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Zhang Yimou and Gong Li: The Director and His Muse

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Zhang Yimou and Gong Li: The Director and His Muse

Evening Lecture/Seminar

Tuesday, August 20, 2024 - 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. ET
Code: 1K0502
This online program is presented on Zoom.
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Zhang Yimou, left and Gong Li, right (Left Photo: Dick Thomas Johnson/wikipedia/CC BY 2.0 DEED; Right Photo: Georges Biard)

The brilliant and beautiful collaborations between China’s Fifth Generation filmmaker Zhang Yimou and his stunning star Gong Li have electrified cinema screens since their first powerful late-1980s alliance in Red Sorghum. Zhang’s themes of resilience in the face of hardship have been reinforced by Gong’s remarkable acting versatility, whether she is playing an abused wife in Ju Dou, a pregnant peasant woman in The Story of Qiu Ju, or a tormented concubine in the masterpiece Raise the Red Lantern

Zhang was among the filmmakers (along with Chen Kaige) who emerged on the world cinema scene after China’s film activities resumed in the wake of the devastating Cultural Revolution. But the themes Zhang chose to direct frequently aroused the ire of political authorities. Ju Dou (1990), with its elderly adversary tormenting his young wife Gong, was accurately seen as a political parable about an aged political system refusing to relinquish power. Despite the 1920 setting, Raise the Red Lantern (1991) angered officials fearful of Zhang’s sumptuous film being viewed as an allegory about Chinese totalitarianism. Authorities were equally perturbed with To Live (1994) and its depiction of the social impact of the Cultural Revolution. Government threats to force Zhang into a 3-year hiatus were never enforced, but an argument can be made that the political pressures the director faced adversely affected the themes of his subsequent projects.

Nevertheless, Zhang’s remarkable muse Gong Li, whose stardom was instantaneous beginning with her screen début in Red Sorghum, helped make Zhang’s later compromised works both intoxicating and mesmerizing: Gong as a Marlene Dietrich-type “fallen woman” in Shanghai Triad (1995); a poisoned empress during the Tang Dynasty in Curse of the Golden Flower (2006); and the traumatized wife of an imprisoned political dissident in Coming Home (2014).

Film historian Max Alvarez leads an electrifying cinematic journey through the nine collaborations between Zhang and Gong and the turbulent film history of China.

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