Mon, Jan 13, 2003 - Page 16 News List

Chinese movies find hope swimming in the mainstream

The Taiwan release of a new martial arts epic by art house director Zhang Yi-mou is a call to Chinese filmmakers to enter the commercial market

By Yu Sen-Lun  /  STAFF REPORTER

Chinese director Zhang Yimou, left, poses with Taiwan director Hou Hsiao-hsien at a press conference to promote Zhang's new film Hero.

PHOTO: REUTERS

"You have to go mainstream, using the rules of the mainstream market to nibble at Hollywood's territory," Zhang Yi-mou (張藝謀) said when talking about his big budget martial arts epic Hero (英雄), at a press conference yesterday.

Zhang's second visit to Taipei is much more of an extravaganza than his first visit eight years ago when he came to promote Raise the Red Lantern (大紅燈籠高高掛). At Hero's grand premiere on Saturday, Zhang, and Tony Leung (梁朝偉), who stars in the picture, walked the red carpet of Taipei's Grand Hotel. The wall of the hotel was decorated with ancient Chinese army flags like those seen in the film and in the spacious lobby, huge red gauze curtains hung from the ceiling and the hallways. The film is called Hero, and Zhang received a hero's welcome.

Zhang establishing his reputation with strong dramas about Chinese society like Raise the Red Lantern and Not One Less (一個都不能少), but these have usually been tagged for the art house market. Hero is his first attempt at a big-budget martial arts picture aimed squarely at commercial cinemas. In the China market, the box office has already broken 200 million yuan, becoming the best-selling movie in the country's box office history.

Although honored in international film festival for many years, this is the first time Zhang has made such a sensation in his homeland.

Some may criticize Zhang for compromising his artistic integrity. Others may say he is just following the formula for success hit upon by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. What does Zhang have to say all about this?

"I always wanted to make a martial arts film. And I started developing the story of Hero back in 1997. But like many other Fifth Generation directors in China, we have been doing a lot of personal, intellectual films and we have almost become stereotyped.

For Zhang, Hero is not just following Crouching Tiger's recipe for success. He said that everything for the making of Hero was ready at the same time Crouching Tiger was enjoying its first success after the Oscars. "It was a discouraging time for me. I knew people would say I was following the trend," he said.

"But let them say what they like," Zhang said. "I agree with Ang Lee in his remark that every male Chinese director has a dream of making an martial arts movie."

Zhang and Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien (侯孝賢), who spoke at the press conference, agreed that making mainstream movies was the only way to boost the Chinese-language movie industry.

According to Hou, the main trouble with Taiwanese films is that they are all research and development products; in other words they are experimenting with new styles and try to convey personal messages. "They always go to film festivals, but never make it in the mainstream market," said Hou.

Zhang agreed, emphasizing the need to make films other than those aimed only at the film festival market.

A big cast was the first consideration when developing Hero. "We thought about using Jet Li (李連杰) and Zhang Ziyi (章子怡), even when Zhang's role was not much developed. We just wanted to cast her," Zhang said with a laugh.

Even while doing the mainstream formula, there is still space for his own ideas. "I tried to put in as much about Chinese culture as possible," Zhang said. He added that the film may look mainstream, but "I can secretly put in my own acupuncture needles to surprise [the audience]."

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