12/12/2012 04:12 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Zhang Yimou: "Don't Think of the Bad Signs, Even If They Are Hanging Somewhere"

Last week, the Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou was in Morocco to receive a special tribute at the 2012 Marrakech International Film Festival, an honor that would celebrate his oeuvre of nearly two dozen films. For our interview, I was ushered into the library of La Mamounia Resort, a leather-bound and gilt-edged wall-to-wall of art books and compendiums. The time was half past punctual, so I began to survey my surroundings: a mother-of-pearl backgammon set; a sepia portrait of the Moroccan writer Mohamed Choukri; mint tea on a silver tray. And a single garnet pressed-glass lantern that hung above the table, fitting for the Ochre City, but also uncannily so for this meeting with Zhang: It was a reminder of his magnum opus Raise the Red Lantern (1991), the second Chinese film to be nominated for an Academy Award. (Ju Dou, which he released one year earlier, was the first.)

Though Zhang, 61, has strung a prolific career spanning the past quarter of a century, it was these earlier works that gained him critical acclaim in the West and where his legacy now rests. Made outside of China's censorship system, these films were lauded as dreamy and raw; his vision focused, almost unwittingly, on the country's tumultuous past and the plight of individual folk, often seen through the eyes of a strong female lead. Friend Steven Spielberg has credited him for bringing the actress Gong Li, who has starred in six of his features, into global prominence, as well as "introducing sensuality and eroticism to Chinese cinema." And while Zhang's work has remained cinematically arresting (no one can deny the sheer majesty of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which he served as artistic director), there has been a marked -- somewhat contentious -- change. Where once he met Chinese authorities with dissension, he now seems to have shortened his own chain, bowing out of addressing hard societal questions in favor of turning his lens to more commercially-appealing wuxia films like Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004), and his most recent Hollywood collaboration with actor Christian Bale, The Flowers of War, the highest-earning Chinese film of 2011.

"I made my first feature film as late as when I was 37, so I have no time to duplicate," Zhang once said. Nor do his fans desire duplication, but there is a heretical yearning for his work to return to a place where he dares to subvert and inspire. To this end, the red lantern was a silent reminder.

Herewith, the film director talks about being born into a bad sign, feeling the pressure of commercial cinema, and pursuing inner peace.

How does it feel to have reached a point in your career where you can look back in retrospect?

Actually, I'm still quite incredulous as to how I got so far along in my career. My family, especially my mother, still asks, "How did you get to this point of becoming a film director?" What I know is that I'm very grateful for my work, as it has allowed me to narrow the focus on different aspects of human life. And it's only because of my work that I have had an opportunity to understand society and the nuances of culture. I suppose the whole thing must be fate.

Your films often focus on overcoming difficulty with great courage, usually through the vessel of a strong female character. Are women better at dealing with difficulty than men?

I think so, at least I have this ideology about women because of the role my mother had in my life. As we say in China, I was born into a "bad [Zodiac] sign," largely because of the tumultuous political atmosphere. I experienced a difficult upbringing, but it was my mother who had the courage to try and overcome this, and bring happiness and joy into my childhood. I think when I'm making movies and addressing the pressures that women cope with, it's as if I'm paying tribute to her.

Being born into this bad sign -- has it been your blessing in disguise?

I'd rather look at it as twisted luck. After all, there were millions of people who had a worse fate than myself during China's Cultural Revolution. I was able to survive, struggle, and go on, and this has become my vision of life. I think you must be able to look at the good signs -- and sides -- of situations if you want to want life to move forward. Don't think of the bad signs, even if they are hanging somewhere.

Can you talk more about your experience living through the Cultural Revolution?

It was a time when your destiny was tied closely to the type of family you were born into. My parents belonged to the Chinese Nationalist Party, the anti-party to the Communists, so this made it difficult to do many basic things, like even attending school. But this is all in the past -- today's China is much closer to the rest of the world. Those problems don't exist anymore, but of course other problems occur. For films, directors are facing new issues like the pressures of commercial and Hollywood cinema.

That Hollywood pressure you just described -- how much was the casting of Christian Bale in The Flowers of War a reaction to this?

Because of the history I was describing in this film, the 1930s and the Nanjing Massacre, it made sense to have a foreigner cast in the film. But of course, there were pressures from film investors who wanted to see who your cast will be, so the mention of an actor like Bale did help attract the interest. But actually, he was kind enough to give us a discount on his normal Hollywood rate, so he wasn't even that expensive. [Laughing]

Some Western critics say that your earlier films were against China's regime, and now you're catering towards it.

Actually, I don't think I've changed much. There is of course, a great deal of censorship in China, so I'm still not completely free to make the films I wish to create. I have to work with the restrictions that I'm given, but inside of this, I try to go on making the films that I want.

My inspiration has remained constant, even if the situation and plot vary. What I've always tried to pursue is this idea that films should reflect an extremely individual and personal story, especially when used to illustrate how much China has evolved through the years. I think these individual stories are the only ones that can touch peoples' hearts. And because there are so many stories, it's an endless pursuit.

You say that your inspiration has remained constant, but there is a difference in your past and current work -- shifting from small rural melodramas to epic and big-budget films.

I think this is less a reflection of my individual pursuit and more a reflection of the evolution of Chinese cinematography. If you look at the global box office, China has become the second market in the world. So as film directors, we've had to adapt to this evolution and the requests of the market, and use ingredients in our films that are likely to attract more viewers. I mean, every single day there are five new screens added in China.

That said, I've always been interested in the same aspects of human life, and the next film I'm going to shoot in 2013 is the kind of film that pays homage to my earlier films, with a smaller budget and a more intimate lens.

The pursuit of inner peace is a reoccurring theme in many of your films. How do you pursue inner peace in your own life?

Because of my difficult upbringing, I think I've especially needed to find this inner peace. As a filmmaker, I've poured my energy into capturing a great story - it's become the truest basis of my work - getting rid of all the superficial turmoil and concentrating on the depth of a story. Personally, pursuing inner peace requires a lot of concentration.