“Muse: a person or personified force who is the source of inspiration for a creative artist.” We explore one of cinema’s greatest artist/muse relationships between two of China’s most well-known faces thanks to Australian label Imprint and its new Collaborations boxset...
For those film fans like me of a certain age, we came to Zhang Yimou via Ang Lee. More specifically, and as we’ll see as we venture into Yimou’s work included here somewhat ironically, Lee’s 2000 wuxia masterpiece Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
This seminal work for the region and genre came at the perfect time, its release aligning with the new-ish introduction of DVD and suddenly for film fans around the world, we had exposure to works we could only previously dream of. Lee’s masterpiece introduced us to the world of flying swordsmen, lyrical yet doomed romance and vast, sweeping landscapes… but Yimou made us fall in love with it.
His one-two punch of Hero and The House of Flying Daggers in the early 00’s enthralled us western movie fans with their stunning use of colour and composition, not to mention the gravity-defying, balletic action sequences which suddenly made car chases and shoot outs feel as old and staid as the now aging action stars Hollywood was wheeling out to deliver them.
And while to most A/V and modern film audiences, Yimou has continued to be a superb craftsman in the martial arts realm thanks to the recently released Shadow and the Matt Damon starrer The Great Wall, his back catalogue is rich and varied. Now, thanks to new Australian Blu-ray label Imprint, we can dive into this wonderfully eclectic filmography thanks to its focus being on Yimou’s relationship with his muse, the beautiful and incredibly talented Chinese actress Gong-Li.
Cinema is full of famous artist/muse relationships – Scorsese and De Niro (and latterly Di Caprio), Cassavetes and Rowlands, Ullman and Bergman. Not just long-term colleagues but collaborators in every sense of the word. And Yimou and Li belong in this illustrious list – eight films between 1987 and 2014, a deeply contentious personal relationship thanks to China’s political backdrop, Li and Yimou have interwoven lives in every sense of the word and their impact on one another cannot be underestimated.
And this new Blu-ray set from Imprint is a perfect jumping off spot for diving into this wonderfully fruitful relationship. Offering a rich and varied mix of genres across its contents, offering UK Blu-ray debuts to seven out of the eight films included (and five US blu debuts to boot), it's often difficult to know where to begin with such choice. So let’s start at the beginning of both Yimou and Li’s careers and their first film…
(1988, ViaVision Imprint Collection #67, Region B AUS Blu-ray)
Yimou’s strong visual sense (coming from his boyhood passion of stills photography and his early career as a cinematographer) is immediately apparent even in his first few frames as a director – stirring fields of (not red but unripe) sorghum look like rolling waves on an endless ocean, a stunning backdrop against which to be introduced to this little fable of a once idyllic China (even back in the late 1980s) that had long-since ceased to exist.
Gong Li is a young girl en route to an arranged wedding, her intended; a wine producer suffering from Leprosy. It's rural 1930’s China and as she catches the eye of one of her carriers, a voiceover tells us we’re watching his grandparents, hinting at the potential romance to come. And from here the fable unfolds – of how the wine producer dies, leaving the wine business to Li who then turns it into a joyful co-operative, the only cares in the world being the odd run-in with a masked bandit that haunts the sorghum fields. That is, until the Japanese army arrive as the second Sino-Japanese war begins and suddenly, Li and her troupe are thrust into violence, brutality and revenge…
A film of two halves, the contrast between the two is exactly the point Yimou is making – the first, a reminder of a rural China that had been seemingly forgotten: of co-operation, of class boundaries being broken down, of the use of the land in a sustainable way; the second, a reminder of the hideous brutalities meted out during various conflicts and of how this corrupts totally that notion of community and of even being human. The mix mostly works well, even though the first half is given too much room at the expense of the second and the film peters out as it slips too far into symbolism, Yimou using the last few minutes of the film to almost return to his still photography routes rather than rounding out a narrative slowly built up from its very beginning.
Gong Li is stunningly naturalistic even in her screen debut and similarly, even though it’s very much a different Yimou from those later films, a more intimate and thoughtful Yimou, his eye and his notions of pacing and thematic storytelling were already in place from the very beginning.
