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Striking out at Zhang Yimou's musical extravaganzas

Modern Express
January 26, 2010

As one of China's most prominent film directors, Zhang Yimou has no shortage of critics who try to top each other in their put-downs of his latest screen efforts. The same goes for Zhang's off-screen activities as well: the Olympic opening ceremony had its share of detractors, and neither of his recent operas — an adaptation of Turandot for the Forbidden City and a staging of The First Emperor at the Met — was a resounding success.

Now Zhang's involvement in outdoor music and lights extravaganzas has drawn sharp criticism from the vice-mayor of a city in southern China.

In 2003, Zhang directed "Impression: Liu Sanjie," an adaptation of a Zhuang myth staged against the fabulous scenery of Yangshuo, Guangxi. The performance was a boon to local tourism and led to four more "Impression" productions and countless imitations across the country.

Not all of them have been successful, writes Jiang Zongfu (姜宗福), vice-mayor of Linxiang, a city within Yueyang, Hunan Province. In a caustic essay posted on the Rednet BBS on January 22, Jiang accused Zhang and his collaborators of creating productions that were far too large for the tourist spots where they were staged, collecting substantial fees while leaving local governments and businesses holding the bill.

Today's Modern Express summarized Jiang's argument. His entire post is translated below:

Zhang Yimou is No Savior; Do Not Create "Impressions" Blindly

by Jiang Zongfu, vice-mayor of Linxiang / Rednet

Not long ago, I went around to a number of tourist destinations across the country in search of the secret to improving tourism in Linxiang. Everywhere I went, my hosts made special arrangements for me to see an outdoor performance set against a scenic backdrop, and the more of them I saw, the heavier my heart felt. The crush of "Impressions" with their humongous investment and clichéd performances have thrown the country's tourist destinations into chaos. And the bedlam is in no small part thanks to Zhang Yimou!

No one can deny that Director Zhang increased the popularity of scenic spots such as the Qiao Family Manor* through his films, or that under Yimou's leadership, Mei Shuaiyuan and Wang Chaoge took a gamble and rescued the rapidly-aging scenery of Guilin through Impression: Liu Sanjie. From then on, the outdoor "Impressionist" shows under the command of Zhang Yimou took the country by storm. Guilin's success held out a golden future to countless other tourist spots who saw Zhang as a savior, and using the promise of massive investment as bait, they competed to invite his "impression squad" to put on an Impression production. In the space of a few short years, the country welcomed Impression: Lijiang, Impression: West Lake, Impression: Hainan, Zen Shaolin, Woodcutter Liu Hai [Zhangjiajie], Beautiful Water and Golden Sand [Lijiang], Taishan: Grand Sacrifice, Prosperity: Three Gorges, Mount Jinggang, Grand Song: Nostalgia for the Eastern Capital [Kaifeng], Proud Son of Heaven: Genghis Khan, The Romance of the Song Dynasty [Hangzhou], Song of Everlasting Sorrow [Xi'an], Dreaming the Tang Dynasty [Xi'an]. Producing these music and light extravaganzas at a cost of hundreds of millions apiece was Zhang's Impressionist disciple, Mei Shuaiyuan.

Is Zhang Yimou really our savior?

The answer is no. The long shadow of Impression: Liu Sanjie can be glimpsed in his pride and joy, the opening ceremony for the Beijing Olympics, and is also visible in excess of his first film shot after the Olympics, A Simple Noodle Story, which has Director Zhang tapping out the last bits of his artistry. All told, Zhang's Impression series is basically three tactics. First, massive investment and a huge performance troupe that relies on China's inexhaustible population. Second, a feast of light and shadow that assaults the eye but leaves absolutely nothing of the spectacle behind after it is passes. Third, an incredibly high ticket price so as to delight tour guides and drivers with big commissions. But overuse has revealed the inevitable flaws of three tactics. The Impression series actually began losing money with Impression: West Lake, a trend that continued through Impression: Hainan, Impression: Red Robe [Mt. Wuyi, Fujian], and Woodcutter Liu Hai. Audience data and performance revenue for Impression: Liu Sanjie and Impression: Lijiang are easy to check, but among all of the reports about 100- and 200-million-yuan investments for Impression: West Lake and beyond, there are hardly any press releases about "revenues" or "profits." To compete with Sanya, Haikou invited Zhang to whip up Impression: Hainan with little forethought, but that roughly 200-million-yuan project has apparently not done very well since March. Other reports say that Zen Shaolin has had trouble filling seats since it opened. The situation for the other Impressions is even more awkward: because there has been so much hype, they are unable to close even if they wanted to. When I went to Zhangjiajie in November to see Woodcutter Liu Hai, the park had put up a notice saying that it had suspended performances for the season. But according to an informed source, the actual reason was poor business. Of course, it's not Zhang Yimou and his Impressionists who are losing money: it's the local government or the tourism companies.

