Asian Wall Street Journal
March 5, 1999
Clad entirely in black, bearded and sporting a leather jacket, Zhou Xiaowen certainly looks the part of China’s latest “renegade” filmmaker. About what you’d expect from a man who has just made an ultra-violent epic set in China’s Warring States Period, more than 2,000 years ago.
In “The Emperor’s Shadow” rivers literally run red with blood. During the course of the two-hour film, two young boys bury a drunk executioner alive, a general matter-of-factly agrees to be decapitated, and 25,000 slaves are lined up and systematically beheaded.
Yet despite the gore and the grand scale of the project, the 44-year-old director has more than met his goal of making films that capture the “human quality” of his characters and their stories. At the center of his latest offering is an intimate and profoundly moving tale of two friends who turn into mortal enemies.
“The Emperor’s Shadow” is based loosely on the history of Qin Shi Huang, who became the first emperor of a unified China in 221 B.C. The film focuses on a fictional relationship between the emperor and his childhood friend turned musician, Gao Jianli. The story centers on a power struggle between the two friends when the emperor attempts to force Gao to write music for him. Gao’s defiance, and the curious triangle that ensues when the emperor’s daughter falls in love with the musician, sets the plot in motion.
The result is a stunning tale of imperial power and human frailty set against the immense backdrop of the world’s first totalitarian state. “In the cinema, characters come first,” says Mr. Zhou. “That means filming the texture of life and human individuality. That’s why we decided to make history only the backdrop for this story. The main focus is on the characters and their relationships. `The Emperor’s Shadow’ is about the Qin Dynasty as we imagine it. But I have tried to give this historical period a human quality.”
Indeed, it is Mr. Zhou’s unique talent at finding the “human quality” in his surroundings that has made him the artist he is today. A native of Beijing, he was conscripted into the People’s Liberation Army at the tender age of 15 and stationed in rural Hebei province. His years spent in close contact with local villagers would later provide the inspiration for many of his characters and films. At the end of his four-year stint in the army, Mr. Zhou enrolled in the prestigious Beijing Film Academy where he studied cinematography. After graduating in 1975, he worked as a cinematographer on dozens of films before directing his first feature in 1986.
Since then, Mr. Zhou has gone on to direct 11 feature films, each of which, he says, is very different in setting and scale. The common thread in all of the films is Mr. Zhou’s ambition to examine the complexity of human relationships while at the same time uncovering what is universally human. Mr. Zhou’s last three films — “The Emperor’s Shadow,” “Common People,” and “Ermo” — all appear quite different on the surface. But each carries the director’s trademark: a script that provides a unique look into the heart and soul of Chinese people from different walks of life.
With a production cost of $5 million, “The Emperor’s Shadow” is one of the most expensive Chinese films ever made, and contrasts sharply with Mr. Zhou’s more modest previous film, “Ermo.” Made on a shoe-string budget and released in 1994, “Ermo” tells the story of a rural Chinese woman who sells noodles and saves every yuan she earns to buy the largest television in her village. She becomes obsessed with making money and tries everything from traveling to the city to peddle her noodles to selling her own blood to make extra cash.
Although the setting of “Ermo” and “The Emperor’s Shadow” couldn’t be further apart, both films are essentially morality tales that focus on human folly and life’s triumphs and struggles. Like the emperor who unites China, Ermo eventually gets her television, but only after she has degraded herself and become a slave to her own desires.
Mr. Zhou’s next film, “Common People,” which will be released later this year, tells the story of a Beijing man with cerebral palsy and his struggle to receive medical care. The film was inspired by a true story from Beijing’s local news. Mr. Zhou met the young man featured in the story, interviewed him, and eventually followed him around with a video recorder to capture the harsh reality of his life.
With “Common People,” Mr. Zhou is once again trying to convey that no human being is more valuable than any other; that the life of a man battling cerebral palsy is just as important as the life of an impoverished village woman — or China’s first emperor, for that matter.