The film print used for this transfer is not in the best shape unfortunately, despite Imprint stating it’s come from a ‘new 2K scan’. It's soft (there are notorious ‘jaggies’ onscreen at several points throughout), with low level print damage omnipresent (and enforced Chinese subs at various points even when the ‘real’ subs are also being displayed; colours are really hot, the red often overpowering the screen and losing fine detail of the image underneath; and finally, grain doesn’t look too nicely resolved either, although that could be exacerbated by the inherent softness of the image. Overall, it's sadly a picture nowhere near as pretty as that which it's representing. The lossless Mandarin 2.0 track is much better with no hiss at all. And even though the extras are just two on screen interviews (one with Tony Rayns at 61 mins) and a shorter one with Rayns interviewing Yimou from 1988), both are fascinating and are well worth watching due to the huge amount of cultural context afforded by both.
Film: 7/10, Picture: 6/10, Audio: 7/10, Extras: 7/10, Overall: 7/10
(1990, ViaVision Imprint Collection #68, Region B AUS Blu-ray)
While the next film in this set isn’t Yimou’s and Li’s next actual collaboration (a forgettable actioner made for money that by all accounts both have tried to forget), it unfortunately bears the significant impacts of the Tiananmen Square Massacre that took place just before shooting of it was due to begin, showing yet again how their careers are entwined with their birthplace...
The antagonist here is the oppressive nature of Chinese tradition. Li is ‘bought’ to give a cruel dye merchant a son, even though he seems infertile and is often incapable of performing. Tianqing is the merchant’s adopted nephew and is similarly abused so as the two fall in love, they have to deal with not just the merchant but an entire village in rural China and centuries of tradition that force them apart.
Aesthetically it’s very different from Yimou’s other films in this set so far – it's set almost wholly within the confines of the dye workshop, a set as cruel and oppressive as the owner. Its tighter 4:3 aspect ratio further confines the actors within the image and the odd bursts of colour from the dyed material to symbolise sudden bursts of emotion (ecstasy or rage) don’t alleviate this feeling of ever tightening emotional restrictions.
It’s a small, thoughtful piece that, as the film progresses, shows its main theme of how these traditions can cause cross generational pain as yet another kind of fable (no timescales or locations are mentioned giving it a timeless, almost mythic quality). And spun around this, the way in which Yimou weaves a simple narrative (the relationship is almost melodramatic in its nature, heightened emotional responses and sometimes exaggerated narrative beats) against this visual and thematic backdrop is hugely effective.
The small cast are extremely good – Gong Li is in a much more passive role than we’re used to seeing her but she conveys all the weight of duty and repressed emotions perfectly. And, while it may feel at odds with Yimou’s other films, its cultural context and the landscape in which it was made is hugely important to understanding its curious and beguiling nature.
The picture on this disc is a huge step up from that of Red Sorghum – another new 2K scan, it's detailed, it’s got bags of depth and those bursts of colour against a grey and neutral village backdrop really shine. Contrast isn’t the best, with blacks often looking like dark greys but it’s a nit-pick in an otherwise really good image. The Lossless Mandarin 5.1 soundtrack doesn’t do much in the surrounds or with LFE but dialogue is perfectly rendered and the subtitles don’t appear to have any issues. Extras again appear limited but with Rayns again on great form and a superb mini documentary on Yimou’s early career, it doesn’t need much more than that to satisfy.
Film: 8/10, Picture: 8/10, Audio: 7/10, Extras: 7/10, Overall: 8/10
Raise the Red Lantern
(1991, ViaVision Imprint Collection #69, Region B AUS Blu-ray)
For many, Yimou’s masterpiece. Nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 1992 (and winning the similar BAFTA the year after), it brings together the visual aesthetic and themes from his previous two films into an absolute masterclass of style, emotion and narrative.
Li is newly married to a rich businessman and becomes his fourth wife. She is brought to live in luxury in his sprawling and labyrinthine compound, yet soon finds herself caught up in a vicious game of one-upmanship with the other wives as they are forced to negotiate the confines of patriarchal tradition for their emotional and often physical survival.
