National Iconography in the Films of Two Chinese Directors

Jia Zhangke and Zhang Yimou are two of the most critically acclaimed directors in  modern Chinese cinema. Multiple of Jia’s movies are featured in the Criterion Collection, his work has been exhibited at MOMA, and his “Mountains May Depart” took home the Best Screenplay award at the Cannes Film Festival. His more controversial counterpart, Zhang, has a list of international film festival awards too long to even recap here. More telling, his country trusted him with a $300 million budget for the 2008 Beijing Olympics ceremony. 

Zhang’s name is more controversial because many critics have perceived a shift in his films, drifting from a state critic to a state sponsor. They argue that his early films, like “Red Sorghum” (1987) and “Raise the Red Lantern” (1991), Zhang provided a scathing depiction of the horrors of Maoism, but his recent films have abandoned this position and more-or-less approve of the Communist Party. Jia summarizes the difference between the two as “I chose to yell, You choose to whisper.” But it doesn’t take a critic to notice the two are up to something different, at least in the last decade and a half. Jia is a subtle realist whose films are centered on those oppressed by the state. His “Still Life” (2006) is a great example of this. Zhang, as of recent, makes blockbusters and occasionally uses western stars to mythologize China. “The Great Wall” (2016) embodies much of Zhang’s later work: big budget, big stars, and big China. But their difference is best understood situated within their contexts as fifth and sixth generation directors. The Fifth Generation, with Zhang at the helm, are characterized by their response and witness to the Cultural Revolution. (In “Reinventing China: A Generation and Its Films,” scholar Paul Clark even refers to them as “the children of Mao.”) The Sixth Generation, with Jia being the most well renowned, were just being born at the conclusion of the Cultural Revolution—being so young, their conscious childhood was almost entirely post-Mao. Their work is more critical of the state capitalism of modern China than it is of communism. In this context, Zhang’s turn makes sense; to him, authoritarian capitalism is a gift compared to Maoism. 

Both directors, as you probably garnered so far, are deeply political filmmakers and are deeply concerned about their country, so finding great icons of China throughout their filmographies isn’t surprising. By “great icons” I refer to images of national significance—for an American, icons as varied as the Statue of Liberty or Stonewall Inn would fit my description. For Zhang, his most clear use of a great Chinese historical icon is the Great Wall, which appears most dominantly in “The Great Wall.” For Jia, the most deliberate use of national iconography appears in  “Still Life” through the Three Gorges Dam. Their depictions of the icons are most revealing in their understanding of the Chinese situation. For Zhang, national iconography is used for patriotic purposes and showcasing the glory of China. For Jia, it is less of an occasion for celebration and is better served to resurface the suffering brought upon by Chinese state.

“The Great Wall,” the largest film ever shot in China, stars the American actors Matt Damon and Willem Dafoe alongside the Chinese Jing Tian and Andy Lau. The Nameless Order defends China from mythic alien monsters called the Tao Tei at the Great Wall. The European traders William Garin (Damon) and Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) encounter and kill one of these aliens. They arrive at the Great Wall and are taken as prisoners by the Nameless Order. The Nameless Order uses William’s archery skills in their battles against the Tao Tei. In one scene on the wall, Commander Lin Mae (Jing Tian) is with William as he is about to use the bungee-cord set-up, which several of the women warriors use during the Tao Tei raids to bounce up and down while killing them. Lin gives a patriotic speech with the Great Wall, arguably the most recognizable Chinese icon, in the backdrop. The speech is incited by William’s inquiry about whether or not the men responsible for the other side of the cord know what they’re doing. Commander Lin says, “cien,” which she translates as “trust.” She continues, “Here, in this army, we fight for more than food or money. We give our lives to something more. Cien is our flag, trust in each other,” which recalls an earlier scene where William rattled off the many different flags he had fought for; this dialogue aligns Chinese warriors as morally superior to those of Europe. The effect of this monologue is patriotic: the people of China place their trust in each other, and it’s worth it. But the music and image communicate something deeper. The music is romantic and uses traditional Chinese drums to ground the romantic feelings in China’s past, an effort duplicated by the grand crane shots of the wall. Interpreted through the fifth generation context, Zhang appears open to global capitalism, which signaled the end to his horrific childhood. The mere fact that this dialogue is delivered in English may justify more than “openness.” While it’s no surprise that an action film titled “The Great Wall” romanticizes and glorifies the Great Wall, it makes for a revealing comparison with the way Jia treats the Three Gorges Dam.  

The Yangtze River’s Three Gorges Dam holds the title of world’s largest power plant. In order for the dam to be built, the 2,000 year old city of Fengjie, and other places near the Yangtze, were flooded. Jia’s “Still Life” tells two stories that take place in Fengjie during the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. In the first story, Sanming (Han Sanming) is looking for his ex-wife and child, whom he hasn’t seen in 16 years. In the second, Shen Hong (Zhao Tao) is looking for her husband who ran off. Both characters are looking for a reconciliation of their family, but neither story ends happily. Han never gets to see his daughter and Shen wants a divorce. Konrad Ng, arts scholar and Barack Obama’s brother-in-law, puts it this way: “they both remain individuals in search of a sense of family that no longer exists.” The destruction of the traditional family is paired with iconography of the city being destroyed. In one of the most memorable cases, a building of the old city, in more traditionally styled architecture, is frequently paired with images of Shen, who is often deliberating the future of her relationship. In one shot, she is framed with the building; when she leaves, the building takes off like a rocket ship. Shen has come to terms with the end of her marriage, and at the same time, old China has disappeared. As a result, Jia has taken one of the most important infrastructures in China, and instead of glorifying China through his depiction of the icon, he has used it to symbolize the plight of people being displaced for its construction—in this way, Jia is consistent with how scholars Chen Xiaoming, Liu Kang, and Anbin Shi characterized the concerns of the sixth generation in their article “The Mysterious Other: Postpolitics in Chinese Film.” They argue the sixth generation directors “sever all connections with the revolutionary discourse . . . advocated by their predecessors.”

Looking at national iconography helps distinguish the purposes of both directors. Instead of interpreting Zhang’s modern films as a departure from state criticism, he is better understood as an anti-communist filmmaker. And now that China is practically capitalist, he no longer feels obligated to make the same type of anti-communism movies. In his eyes, the Great Wall is still great because he views China as a great nation. By comparison, Jia doesn’t care about communism; he just recognizes that the state oppresses its poor. To him, the state actually creates the poor. Hence, because of his skepticism of the state, the Three Gorges Dam symbolizes oppression and the end of Chinese culture rather than operating like a monument. Between Zhang and Jia, lies two Chinas.

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