword and Falling Snow united in love and death on top of a butte in a panoramic and sunlit desertscape at the end of HERO reaffirmed the film’s implicit interest in Landis and the twilit and disastrous summer of ’82. For the sight reminded us that Dar and Kiri-played by Marc Singer and Tanya Roberts, respectively-were united in love and life on top of a butte in another panoramic and sunswept desertscape at the end of the eerily prescient and twilit allegorical Don Coscarelli film, THE BEASTMASTER (1982), a film released in August of 1982. Last but not least, Zhang also implied that the chess and music loving third assassin, the implicitly Tin Man linked Sky-played by Donnie Yen-was also linked to the chess and music loving Kubrick. Significantly, Zhang implicitly reaffirmed that he was upset with that arch Taiwanese scoundrel, Ang, and the worldwide success of CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON and its four Oscars-!?including for Best Foreign Language Film?!-for he teamed up again with Tingxiao Huo-co-production designer of HERO-and Zhang Ziyi-who played the young Zhao Di in THE ROAD HOME, the implicitly Dorothy linked Jen in CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON and a smaller supporting role as the implicitly Dorothy linked Moon in HERO-and returned to the Temple Theatre with another allegorical and CGI enhanced hung fu film, THE HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS (2004).
‘Don’t turn a game into reality and ruin our plans.’
Significantly, the film saw two members of the underground rebel House of Flying Daggers movement, the implicitly Lucas linked Jin and the implicitly Spielberg linked Leo-played by Takeshi Kaneshiro and Andy Lau, respectively-fight each other for the love of Mei-played by Zhang-as much as the Imperial Tang Dynasty they were rebelling against. As Jin defeated Leo only to have Mei die in his arms, in the end, Zhang implied that the implicit attempt of Lucas to destroy Spielberg in his new STAR WARS Classic Trilogy would also end in failure when it concluded the following year with the allegorical film, STAR WARS EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH (2005). Indeed, the name of Mei affirmed the implicit Lucas addressing intent of HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS, as it reminded us that all six of the Lucas directed or executive produced STAR WARS films were released on or around the lucky 25th of May, due to the phenomenal success of the allegorical and implicitly Spielberg roasting Lucas film, STAR WARS EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE (1977), after its release on May 25, 1977. Curiously, after creating the allegorical film, RIDING ALONE FOR THOUSANDS OF MILES (2005), Zhang implicitly roasted Lucas again when he reteamed with Song and Tingxiao to complete the Hung Fu Trilogy with the allegorical, CGI enhanced and vibrantly colourful hung fu film, CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER (2006).
‘What I do not give you must never take away by Force.’
Indeed, as the film saw a Tang Dynasty Emperor-played by Chow Yun Fat-who resembled and was implicitly linked to the older Lucas destroy a son, Prince Jai-played by Jay Chou-who resembled and was implicitly linked to the younger Lucas, in the end, Zhang implied that Lucas had destroyed the wistful fondness audiences had for the STAR WARS Classic Trilogy with the then recently completed STAR WARS Tragic Trilogy. All for fortune, glory and the cursed annual golden Oscar, implicitly symbolized in the film by the annual Golden Chrysanthemum Festival, which honoured the cursed golden flower of the film’s title and was staged with the same red carpet rolling pomp and pageantry as the annual Academy Awards. The film’s many allusions to the STAR WARS Tragic Trilogy and to the films of Akira Kurosawa, an important influence on Lucas, affirmed the implicit STAR WARS Tragic Trilogy roasting intent of CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER. The fact that Chow had played legendary and implicitly Great Oz and Lucas linked, and Jedi Master evoking, swordsman, Li Mu Bai, in CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON, reaffirmed the implicit Lucas roasting intent of the film.
Alas for Zhang, despite their size and scale, the Hung Fu Trilogy did not defeat CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON as the three films were unoriginal carbon copies of the Ang film, particularly THE HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS. In fact, the Hung Fu Trilogy came across as government propaganda pieces desperate to defeat little Taiwan that Zhang was ‘persuaded’ to make by the national bureaucrats who controlled the film industry in China…if he expected to continue making film art in the Middle Kingdom, that is. Indeed, Zhang soon created the Opening Ceremony for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, affirming that he was now seen as an important cog in the propaganda machine for the People’s Republic of China. Making it a good idea that Zhan recharged his unique batteries, starting with the small, CGI free and allegorical docufeature film, RIDING ALONE FOR THOUSANDS OF MILES (2007), a film rated PG ‘…for mild thematic elements’.