On the surface, it’s a chilly look at venomous women and the extraordinary lengths they will often go to to claim whatever victory they can against one another. But scratch its surface and it’s a rich and detailed look at a culture that forced these women to act in this way, totally stifled by the ever-tightening grip of the ‘rules’ that have been passed down through centuries of patriarchal denigration of females. And so much of this comes from Yimou’s stunning visual sense – his use of the red lanterns for example (a visual flourish he added that wasn’t in the source novel) to symbolise both the desire of the women to be chosen by the master each night and the society in which they are wholly undervalued is a stunning creation, perfectly aligned to the film and its themes.
But also his grip on the narrative and how he tells the stories of these women, using both traditional narrative structures (the friendly wife who is anything but, the enemy who becomes a confidant, etc.) and characterisation (so much of what we know of these women isn’t told to us, instead the film making us work, in a good way, to find meaning in little snippets of dialogue and lines of exposition; the ‘master’ never once shown, his face always obscured hinting at not a person but an entire gender), adds further texture to the already intriguing cultural snapshot the film is bringing to life. Its anchor is again Li, her ‘fourth mistress’ as broken and damaged as she is sympathetic and naive, the film never taking an easy option by having her be stereotypical in any of her actions.
Every bit the masterpiece many say it is.
The image, again from a new 2K scan apparently, now in a 1.85:1 OAR, whilst looking solid and robust in a 55” LCD looked very soft when viewed on a 92” projection screen. Every other element is pretty good – those important bursts of colour are vibrant and rich; grain looks to be intact and print damage is completely absent. But it does soften up considerable on larger screens, so manage those expectations. Lossless 2.0 and 5.1 Mandarin soundtracks sound similar with little going on in the surrounds, leaving dialogue crystal clear. And the only extra here, apart from a trailer, is Tony Rayns' chat which again, is a must-watch if you have the disc.
Film: 9/10, Picture: 7/10, Audio: 7/10, Extras: 5/10, Overall: 8/10
The Story of Qiu Ju
(1992, ViaVision Imprint Collection #70, Region B AUS Blu-ray)
This very slight film, about one woman’s quest for her own very peculiar brand of justice in contemporary China, is the first real misfire in this boxset.
A heavily pregnant Qiu Ju embarks on what should be a simple quest for an apology from the village elder after an altercation with her husband. When that fails, she takes her case up through almost every level of the Chinese justice system, each time being given a result that, whilst seemingly fair to everyone else including her husband, is not satisfactory for her.
Very much a picture of rural Chinese peasantry, it meanders its way through these beats much like Li meanders her way up and down those rural roads. To say it's sedentary is somewhat of an understatement, as the film consists of Li and her sister-in-law walking to a town to have a nice conversation with some nice officials, walking back home again and then when she gets each unsatisfactory response, walking back to the city for another set of conversations with some more very polite officials. And so on. And so on.
Even when the film suddenly kicks up a gear in its final few minutes with an issue with her pregnancy and a possibly bleak ending showing the unintended impacts of her cause revealing itself, like every other aspect of the film, it's so slight as to barely register. But possibly even worse, instead of that central quest being undertaken to right an overwhelming injustice, Li’s insistence on continuing to push her quest ever higher, despite many fair and similar outcomes being handed back to her, it all feels nothing more than a lesson in obstinance and by the time she calls in a lawyer, despite her borderline poverty, even the audience is left questioning what on earth she’s doing. Sadly, it therefore renders most of the second half of the film somewhat of a hollow journey.
Maybe its inception – a film made to appease the unhappy Chinese Film Bureau after his last foreign funded and culturally scathing films – got the better of it. But sadly, this film was a chore to sit through despite some handsome landscapes and realistic performances from Li and a host of non-actors.
Another questionable new 2K scan gives us a picture that, again, is just very soft. There’s some low-level print damage also present, but while colours are naturalistic, the whole image looks as tired as Li does. The Mandarin lossless 2.0 soundtrack does all it can with little more than dialogue, but the ever-dependable Tony Rayns' 24 min look at the film is invaluable watching. Which is good as apart from a trailer, there’s nothing else on the disc.
