Zhang Yimou's artistic revival
Global Times | 2013-11-19 20:03:01
By Lu Qianwen
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The cast of You and Me performs in Beijing. Photo: Courtesy of NCPA

The cast of You and Me performs in Beijing. Photo: Courtesy of NCPA

Big names always draw crowds. Each time a new work by director Zhang Yimou comes out, people swarm to watch it, despite the mixed reviews it may receive.

With his first foray into Peking Opera, Zhang has been successfully diverting people's attentions from cinemas to theaters. A month after You and Me premiered in Beijing at the National Centre for the Performing Arts during the national holidays in October, the opera has once again taken the spotlight in Shanghai, where its run ended last week.

"It was my first time witnessing such a high attendance for a Peking Opera," said theatergoer Tu Pianpian, right after seeing You and Me in Shanghai.

"The stage design was great," he also remarked. Typical of Zhang's works, the visual effects did not let audiences down. However, it's not the same over-the-top design one would expect of the man who has helmed Raise the Red Lantern and the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. This time, Zhang chose to be a loyal reductionist.

Against the grain

Going against the recent tendency toward grand and dizzying stage effects in different shows and plays, Zhang makes use of the most utilitarian of sets in You and Me - a table and two chairs.

"With larger scale and increasingly more sophisticated technology, the trend of on stage opulence now is too overwhelming in the country," Zhang said. "All these are irrelevant with Peking Opera, which is a very pure art form."

With the total investment amounting to about 1.5 million yuan ($246,000), the opera carries the theme of simplicity throughout it. The lone table and two chairs stand as the only stage props. They serve multiple roles in the opera, sometimes becoming the gate to a house, a pavilion or a long dining table.

Even the use of multimedia images, with which Zhang is very adept, are applied with constraint as the backdrops. For example, a roof and vegetation were brought to life with only a few strokes of ink and wash displayed on the screen.

"He (Zhang) wanted to present such a simple and condensed stage that can underscore the pure appeal of the opera and the characters in it," said Gao Guangjian, director of the artistic design for You and Me.

And this back-to-the-basics style also earned the favor of young people, a group generally accustomed to keeping their distance from this traditional art form.

"The eight performances in Beijing last month attracted many young audiences," said executive director Chen Lincang. "They were curious about the unique stage design."

Personality-driven show

Drawing from a tale in Zuo Zhuan (one of the Three Commentaries on the Spring and Autumn Annals), the opera tells the story of Zhengbo, or Zheng Zhuanggong, the King of Zheng during the Spring and Autumn Period (770BC-476BC) in Chinese history.

Zheng punishes his mother by jailing her after discovering she is responsible for a political conspiracy against him. But in the end he decides to reconcile with her, underlining the filial love traditionally emphasized in Chinese families.

The competence of the actors is a deciding factor in a Peking Opera's quality. In You and Me, three generations of celebrated artists take on the main singing, speaking and acrobatic roles. Leading character Zhengbo is played by 73-year-old Shang Chang-rong, a legendary master of Peking Opera who played Jing, or the main painted-face male role.

The King's mother is played by 78-year-old Li Mingyan, a renowned artist for playing Lao Dan, the role of an old woman. And the lead Chou Jue'r (comedic role) in China, Zhu Shihui, played Ji Lü, who helps the King to defeat his enemies.

'Just a start'

Coinciding with his Peking Opera debut is Zhang's ongoing film production Gui Lai (Return). The film is defined as an artistic work in the vein of Zhang's 1994 film, To Live. After years of commercial films, the most internationally-recognized director in China now seems to be returning to his artistic roots.

"I experienced the transformation of the Chinese film industry," said Zhang, who is identified as part of the fifth generation of Chinese directors.

This cohort, which also includes Chen Kaige and Tian Zhuangzhuang, graduated from the Beijing Film Academy during the 1980s and tends to be dedicated to artistic films, but many have moved on to more commercial projects over the years.

With the film industry developing vigorously, Zhang said productions have become more like fast-food and solely focused on commercial interests, depleting them of any artistic qualities.

And now after directing a piece of theater rooted in traditional Chinese art, Zhang appears more assured of the artistic direction in his future works.

"You and Me is just a start," he said. "This kind of very simple, elegant and stylized beauty will definitely influence my future productions. I will learn from them more."

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