Monday, April 16, 2018

Zhang Yimou

Zhang Yimou, Toronto, Sept. 2004

IN 2004 I RETURNED TO SHOOTING PORTRAITS AT THE FILM FESTIVAL. Technically it had been three years since my last festival, but really it was more like four - the results of my first weekend's shoots at the 2001 Toronto International Film Festival had been lost when the Kodak/Nikon digital camera on which I'd shot them had been corrupted, and the rest of the festival was a write-off after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington that happened the following Tuesday morning.

The free daily sent me to cover the festival with Chris Atchison, a young writer recently hired at the paper. We did an enormous amount of work at TIFF that year, including the five portraits featured this week on the blog, all of which were shot in one day - Sept. 11, 2004, precisely three years since my hiatus from festival shooting began. Among our subjects was Chinese director Zhang Yimou, who was in town promoting House of Flying Daggers, the director's second martial arts epic after Hero, released the previous year.

Zhang Yimou, Toronto, Sept. 2004

I knew Yimou from his earlier films, like Red Sorghum, Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern - historical films set in pre-Communist China that had been huge hits at film festivals like TIFF. I knew he had a taste for the epic, and that he liked stories with bitter, tragic endings. I also knew that he had arrived at his profession in circumstances that would be unimaginable outside of a place like China.

Yimou was nearly thirty when he pleaded to be accepted into a film school reopening after the end of the disastrous Cultural Revolution. He lacked the necessary qualifications, having left school to work as a farm labourer and mill worker when intellectuals, professionals and their children were forced out of the cities by the regime and the Red Guards. He sold blood to buy his first camera, and used the photos he took with it to make his case for a spot at the Beijing Film School.

Zhang Yimou, Toronto, Sept. 2004

I had this story somewhere in my mind when I met Zhang in a room at the Hotel Intercontinental on Bloor Street, which had become the main festival hotel. Unlike the Four Seasons around the corner with its big windows, the rooms in the Intercontinental are dim and the small windows look out either onto a courtyard or face north onto a parking lot. I had to find my sweet spot of light carefully there - or find a way to work around the lack of light.

I obviously found that spot with Zhang, and just enough light to get a dozen or so relatively sharp frames. It's unlikely that the shots I handed in to the paper looked anything like these ones; I never would have processed anything in black and white, and shooting for newsprint obliged me to emphasize highlights over shadows and boost colour saturation. I suppose that's why I never really discovered how good this shoot actually was until I dug out these files last week and tailored them to look much more like my idea of the sort of portrait Zhang's story seemed to dictate.

I definitely never would have handed in the shot of him with his eyes closed. I don't know why I like to take portraits of people with their eyes closed. Maybe it's a way of letting their facial features reveal their character instead of the notional confrontation of the viewer staring into a subject's eyes, which obliges our instinctive human reading of their mental health and sincerity. Or maybe I like to create the illusion that I've captured them in a private moment of reverie or contemplation. One day I should try and figure that out.

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