Impressions of Zhang Yimou

Since graduating from the Beijing Film Academy in 1982 at the ripe young age of 32, Zhang Yimou has emerged as one of the most recognised film directors currently in China. With 16 films under his belt he is now the most prolific of the so called “Fifth Generation” film directors. While his films are quite well-known globally, very little is known about his recent divergence into stage production, which has ultimately led him to co-direct the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008.

To give a bit of background – in the beginning of 2004, after directing the wuxia blockbuster Hero, Zhang Yimou decided to try something new and embarked on what would later become an ongoing series of outdoor location productions known as the “Impressions” – the world’s first outdoor scene performances involving the surrounding natural environment. The “Impressions” thus far have been musical productions and incorporate the culture and stories of the surrounding area into the shows.

Impression: Liu Sanjie was the first of these productions and found its place on the banks of the Li River in the town of Yangshuo in southern Guangxi province – the same shooting location for the fight scene on the lake previously shot in Hero. The performance had its premiere on March 20, 2004 and I managed to catch this while I was in Yangshuo during 2005.

Liu Sanjie is a story that originates from the Zhuang minority people; the largest of the minority groups in China. It’s based on the legend of a woman called Liu Sanjie (literally meaning “third sister of Liu family”) who the Zhuang people believe to be real figure in their history. Across generations, the story has become an oral tradition amongst these people and similar characters have even been found to exist in other minority cultures. According to legend, Liu Sanjie had the gift of a beautiful singing voice from a very early age. So beautiful was her voice, she could quell anger and raise the spirits of the people around her. The story became famous around China when the movie Liu Sanjie was released in 1960 – a rare musical production in Chinese cinema.

The story of Liu Sanjie, documented in both the legend and the movie, is about a local gangster Mo Huairen who covets Sanjie and her beautiful voice; and wishes to make her his concubine. Her boyfriend and fellow villagers eventually plot to free her – the two ultimately escaping by turning into a pair of larks.

Impression: Liu Sanjie documents the story in a series of songs that truly feature awe-inspiring singing, music and lighting effects. At one dramatic point, even the vertiginous limestone mountains of the area were lit up in resplendent colour. The area supports having a large audience with reserved seating so I would highly recommend trying to get a seat close to the front. Something to keep in mind also is the fact that while I was there, the Chinese audiences were generally quite noisy and regrettably talked through the entire show. Occasionally, a man in front of me would stand up, turn around and strike a serious pose – then the flash would go off as his friend took his photo (this happened every ten minutes or so).

Thankfully, the show is quite accessible once you’re in town. It’s well-promoted and you can arrange tickets either at the hotels or at a travel agency, both of which can also arrange guides to take you to there. As the show is very dependent on lighting effects it’s shown only once a day in the evening.

July 28, 2005 saw the premiere of Zhang Yimou’s second “Impression” – Impression: Lijiang. This production immediately followed on from his two year shooting schedule of the film Riding Alone For Thousands of Miles, both of which were located in Lijiang in China’s Yunnan province. I went and saw this show while travelling through Yunnan in 2006, the stage of which sits on Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (also known as Yulong Mountain) at an incredible elevation of 3100 metres. In contrast to Sanjie the stage is largely purpose-built for the performance with the mountain setting simply providing a breath-taking location and backdrop. For this production, Zhang Yimou used over 100 horses and employed 500 local minority people selected from 16 different towns and villages. Important also, is that the cast was selected from 10 different ethnic Chinese minorities as the show itself is a celebration of minority culture in the area.

Impression: Lijiang is a series of musical performances that largely portray the life of the Naxi and Mosuo minority people. Westerners might initially be surprised by the matriarchal context of the performances – depicting the women going to work while the men laze around, get drunk and sing songs to make their women proud. It should be considered that both cultures are quite different to most others, even to that of Han Chinese culture. The Mosuo are a strictly matriarchal culture while the Naxi (which is officially regarded as a parent culture to the Mosuo) has substantial matriarchal elements. To balance things out there are performances that depict the famous tea trading of Yunnan, which was a dangerous activity for the men of the time as it involved negotiating the infamous and treacherous mountain Tea Trail. Such trading, however, has completely died out in recent decades.

The performances of the show, coordinated by assistant Wang Chaoge, exhibit excellent music and choreography – building several times to moving climaxes. The costumes and set pieces by set designer Fan Yue resulted in fascinating and colourful performances. Afterwards, the performers also invite you to pray and burn wishes in a giant cauldron. While its location does sound remote and difficult to reach, it’s relatively easy to travel there although there are admittedly some obstacles. It’s closest to the small city of Lijiang (“small” in terms of Chinese cities) which is one of the only cities of its size that has its own airport. Once there, there are a few travel agencies that can help organise a tour to the mountain. Getting to the stage location itself involves catching a bus, but after the performance you can choose to take a trip further up the mountain on the world’s longest cable car ride.

Obviously not wanting to have any sort of rest, Zhang Yimou has already begun work on Impression of West Lake – the third of the “Impression” series with rehearsals reportedly to have begun in November 2006. As this performance will be set on West Lake in Hangzhou, its location and proximity to Shanghai will make it the most accessible of the “Impressions” to date. If you do happen to visit China, I highly recommend trying to see at least one of these “Impressions” for a window on the cultural history of China that is not as often seen.

All photography Copyright © 2005/2006 Christian Were

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