A brief commentary on Zhang Yimou’s “Movie Night”

February 3, 2016

In “Movie Night”, Zhang Yimou plays with the idea of a village coming together around cinema, which works both as a metaphor about the Chinese film industry as well as speaks to the experience of going to the movies. It is his way of showing that cinema is a very special art form which can bring people together in times of hardship. In Zhang’s short film the movie going experience is special to anyone who sits in front of a screen surrounded by others; going to movies is a collective experience. “Movie Night” feels like a love letter to the medium which he dedicated his life and work.

Zhang Yimou is one of the key elements in what is called the Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers. The Fifth Generation – a part of the overall artistic resurgence that grew after Mao Zedong’s government – is composed by many of the first graduates from Beijing Film Academy at the end of the Cultural Revolution (a socialist dictatorial regime that ensnared China from 1966 to 1976). “Fifth Generation films are characterized by their emphasis on cinematic qualities, unlike traditional Chinese cinema which attaches prime importance to plot, melodrama and literary adaptations. . . . [M]elodrama is rejected in favour of formal innovation and experimentation” (Ng). These changes in form quickly launched China among overseas audiences and pleased the domestic public with titles such as Yellow Earth and One and Eight – Zhang worked as the cinematographer in both films (Farquar).

Zhang is not only a director, but also a producer, former cinematographer, actor and writer, winning awards or honors for all of these positions. This wide range of knowledge over every aspect of movie making is not an essential quality for directors, but provides them with useful tools: the directors that understand every aspect of the process of making a movie are able to achieve outstanding results because they translate their vision easier to each department’s own language as well as understand and address their concerns. Zhang Yimou’s films have a special quality about them: there’s nothing out of place; every little thing has been meticulously planned and executed.

Graduating from Beijing Film Academy in 1982, his career as a director would only start in 1987 with the release of Red Sorghum, which uses of strong colors and beautifully presents a mundane story (opposed by the military epics of the Cultural Revolution) regarding a small village and one of its inhabitants (a girl who worked at a sorghum distillery). Zhang Yimou breaks the paradigm of what viewers expect of Chinese movies, falling into the graces of art film critics and broader audiences. This film granted him the Best Picture award at Berlin’s International Film Festival in 1988. In 1989 he released Ju Dou, shot in the outdated Technicolor process, which yields incredibly vivid and saturated colors. This movie also takes place in rural areas and tells a story of ordinary people, common themes in Zhang’s career. Ju Dou became the first ever Chinese movie to be nominated for the Oscar of Best Foreign Language Film.

Besides the ordinary aspect of the stories – all very personal and character focused -, one of the strongest characteristics in Zhang Yimou’s work is the visual finesse. He presents this in his movies through the use of colors – both intense and saturated, adding depth to the stories. His second nomination for the the Oscar of Best Foreign Language Film was for Raise the Red Lantern in 1992. Desson Howe, a film critic for the Washington Post, wrote:

There isn’t an arbitrary hue in the movie. In purely aesthetic terms, ‘Raise the Red Lantern’ is breathtaking.. . . Whether color — and other aesthetics — can carry an entire picture has been raised before in connection with Zhang’s work . . .. In “Lantern” he comes close to pulling it off. Passion for the spectrum (particularly the redder end) suffuses . . .  this tale of a power struggle in 1920s China. Chief among things vermilion are the titular lanterns. In this movie, they represent the pinnacle of power. (WW50)

Colors are symbols, standing for different aspects of the universe and characters, transmitting raw emotion and meaning without ever being directly explained in the movie itself.

“Movie Night” is a 2007 three-minute short film Zhang Yimou directed for the Cannes Festival DVD anthology To Each His Own Cinema. It is interesting to observe that some of his trademark features can be noticed in just over three minutes. This short film leads us through the arrival of the projection crew in a small village.

The film starts with a close up of a young boy’s face, it is safe to say he is the protagonist of this short film. We then hear a truck approaching and the boy runs towards it, joining a much larger group of kids that are already following the truck. We are introduced to one of the projectionists in a close up and then have another of his romantic counter-part. As they enter the village, the number of people running after the truck increases and their average age does the same. Every step of the setup amazes the little boy and other kids – they jump after the screen, he is startled by the speakers turning on and watches carefully while the men load film rolls into the projector. At this point the entire village is hovering around the area, perched on ledges, benches and chairs they brought from their own humble homes.

There is a gorgeous moment when we cut from the large audience to a wide shot of the village and see the Sun setting behind one of the houses. Then Zhang cuts back to a wider view of those people gathered around the screen. It seems the entire population of the village is there, waiting for the dark so the movie can begin.  Then the sun finally sets. The sound reinforces the strength of the night by quickly muting all the insects and birds we could hear in the background during the day and bringing in full, undisturbed, silence.

When the projector turns on, it is like a party. Everybody laughs and celebrates while throwing their hands up in the air and casting shadows on the screen. Right before the movie starts there is a very interesting scene in which the projectionists have dinner inside their tent with the light on. That is the only light source at that point, so their shadows are cast perfectly on the tent’s walls, a direct link to Zhang’s own To Live. It is a beautiful reference to the country’s original culture of telling stories before cinema, and everyone in the village watches those men’s shadows like they are actors in a play.

The movie finally starts and by then the little boy is too tired (or bored) to watch it. The magic is not exactly in watching a movie, but everything that surrounds that experience, the people gathering together, the waiting and expectation, staying in the dark. It is Zhang Yimou’s way of saying that, in moviemaking, the craft is more important and exciting than the end result.

From his traditional elements, it is easy to notice the mundane story, humble characters and the setting in rural China. The people coming together towards a common goal, unaffected by the challenges they have to face – though in this case, there are no life or death challenges. The camera work and compositions are all well thought out even though we lack his strong color schemes.

“Movie Night” has a more realistic approach to cinema. Instead of telling a fantastic story, like he does in his feature films, Zhang Yimou is trying to convey how it feels to be a Chinese filmmaker. According to Gerald Pratley about the rise of Asian cinema, “In China everything is falling apart yet it manages to hold together, nothing works yet it keeps on going, nothing is ever finished or properly maintained” (Kinema). This decadent yet functional aspect of the country is directly represented as the village and its people in Zhang’s short film as a metaphor for Chinese cinema: their work environtments are not that amazing, but Chinese filmmakers still put on hard work and achieve beautifully looking pictures.


Works cited

“Movie Night”. To Each His Own Cinema. Dir. Zhang Yimou. 2007. Cannes Film Festival, 2007. DVD.

Farquar, Mary. “Great Directors: Zhang Yimou”. Senses of Cinema 20.1 (2002). Web. 02 Feb 2016

Howe, Desson. “Tinted Love: ‘Red Lantern’”. The Washington Post 08 May 1992: WW50. Print.

Ng, Yvonne. “The Irresistible Rise of Asian Cinema 3”. Kinema 2.1 (1994). Web. 03 Feb 2016 

Pratley, Gerald. “The Irresistible Rise of Asian Cinema 1”. Kinema 2.1 (1994). Web. 03 Feb 2016