CINEMA / The unbearable lightness of being: Zhang Yimou is an undisputed giant of the cinema - unless you're a Chinese official. Quentin Curtis has a rare audience

THE MAN across the table could be anybody. His face, with its pursed lips and hollow cheeks, is a mask of impassivity. In the austere opulence of a Paris hotel lounge, this slight, almost boyish figure, in his smart jeans and trainers, could be a wealthy tourist or a businessman relaxing after a day at the Bourse - or maybe a student blowing his stipend on an extravagant drink. He gives nothing away, perhaps used to interrogations more perilous than press interviews. He could be an artist or an artisan (we will find out that he has been both), a conformist or a revolutionary (that might depend which side you ask). He might also, if you want to know the truth, be the world's greatest film director.

One of the pleasures of foreign travel for Zhang Yimou is to play at anonymity. In the West, he is merely the touted director of a handful of movies that bring a little lustre to cinema's weary twilight. Films such as Ju Dou (1990) and Raise the Red Lantern (1991) seem to offer everything Hollywood doesn't: real lives, powerful emotions, satisfying complexity, and no hype. Back home in China, he is . . . well, imagine a cross between Steven Spielberg and Warren Beatty. He is the nation's most popular director and a matinee idol who excites national prurience. Every detail of his affair with his luminous leading lady, Gong Li, is reported in the media. In the streets he is mobbed. In interview, the only times he sounds blandly Western are when discussing his fame: 'There's no way I can live like an ordinary person these days. It's impossible to have a quiet meal in a restaurant . . .'

Zhang (pronounced something like Jang Ye-mao) was in Paris in May to promote his new film, To Live. It was a flying visit which he hoped would not presage a more permanent flight. He was avoiding Cannes in an effort not to provoke the Chinese government, which had already banned his third and fourth films, Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern. However, in September the Chinese Ministry of Radio, Film and Television forbade Zhang to work on co-productions for five years, a serious restriction for a director whose next film was to have been financed in Hong Kong, and one that claws him towards state control. Even before I spoke to Zhang, the climate had become more repressive, with sanctions against the director Tian Zhuangzhuang for having made the film The Blue Kite, which To Live resembles in its broad historical sweep and depiction of ordinary lives buffeted by rigid ideology. With moves afoot to limit foreign investment in Chinese movies, there is talk of directors like Tian and Zhang being driven to work in exile.

Whether repression spurs art is an old debating chestnut; the Chinese film renaissance looks like fuel for the proposition: in the last decade, a group of directors has emerged who are known (nobody is sure why) as the Fifth Generation. As the leaders have cracked down, the film-makers have cranked up, achieving a cinema of an urgency, weight and artistry unmatched anywhere in the world, and often addressing the individual liberties their leaders infringe.

Yet that is not quite the whole story. For this is also a privileged generation. Zhang, Tian Zhuangzhuang and Chen Kaige (director of last year's Cannes Palme d'Or winner, Farewell My Concubine) were all part of the first intake of the Beijing Film Academy when it re- opened in 1978 after being closed down by the Cultural Revolution in 1966. And they were able to view many more classic films from the West than past generations, largely thanks to Deng Xiaoping's 'open-door' policy. It is hard to say which was the greater impetus, the stick of the state or the carrot of Western cinema.

In conversation Zhang seems neither cowed nor defiant. He talks through a female interpreter (he doesn't speak a word of English), who notes down a complete answer before translating it, sometimes reporting it in the third person. It can be difficult unravelling these soft-spoken layers of interpretation - a game of Chinese whispers. Zhang's delivery is a low mumble, the mutter, perhaps, of one used to complaining about the system under his breath. There is occasional wry laughter, born of a presiding optimism, even if the immediate future looks bleak. 'There will be trouble, but not exile,' he reckons. 'China won't go back to the time of the Cultural Revolution.' On the prospects of To Live, he is not so expansive or sanguine: 'More disaster than luck.'

