Zhang Yimou and State Aesthetics

The following blog posts, by three Chinese writers and film critics, discuss Zhang Yimou, who is the chief director of the Beijing Olympics Ceremonies, translated by CDT.

(1) Writer Liu Hongbo posted the following essay on his blog:

Through pompous scenes Zhang Yimou subtly stimulates viewers’ desire for domination in his blockbuster films. When one person has got the supreme power as depicted in his film, he could control all other men, except for the few ones that were vying for power against him. Worship of power has often been a theme of Zhang’s works.

In his recent film Curse of the Golden Flower, viewers could not see a single scene of a specific person, except for the several ones of the emperor’s family who were fighting against each other. The immense number of people in formations in the film were just faceless tools. Zhang Yimou had no interest in casting his camera on their face for a second… The image of an individual person was valuable to him only when he occupied a spot in the large formations. A person was just like a part in a gigantic machine. He was filmed only when countless people like him formed a spectacular scene.

With their luxurious scenes, the blockbusters of Zhang Yimou are also creating standards for pompous state ceremonies. Palaces were decorated with gold and jade all over. Ceremonies were solemn and grand…. The splendid scenes in his film provide not only visual pleasure to viewers, but also stimulate their imaginations for a similarly pompous national event.

In the world created in his film, there was no right or wrong about politics; there was only success or failure, and rules of power games; the characters fought not for the interests of ordinary citizens, but just for themselves; people had no personalities; they were just tools, machine parts, and spots in mass gymnastics… This kind of beauty in form but not in spirit has become Zhang’s aesthetic pursuit in his blockbuster films.

His aesthetic pursuit is no longer a personal style. To a certain degree it is spreading all over China as a national aesthetic.

A number of local governments have hired Zhang to put up splendid singing and dancing performances, in order to display the uniqueness of local scenery, instead of the real lives of local people…

The same aesthetics were also revealed in city planning. There are vast squares in cities all over China. Many “new cities” have been built with “image boulevards” and “image exhibition districts,” which ilustrates that city planners are more concerned with magnificent visual effects than the lives of ordinary residents. Their will is not effectively checked. It also reflects the predominance of power and the absence of the will of the people in China.

Local governments have taken the opportunity to compete against each other in putting on magnificent ceremonies. Local fairs are all planned to impress people with spectacular scenes. To exhibit a city’s good image and prosperity, the local governments often use tons of flowers to cover the ground, build up huge statues and congregate tens of thousands of people. In these luxurious ceremonies and buildings, the desire for dominance in the minds of those in power combines perfectly with the image of a strong nation in the minds of ordinary people.

Zhang Yimou’s ability to create pompous scenes in blockbusters has made him a favorite artist of the era. This is an era in which people need grand scenes to satisfy their dreams. Zhang has been picked to become the “national director” of our era because his aesthetic ideal is identical with state aesthetics. Perhaps we will see a “Zhang blockbuster” of the highest standards at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. That would be a peak time when value is deprived from art, and beauty exists only in form.

(2) The following commentary is by writer Zhu Dake, originally published in the China News Week:

Zhang Yimou is a master at directing totalitarian group calisthenics. The visual impact of his art is built on it. Images of uniform soldiers, forests of arms and flags, and huge waves of dust are all used by him to show off the great power of an empire and the strength of unified will. The aesthetics of mass games is a form of fascist aesthetics, which existed during the Nazi movement. The unity it advocates seems lovely: all people are subject to a supreme will and they break into deafening cheers for it.

Curse of the Golden Flower is a good example. All buildings, artifacts and living things are painted in gold, showing the dazzling prosperity of the empire. Although it was a ridiculous visual hoax, it created a powerful entertainment effect that catered to people’s desire and worship of money.

(3) Zhang Yimou and fascist aesthetics

By Cui Weiping, professor of Beijing Academy of Film:

Some people use the term “violence aesthetics” to describe the visual effects of the film Hero directed by Zhang Yimou. However, I think it is more exact to categorize it as fascist aesthetics. Just to beautify violence is not fascist aesthetics. The effect of fascist aesthetics is to make an individual succumb to some mysterious, heavenly and invincible power. An individual feels awed and humbled in the face of power. In her analysis of a series of films directed by Leni Riefenstahl of Nazi Germany, Susan Sontag pointed out that Riefenstahl projected mountains as extremely beautiful as well as dangerous in several of her films, in order to imply that they contained a supreme power beaming with a hallucinatory glow. The images lured an individual human being to reach some place beyond his life, either to devote himself to an organization of his compatriots or to death. Sontag’s analysis could also be applied to the film Hero, in which mountains and rivers were depicted in similar ways as in Riefenstahl’s films.

The impression of supremacy comes also from the high level of uniformity emphasized by the director. He got ride of all noises in order to exhibit the existence of an overwhelming power. The film didn’t show a single face of the common people. We could not see any old men, women, children, or craftsmen in it. Besides the Emperor of Qin and the assassins, there were not any other characters in between. It seemed that the director regarded secular lives as dross, whose existence could only foul the lofty ambitions of the heroes.

Some people have questioned whether the gigantic soldier formations in Hero looked more like those in ancient Rome than in China. Actually it was not in the Roman style either. It just came from an imagined image of something invincible. The soldiers in the formations were in the same uniform, wore the same rigid expressions and executed the same actions. They surged up from a vast and unpeopled background as if they were controlled by the will of a mysterious power. They gathered and scattered swiftly and disappeared within a second. The huge number of ant-like people was not used to exhibit any military strategy. The accumulation of them was merely to showcase the magnitude of the power controlling them…