Why are Japanese films so depressing

Zhang Yimou and his relationship to power

"Yi Miao Zhong / One Second" should have its world premiere on Friday (February 15th, 2019) at the Berlinale. Allegedly because of technical problems in post-production, the competition film, which tells of the cultural revolution in China, had to be canceled. Many observers see this as a pretext and suspect that the Chinese cultural bureaucrats struck at the last minute.

Cultural Revolution - a hot topic

Because the topic of the Cultural Revolution still has to be treated with caution in China. A broad public debate about the "Ten Chaotic Years" - as the period from 1966 to Mao's death in 1976 is officially often described - is taboo. Obviously, the Chinese leadership fears the questions of guilt for millions of dead. Who was responsible for all the lives destroyed, for people who were starving, young people who never received an education, intellectuals who were tortured, banished or even driven to suicide?

It is not Zhang Yimou's first film about the Cultural Revolution, and it is unlikely that his film would openly raise these questions. And there remains - albeit well-founded - speculation whether it was because a candidate for the bear had to be removed from the competition for the first time during the Berlinale. The director is not available for an interview. It is said that, contrary to what was planned, he is not in Berlin.

Zhang Yimou is not a director critical of the regime

Even if he repeatedly takes up explosive social or historical issues in his films, the 68-year-old has long ceased to be a filmmaker critical of the regime. He is one of the most successful and internationally best-known directors in China and one of the stars who have been associated with the Berlinale for decades.

He received the Golden Bear in 1988 for his first major film "Hong Gaoliang / Red Cornfield". His opulent epic "Ying xiong / Hero" ran in 2003 in the competition. Most recently he was represented at the Berlinale in 2012 with a film about the Japanese massacre in Nanjing in 1937 "Jin ling Shi san chai / The Flowers Of War", in which Hollywood star Christian Bale played a leading role.

Elaborately staged: Zhang Yimou's swordsman drama "Hero"

Since the 1980s, Zhang - who became famous at the beginning of the decade as the cameraman for director Chen Kaige - has made more than twenty films, some of which he played as an actor. His films and scripts received awards in Cannes and Venice.

The shock after June 4th '89

But Zhang's relationship with the Chinese rulers was quite changeable. After the crackdown on the democracy movement in early June 1989, he was deeply shaken by the events on Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Thirty years ago, on the night of June 3-4, 1989, when the hardliners under Li Peng prevailed in the Chinese leadership, hundreds of lives and the dream of freedom were crushed in Beijing's Tian'anmen Square.

After June 4, 1989, Zhang changed the final scene of "Ju Dou"

Zhang Yimou and his crew were about to shoot the movie "Ju Dou". Zhang also stayed sleepless all night. With a few colleagues he looked at the depressing evidence of the crackdown: the bleeding students, the burned-out buses, destroyed streets. Wang Bin, who had been his advisor on literary adaptations for many years, later reported how Zhang reacted: "I saw how it affected him, he was concerned about his country."

Because of what happened that night, Zhang changed the final scene of "Ju Dou". Wang Bin reported, "There is a huge fire in 'Ju Dou' at the end of the film, and that expresses our feelings. That was June 4th."

Years of performance ban

Zhang's cinematic masterpieces like "Ju Dou" (1990), "Rote Lanterne" (1991), or "Leben!" (1994) were banned from Chinese canvases until the mid-1990s. The film adaptation of a Yu Hua novel, "Life!", Was the last film with which he challenged the censorship authorities. This film spans four decades and tells the upheavals in recent Chinese history, including the catastrophe of the Cultural Revolution, in the fate of a family playing shadow theater.

The director, born in 1951, could have condensed his own life in a similar way: during the Cultural Revolution, as the son of a member of the anti-communist Guomindang army, he belonged to the most stinking category of all evil class affiliations. He spent his youth forcibly in the country and in a textile factory.

One of Zhang Yimou's great films: "Red Lantern" with Gong Li

As "life!" Was awarded in Cannes in 1994, Zhang Yimou was not allowed to leave the country. The authorities banned him from making films with foreign capital for the next five years. They threatened a complete filming ban in China. But Zhang always wanted to work in China.

Event manager of the Chinese rulers

By 1998 at the latest, the constant conflicts with the censorship authorities were a thing of the past. Zhang was allowed to stage the opera "Turandot" in the Forbidden City. In 2005 he revived the mammoth spectacle at some western venues, including the Munich Olympic Stadium.

After his extremely successful staging of the Olympic opening ceremony on 8 August 2008 and the closing ceremony in the Beijing Bird's Nest, Zhang Yimou was once again able to act as the nation's supreme master of ceremonies on October 1, 2009 on behalf of the Communist Party for the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic of China : The world-famous director let himself be captured as the event manager of the Chinese rulers.

International success with kung fu films

For the first time in a cinematic way, Zhang's turn of the neck was shown in his martial arts film "Hero", which was released in 2002. Not only did the Chinese authorities premier the hitherto most expensive Chinese film production in the Great Hall of the People - they also supported the submission of the film for the Oscar award.

Although "Hero" did not receive an award, it became the most successful foreign film of the year at the American box office. In China, the epic about the first emperor Qin Shi-huang-di was understood as a declaration of consent with the rulers: In order to unite the empire and ensure stability in the country, the emperor had large-scale killing.

In December 2018, Zhang Yimou staged the piece "Return to the Three Gorges" southwest of Chongqing, Sichuan, as a mass choreography in the open air.

Zhang Yimou has always refused to do this when purely financial interests have been imputed to him. He was not interested in politics, he repeatedly stressed, but neither was he interested in wealth. His main concern is always to keep China's cultural heritage alive, to be competitive with or against Hollywood. He did not see the fact that he also served the party with his creations as a betrayal of his own artistic credo.

Almost totalitarian surveillance

The fact that Zhang Yimou's latest film cannot run at the Berlinale for the time being has caused consternation in China, which is often expressed on social media.

In the relative opening phase of 2008, Zhang Yimou and other Chinese artists and intellectuals may have hoped for an expansion of the boundaries of freedom, for a more differentiated description of reality in art and on the Internet, even in official media.

After Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, the opposite was true. Hope turned into trepidation, the striving for freedom almost totalitarian surveillance. A new phase has begun in academia, the media and the creative arts: that of control. This explains why a star director, a former esthete of power, is being taken back to the party's lead for a shorter period of time.