Wow! On Friday the Olympic Games opened in Beijing’s National Stadium with an unforgettable spectacle. The sequence of live performances was aided by a few wires a la Crouching Tiger, Hidden Drag and enough pyrotechnics to burn-up the planet but absolutely no compute animation. It was directed by one of China’s most estimable filmmakers, Zhang Yimou.
Zhang gained an international art house audience for superb films such as House of Flying Daggers and Raisethe Red Lantern. At home his movies barely dodged the censors’ scissors and were seldom seen. A victim in the 1960s (along millions of others) of China’s hateful “Cultural Revolution,” Zhang endured a childhood of abuse from the mindless Maoist masses, waiving the Chairman’s Little Red Book. Had it been Little Read, the world might have been a better place.
In his adult life Zhang was suspected of dissidence. Any criticism he may have intended of China’s post-Mao regime was obliquely stated in his films and transposed to stories of the distant past. How Zhang won his country’s most important cultural assignment—stage-managing its image in the eyes of the world—is worthy of examination by an investigative reporter with insider connections.
Let me speculate: the normally sour-faced government of President Hu Jintao decided to put on the grandest, best executed show possible. With the dramatic architecture of the “Bird’s Nest” stadium as the setting, it needed a breathtaking and massive performance to fit China’s image as a world power, a superpower ready to challenge anyone. The opening night event had to be staged at such a high level to dazzle the whole Earth along with the Chinese public. There were messages encoded in the performance and they needed to be communicated with a master’s skill, not the tub-thumping of a propagandist.
Enter Zhang. From the regime’s perspective, hiring him was a matter of choosing the best. Also, his reputation in international circles lent the project weight. For Zhang, it was the chance of a lifetime, a technical and aesthetic challenge before the largest one-night audience he may ever enjoy.
The message Zhang conveyed through thousands of drummers, dancers and actors working in a tandem of mind-boggling complexity was steeped in Confucian ideals. China’s ostensibly Communist Party has been edging toward the ancient Chinese sage, now that unadulterated Marxism no longer serves anyone’s interests aside from a few aging Western academics. The message was of harmony and mutual obligation, a civilization of great historic accomplishment based on individuals working cooperatively. Greece put on a pretty historical pageant at the Athens Olympics four years ago. With an extra thousand years of history and at least 10 times the budget to work with, Zhang outdid them.
Human rights activists have already noted the parallels between Beijing 2008 and Berlin 1936. Like Hitler, Hu turned his capital into a showcase of rising power and accomplishment. By one report, Hu’s regime actually hired the son of Albert Speer, Hitler’s visual and architectural mastermind, as traffic engineer for Beijing’s congested streets. For the 1936 games Hitler commissioned his country’s leading director, Leni Riefenstahl, to document the event on film. No expense was spared and much of the Olympic architecture was designed with her cameras in mind.
Like Riefenstahl, Zhang claims he is non-political, excited only by the challenge of working on an enormous scale. Both filmmakers can be accused of making magnificent and morally dubious art. But lest armchair ethicists tut-tut with too much smug satisfaction, let’s not forget the army of lesser talents in our own society, putting their sills to work every week selling all sorts of doubtful goods, services and ideas.