NEW YORK — Though hardly a household name to Western audiences, Chinese director Zhang Yimou has been making his mark on the international cinematic scene for almost two decades, most recently in his martial-arts-heavy “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers.” This week, with the simultaneous opening of his two latest projects, “Curse of the Golden Flower” and the Metropolitan Opera’s “The First Emperor,” Zhang hopes to seduce culture lovers with the opulence of ancient China, rather than choreographed balletic tricks.

Set in the Late Tang dynasty, “Curse of the Golden Flower” tells the story of a dysfunctional imperial family. Stuck in an unhappy marriage and suffering from an unknown ailment, the Empress (Gong Li) discovers her husband, the Emperor (Chow Yun Fat), has evil plans in store for her. With help from her son, she plans her revenge, timed to the annual chrysanthemum festival. Zhang looked no further for inspiration than to Cao Yu’s famous play “Thunderstorm” about a Thirties industrialist family.

“One day I was looking for a good script, and suddenly it came to me that there’s this play and to move the story to the ancient Chinese imperialist family,” explains Zhang through a translator. “It’s like the imperial version of ‘Raise the Red Lantern.'”

“Curse,” all rich jewel tones, sweeping panoramic shots and lush scenery and costumes, uses the ceremony of the dynastic court to full visual effect. It also employs its star, Gong Li, as its crowning jewel. No surprise, since she was Zhang’s protégée for many years, beginning with 1987’s “Red Sorghum,” though this is the first time Zhang has worked with the actress in over a decade.

“It’s like everything was yesterday,” says Zhang, 55, of Gong, who has been making strides in Hollywood with films like “Miami Vice.” “I remember when I was working with her 10 years ago, there weren’t such detailed discussions. At the time, you asked her to act, and she’d just act. But now she wants to know more about the role and to make her own suggestions….I think it’s the result of working with all these different directors in the world.”

This story first appeared in the December 21, 2006 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Zhang’s own work has similarly evolved. Earlier in his career, his films like “To Live,” were often politically controversial, to the point of being banned by the Chinese government. These days, he is admittedly more commercial in his vision.

“I am looking for the kind of movie that would be played in the most movie theaters possible worldwide…not like before, [when] I was just making movies that would win awards and be for the intellectuals or just for people who are interested in Chinese culture,” he says. His cinematic work is not the only area in which Zhang finds himself changing gears. Working with composer Tan Dun, who has written the score for many of his movies, Zhang is directing Plácido Domingo in the “The First Emperor,” which has its world premiere tonight. The piece blends classical techniques with Peking opera traditions and has a libretto cowritten by acclaimed novelist Ha Jin. Though Zhang would like audiences to note the aesthetic melding, it is the opera’s universality that he hopes will resonate the strongest.

“The story is actually about the loneliness of the emperor, of the human being. It’s also a love story,” he says. “I think the emotions are very important, no matter whether it’s Eastern or Western. Our human emotions are common. That is most important.”

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