Film: 5/10, Picture: 5/10, Audio: 7/10, Extras: 5/10, Overall: 5/10
To Live (Huo zhe)
(1994, ViaVision Imprint Collection #71, Region B AUS Blu-ray)
The next film sees Li and Yimou return to a period piece: the lifespan of a family as seen in both Ju Dou and Coming Home, but this time on a much larger scale, spanning the critical thirty-year period in the middle of the 20th century that birthed modern China...
A beautiful, haunting yet ultimately hopeful look at the impacts of both the smallest of decisions and of change on the grandest scale possible on a family as it grows alongside modern communism during the 1940s through to the 1970s.
Starting off during the Chinese Civil War, Fugui is a layabout son of a wealthy landlord, hopelessly addicted to gambling away his family’s fortune and neglecting his own wife and daughter. Losing everything he has in a gambling debt forces Fugui to re-evaluate his life and, as he tries to make a life for himself, he becomes caught up with the war that sees him taken prisoner before happenstance releases him to return home. As communism becomes the new normal, Fugui and his family struggle to deal with the huge cultural landslides that are impacting their entire world during the next decade and beyond. However, through devastatingly tragic personal events and even more cultural upheaval due to the start of the Cultural Revolution in the mid-1960s, their family is always hopeful of a better and brighter tomorrow, always looking to each other to help them survive.
Describing the film based on its events could see it written off as a very dour, bitter and tragic story. But Yimou brilliantly shows how life itself has a way of using levity and humour to help people through the most tragic of circumstances. The film feels like a constant journey ‘out’ of darkness, an accomplished blend of the human spirit constantly looking for ways of triumphing over the adversity of change, some of which is self-inflicted, the vast majority not.
Also, never one-sided in its cultural depictions and political leanings either, it shows the birth of communism and the Cultural Revolution having as many positive impacts as negative ones, helping paint the conflict at the heart of the leads as to whether or not what’s happening to them and around them is good or otherwise. And finally, those little narrative touches that allude to fate and the seismic impacts of even the smallest choices – be it a drunken gamble, the forcing of a child go to school or just offering a hungry man a simple bun – add such richness and texture to the family story that it balances that perfectly with the monumental nationwide cultural changes going on around them.
Beautiful performances from Gong Li (not the film’s central focus for the first time in this set) and You Ge as Fugui and a sense of scale unseen from Yimou before makes this very personal family tale at one with the birth of a modern superpower. Simply brilliant.
Unfortunately, this film has possibly the worst image quality of the entire set, despite a supposed new 2K scan: really soft again, some obvious camera judder and that same kind of print damage (white specks and flecks) seen on previous discs mean the transfer doesn’t ever match the vision of the film. Watchable but little more. The Mandarin lossless 2.0 soundtrack has more to do here and sounds nicely robust with no hiss or background noise of any kind. And Tony Rayns now has 30 min to look back at the film and makes good use of that time. The 5-min interview with Gong Li from Cannes in 1993 is little more than an EPK though.
Film: 9/10, Picture: 5/10, Audio: 7/10, Extras: 5/10, Overall: 8/10
(1995, ViaVision Imprint Collection #72, Region B AUS Blu-ray)
For the next film, in typical Yimou and Li fashion, they take a staple – a period gangster flick – and do something completely and intelligently different with it...
A week in the life of fourteen-year-old Shuisheng, a provincial member of the Tang Crime Family, as he comes to 1930's Shanghai to begin work for the powerful family gang lord. His first role – servant to the gang lord’s spoilt mistress. But after an attempted hit on the gang lord forces him and those closest to him to retreat to the safety of a remote island, the lives of all are thrown under the microscope as loyalties are severely tested….
Yimou wrongfoots us from the off, promising a very traditional gangster film thanks to an early murder and the kind of dazzling and opulent introduction to this almost swoonsome underworld that would make Scorsese proud. But Yimou brilliantly keeps the entire film anchored through Shuisheng’s eyes and so even when very traditional narrative beats start to occur, they feel fresh because we’re seeing them from a very different and unusual perspective – an emphasis on the impacts rather than the actions that cause them.
This focus on the ramifications of these characters' choices brings out an unexpected emotional depth in plot points that has been previously unconsidered: rude confidence slowly melts away to show terrified fragility, but always through snatched glimpses of a quickly dropped façade. Always from the watching eyes of a young boy who has something of an idea of what’s going on but not the understanding or comprehension of anything outside of his immediate gaze.