Curiously, the film saw the implicitly Spielberg linked Japanese fisherman, Takata Kuichi-played by Takamura Ken-travel alone for thousands of miles from Japan to Li Village in China in the hopes of achieving reconciliation with his dying and never seen and implicitly Lucas linked son, Kenichi, with the same implacable and indomitable determination of Qui Ju in THE STORY OF QUI JU. Takata hoped to achieve this reconciliation by filming one of his son’s favourite Chinese actors, the implicitly Cameron linked Li Jiang-played by Li Jiang-performing Lord Guan in the Chinese opera RIDING ALONE FOR THOUSANDS OF MILES. Alas, Kenichi died while Takata was in China, thus preventing reconciliation between father and son. However, as Kuichi managed to forgive and release Kenichi, in the end, Zhang implicitly hoped that Spielberg would also forgive and release Lucas for the implicit roasting he gave Spielberg in the implicit form of Ian McDiarmid’s Lord Sidious in the Tragic Trilogy. Indeed, it took three attempts before Li finally agreed to perform Lord Guan, reminding us that it took three lightsaber duels to finally defeat Darth Vader-played by David Prowse and voiced by James Earl Jones, respectively-in the STAR WARS Classic Trilogy, reaffirming the film’s implicit Lucas addressing and forgiving intent. Before he left China, Takata also laid the foundations for a possible reconciliation between Li and his son Yang Yang-played by Yang Zhenbo.
Zhang then went on to create such allegorical films as THE BRIGHT RED LANTERNS HUNG HIGH (2008), A WOMAN, A GUN AND A NOODLE SHOP (2009), UNDER THE HAWTHORN TREE (2010) and THE FLOWERS OF WAR (2011), before eventually teaming up again with Chen and Song on the fittingly entitled and CGI free allegorical film, COMING HOME (2014).
‘That Rightist is a sneaky bastard…he is the enemy.’
Curiously, the film revolved around a wife suffering from dementia named Lu-played by Song-who was unable to recognize and accept that her implicitly Landis linked husband, Yu-played by Chen-was a reformed and trustworthy human being after being released from decades of imprisonment. As the Chinese city the couple lived in was implicitly linked to Toronto, the implication was that Zhang was sarcastically roasting me and my inability to accept that Landis was reformed or to release the TZ disaster in COMING HOME. Indeed, the subtle suffusion of busses, clothing and signs with Canadian red and white Maple Leaf flag evoking colour combinations throughout the film implicitly affirmed the film’s interest in the film art, artists and ‘scholars’ of the Greater Toronto Area. The film’s allusions to the eerily prescient, twilit and allegorical Sir Ridley Scott film, BLADE RUNNER (1982), also implicitly affirmed the film’s interest in the twilit and disastrous summer of ’82.
Significantly, Zhang implied again that he was addressing Gardevil when he abandoned the small and intimate COMING HOME for the huge and impersonal, CGI enhanced and allegorical film THE GREAT WALL (2016), a curious film that was a strange hybrid of the Hung Fu Trilogy and the exuberantly CGI enhanced, twilit and allegorical Paul Verhoeven film, STARSHIP TROOPERS (1997).
‘You think they see you as some kind of hero?’
Indeed, the sight of William-played by Matt Damon-finding himself in an alternate historic China teaming up with the beautiful, beguiling, faithful and fearless Commander Lin-played by Jing Tian-and the rest of her Chinese military comrades to preserve the vital humanity of film art by battling hordes of blockbuster CGI beasts called Tao Tei that evoked the hordes of blockbuster CGI bugs of STARSHIP TROOPERS reminded us of Gary William Wright’s equally intrepid and determined battle against the twilit and CGI enhanced blockbuster beast in his ‘scholarly’ writings, affirming the implicit Gardevil addressing intent of the film. The presence of Sir Ballard-played by Willem Dafoe-amongst the Good Forces combatting the bug beasts reaffirmed the film’s implicit interest in Greater Toronto Area film art, artists and scholars. For the name of Sir Ballard evoked James Ballard-played by the implicitly Lynch linked James Spader-in the twilit, allegorical and implicitly Lynch roasting David Cronenberg film, CRASH (1996).
That William, Commander Lin and company defeated the beastly blockbuster Tao Tei, in the end, also implied that Zhang approved of the determined ‘scholarly’ struggle of Gardevil, and hoped that it would also one day end in victory. While a nice implicit nod of support, the film’s strange ‘bug fu’ fusion unfortunately came across as just plain old ‘bug fou’, leaving audiences wryly amused with THE GREAT WALL. However, while uninspiring, the film did implicitly reaffirm that to truly understand Zhang’s implicit fondness of allegorically roasting American and Canadian film artists and ‘scholars’ in his film art necessary it was to get behind the Great Wall.