But I have reason to attack Zhang:

Reason one: Knowing full well that "big investments in scenic areas do not necessarily generate big returns," the "impression" people get from the productions is wave after wave of massive investment. Impression: Liu Sanjie, 60 million yuan invested (self-funded); Impression: Red Robe, 200 million spent; Impression: Lijiang, 250 million invested; Zen Shaolin, 350 million down the drain. Even Zhangjiajie's Woodcutter Liu Hai managed to spend a full 120 million RMB! All that money burnt up, yet Director Zhang's spokesman Mei Shuaiyuan told the media unapologetically, "It's not every tourist spot that can put on an outdoor spectacle. Tourist flow determines the investment amount. Big investments in scenic areas do not necessarily generate big returns." Indeed, to the investors, large investments have not brought large returns, but for Zhang and his squad, there is no doubt whatsoever that large investments mean large returns!

Reason two: Zhang has encouraged the national Impression bandwagon. Zhang is a clever fellow on the international scene, so he must be aware that a national bandwagon will only lead to massive waste. Yet tempted by huge profits, he not only failed to issue a warning but continued to create Impressions across the country. And answering the call of Zhang-brand Impressions was a mass of followers across the country who rushed to clone it. For most tourist spots, this meant a windfall of acclaim accompanied by business losses. What grieves me most is that in Zhangjiajie alone, there are eight of this same sort of performance!

Reason three: Yimou's exhausted his craft. In form and content the shows are basically the same with only minor differences, and the performance technique is clichéd. If you survey the many Impressions across the country, the only one that leaves an indelible impression on tourists is Impression: Liu Sanjie.

Reason four: Given the huge cast and the show's immense operating costs, the only thought was of the overall impact of the production, not whether or not it would be a profitable investment. The strongest impression one takes away from Zhang Yimou's productions is "lots of people" and "lots of stuff going on." Impression: Lijiang mobilized a cast of more than 400 along with 100 mules and horses; for Woodcutter Liu Hai, the cast rose to more than 530. I wonder if Director Zhang ever considered the effect that weather and the seasons can have on outdoor shows. There are substantial limitations on the number of performances that can be staged each year, so you're always "watching the skies." Payroll alone is an astronomical number, and then you've got to pay big commissions to tour guides, so is it any wonder that investors are stuck with the loss?

Of course, by standing up to strike out at Zhang Yimou, I'm not saying that tourist destinations cannot put on shows. Fusing together the cultural and tourism economies is fitting and proper, but the key is regional adaptation rather than blind reproduction with no thought to the cost. Consider Yueyang, for example. Since 2004, extensive construction has led tourism out of the post-Three Gorges depression and on to astonishing successes. In particular, scenic spots are being developed by the day. Yet while Yueyang has been transformed and now leads Hunan's tourism industry, it still lags behind the rest of the country. Where does it lag? In the keen observation of municipal party secretary Yi Lianhong, although though we are not short of infrastructure, we are in need of five things: a book, a song, an opera, a poem, and a theater piece. And it is the opera that we lack most seriously. After many years of hard work, Yueyang has basically satisfied the daytime activity needs of tourists. But how to extend this to promote the nighttime economy is still a blank page. There is no doubt that Yueyang needs a "great show" to deepen the "impression" it leaves on tourists from home and abroad, yet the critical question in front of us is, what sort of show should we put on? To me, if Yueyang's show is to make more than just an "impression," then we must make the bold move to rule out Zhang Yimou, the "Godfather of Impressions," as general director!

These are my honest thoughts. I have no ulterior motive of using Great Director Zhang for my own self-promotion.

Jiang Zongfu is not the only one lashing out at Zhang Yimou. Today's Modern Express also carried a Xinhua report on a lawsuit filed by Anshun, Guizhou, over Zhang's 2005 film Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (千里走单骑):

The Anshun Culture Bureau believes that the "Yunnan mask drama" that forms a main storyline throughout the film is actually "Anshun ground opera" (安顺地戏), a dramatic form unique to the city. However, director Zhang Yimou did not openly mention the true nature of "Yunnan mask drama" in the film itself or at any press conference. This is a serious infringement on the authorship rights of "Anshun ground opera."

Note: 乔家大院, the manor in which Raise the Red Lantern was filmed.

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