Shot through with a kind of woozy, nostalgic aesthetic, it’s a strangely hypnotic film from Yimou, where its culmination is not a massive action set-piece but a devastating emotional realisation of the impacts of a simple dropped name. Li excels in a role that feels a perfect warm up for her venomous matriarch in Curse of the Golden Flower – all brash and aloof, with a hefty dose of self-importance and general disdain for everyone she meets, it's utterly perfectly paced to match the film’s own emotional journey.
Maybe too slow for some, but this was a quite brilliant subversion of a genre into something much more in line with Yimou and Li’s thematic tastes.
A much better transfer (the film has a Studiocanal logo at the start) than previous films (I can at least believe this has had a new 2K scan), it still can’t quite hide the age of the original master. Detail takes an uptick, but colours feel a little faded. There’s still some low-level print damage but it's much less than on previous discs and overall, it’s a solid image. The lossless Mandarin 2.0 track has much more body to it and feels much weightier than previous ones, possibly due to the score playing a much more prominent role than in previous films. And for the final time, Tony Rayns takes us through the cultural context in which the film was made with another brilliant little 17-minute chat.
Film: 8/10, Picture: 7/10, Audio: 8/10, Extras: 5/10, Overall: 8/10
Curse of the Golden Flower
(2006, ViaVision Imprint Collection #73, Region B AUS Blu-ray)
Following on almost immediately from that glorious wuxia one-two of Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004), 2006’s Curse of the Golden Flower takes Yimou’s stunning eye and love of colour and delivers a beautiful Shakespearean familial melodrama, writ large against the backdrop of the emperor of all of China during the Tang dynasty (c 920AD). A deliciously tangled web of lost love and political desire, brotherly jealousy and just a soupcon of incest thrown in for good measure, Yimou’s enthralling mix of an infamous early 20th century Chinese play and Macbeth is devilishly rich – Li as the spiteful viper at the heart of the family turmoil, manipulating all to gain her long-sought revenge, is stunning, both physically and in her performance. The plot slowly unravels, with reveal heaped upon reveal as the various affiliations of the members of the royal household, including a wonderfully contemptable Chow Yun Fat as the emperor, start to be shown.
But the masterstroke is Yimou’s backdrop – including the largest ever movie set built in China at the time, it’s a jaw-dropping combination of scale and detail: thousands of extras pour onto screen in the various battle scenes, while intimate little details are shown to take place within ravishing real-world locations, most always making use of a stunning colour and texture palette. The film still has those gorgeous wuxia elements from his previous forays into the genre, but here it's less about the personal lives and loves of the combatants, and more about the sense of scale at play.
It's a stunningly beautiful film that offsets its visual splendour with the poisonous dark heart of the characters and the story brilliantly.
The transfer looks really solid for the most part, but it’s clear it’s from an aging scan rather than a new one. Detail is never the last word in ‘fine’ and there is a sense that a new 4K scan would benefit this hugely. Having said that, its colours are ravishing, with only WCG and HDR probably able to better the richness of what’s on display. The lossless Mandarin 5.1 track is hugely powerful, matching the scale of the visuals perfectly, with plenty of surround action thanks to those massive battle scenes and dialogue crystal clear and locked to the centre speaker.
A raft of extras are included on the disc (as per the rest of the set) – see the link at the bottom of the page for a full list of all the extras included on all discs – but a special shout out to one in particular: on each disc, film historian Tony Rayns gives a 15-20 minute interview about each film and it’s a wonderful little delve into the film and more importantly, the context within which it was made, specifically the lives of Yimou and Li. Brilliantly insightful and short to boot, these are essential viewings for owners of these discs.
Film: 9/10, Picture: 7/10, Audio: 9/10, Extras: 6/10, Overall: 8/10
(2014, ViaVision Imprint Collection #74, Region B AUS Blu-ray)
A searing political melodrama that takes aim squarely at the impacts of the devastating Cultural Revolution in China (that took place between 1966 and 1976) that deeply affected Yimou as a teenager.
Li and her daughter are living simple lives, but lives nonetheless impacted by the imprisonment of the family patriarch, Lu, at the start of the Revolution some years before. The patriarch escapes and attempts to meet his family while escaping the clutches of the authorities. However, he is recaptured and re-imprisoned, devastating the lives of his wife and daughter. Several years later, with the revolution now ended, Lu is released and heads home. However, what he finds is a family irreparably broken and he sets about trying to get back what he once had and so desperately desires to have once again….
The first half hour is nail biting as the film starts out as a taut, tense communist thriller – the family cracks are clearly drawn, showing how such enforced splits impacted all members, from the criminal on the run whose only crime is to be educated, to the teenager whose future is threatened by a father she doesn’t even know and a wife caught between the two. It’s superbly put together and Yimou shows he doesn’t need the largest, most vividly coloured canvas upon which to weave his spell.
But then the film settles down and becomes something altogether gentler – like a less Hollywood Regarding Henry, it becomes more concerned with those lasting physical and mental impacts of the enforced separation of the family as scars surface when people are reunited. It's touching and moving and even if it has a whiff of the melodramatic about it, it's nonetheless vocal in its rage at the authorities behind these events, the devastating impacts of that historic decade being felt across a whole range of individuals in innumerable ways. Ending as almost a bittersweet fable thanks to some time jumps and a setting that isn’t really defined, it’s a warm, very human drama with some superb performances from Gong Li and Daoming Chen that nonetheless is a seething ball of political rage at these culturally devastating events.
Picked up by Sony in the US, the transfer on this is sublime – razor sharp, dense, textured, yet ultra-realistic looking thanks to its superbly rendered muted colour palette, it’s a wonderful image. The lossless Mandarin 5.1 track is surprisingly active too – the thunderstorm of the first act gives all speakers a real workout as a cacophony of sound surrounds the viewer. Again, the best extra is the Tony Rayns' look back, this time focussing on Yimou’s often fractious relationships with the state and his own experience of the Cultural Revolution as the driving force behind the film.
Film: 8/10, Picture: 10/10, Audio: 9/10, Extras: 6/10, Overall: 8/10
Eight films from cinematic heavyweights Yimou and Li and even though there’s a real mix of genres, tones and styles, the quality of the films themselves across the set is remarkably high.
As for the set itself from Imprint, first and foremost the company is to be congratulated on bringing these films to a wider market – as mentioned, seven of these films are currently not released in the UK on HD and five similarly in the US. The selection of films probably speaks for themselves but as a curated filmography, it's wonderful to have all now available under a single lid.
The transfers are much more of a mixed bag. Six of the eight are described by Imprint as being from ‘new 2K scans’ – however several look really quite poor, softness levels indicating aging masters being the original of these new scans. All viewing was done on a 4K projector onto a 92” screen, so image imperfections are more likely to be noticed than on a regular sized TV, but there’s no shying away from some really quite poor images on a handful of these films. All would benefit immensely from new masters thanks to Yimou’s stunning eye. Audio is much more consistent and even though most films only offer a single language track (and there’s not a single English language dub on offer on any of them), there’s no need for flashy new audio remixes at all.
And while some discs are lavished with extras, the presence of Tony Rayns across each film and disc is hugely welcome, his interviews a fantastic mix of behind-the-scenes stories and more importantly here, the cultural context that surrounded the creation of each film. Essential viewing for those with the set, the knowledge he imparts in twenty minutes puts most feature length documentaries and audio commentaries to shame. A superb addition to the set.
Finally though, this being an Australian disc, the only option for buying this is to import it. And currently the costs of this are very high – direct from Imprint itself here (Collaborations: The Cinema of Zhang Yimou & Gong Li | Via Vision Entertainment) is going to set you back $245 AUS (£157) without any import tax or courier handling fees; similarly Amazon UK has the set at £245 delivered via Prime without the need to worry about any of those. Either option is pricey and while the set is wonderful, that price point is bound to limit availability to all but the most dedicated fans.
However, this is a wonderful set from Imprint and if you are able, it's hugely recommended to see the emergence of one of cinema’s most interesting and consistently brilliant collaborations across a fascinating set of films.
Collaborations: The Cinema of Zhang Yimou & Gong Li is available from ViaVision on Blu-ray NOW