Perhaps it was inevitable that the son of a rebel soldier and a dermatologist should end up getting under the authorities' skin. Zhang's father fought for the Kuomintang nationalist army (the 'wrong side'), and as a result was stigmatised and unemployed for most of Zhang's childhood. Zhang was born in Xi'an in 1950. He was on the brink of adulthood, at secondary school in 1966, when his future was tipped into darkness by the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution. In 1968 he was sent to work on farms in Shaanxi province for three years, and then from 1971 to 1978 as a labourer in a spinning mill. If he can seem driven, it may be the urge to make up for lost time. His extraordinary grasp of workaday lives is clearly a gift, a facet of his film-making genius, but perhaps also a legacy of his own drudgery.

In 1978, already a keen photographer, he was accepted by the Beijing Film Academy. Officially too old to enrol, he won the governors round with his fervour. There he met Chen Kaige, starting a relationship that has gone through collaboration and rivalry to something approaching guarded respect. Zhang started out as Chen's cinematographer, furnishing ravishing, richly metaphorical images for Chen's sturdily anti-communist studies of peasant life, such as Yellow Earth, the film that brought the Fifth Generation to the world's attention in 1984.

Chen and Zhang can be seen as the yin and yang of Chinese cinema. Chen is aristocratic and intellectual, a follower of fashion and of Western culture, now based in Manhattan, where he turns out the odd commercial in between features that Western critics take to their hearts more readily than do the Chinese people. He envies Zhang's effortless populism, and you can feel an edge

in Zhang's answers - of amusement rather than hostility - when he talks about Chen. Zhang tells me that Farewell My Concubine is 'one of Chen Kaige's best films'. From him that may not be deafening praise.

To Live is a far more accomplished film than Farewell My Concubine, whose soapy tour through the lives of two Peking Opera actors never developed them as people or gave a sense of the times they lived through. To Live focuses on a Chinese couple in the same period and tells a story equally full of turmoil - they go from wealth to destitution as the result of the man's gambling, and suffer appalling family tragedies - but it is leavened by a black humour that borders on the absurdist.

'In the last decade there have been several films that have used this same historical backdrop,' Zhang explains. 'But most of them have a leaden earnestness. The attempt here was to use a different method and a different point of view. Maybe through humour you can accentuate the tragedy of the period.'

In one powerful scene in To Live, the hero's daughter goes into hospital to give birth at the time of the Cultural Revolution. Unfortunately, it's revolutionary practice to send experienced doctors to live in cow-pens, and the only obstetrician who can be found is weak with undernourishment. As complications arise and the woman loses blood, the doctor is fed with buns. But his ravenousness makes him choke, leaving the daughter helpless. It is a scene of high comedy and deep horror, riotous and also repulsive, suggesting that the correct response in such a time of ideological tyranny is not to laugh or cry, but to do both at the same time.

Such close attention to the traumas of contemporary living - and dying - looks like a response to criticism that Zhang was neglecting the dour present for an exotic, folkloric past, tailored to Western audiences and film festivals (he has won a zoo-full of Golden Bears and Golden Lions). His last film, The Story of Qiu Ju, was his first to be set in contemporary China, and deployed an earthy, unshowy style, with many shots from a hand-held camera. He admits that in To Live he deliberately played down the more exotic elements of the story. The hero works as a shadow puppeteer, but Zhang is sparing in his use of his shows. At one point he has a memorable image of a bayonet cutting through the silk theatre screen, to suggest the reality of war slicing through the artifice of entertainment - and the film itself matches that mood of sober realism.

'They've accused me of pandering to the West for 10 years,' Zhang recalls. 'But 10 years ago I hadn't even been abroad. If you want to please the Western audience you have to know them.' The move towards spareness, he maintains, is more to do with his itch to develop as a film-maker than a sop to critics whose 'narrow nationalism' will come to 'seem very childish'. He is, he concedes, meticulously concerned about his audience (surely, no cardinal sin) and aware of the importance of balancing the needs of those at home, who have lived through what he films, with those of the West. But he can't think himself into another culture. 'Since I have no knowledge of a Western audience, I just take myself as human - because even Westerners are human, not animals.'

To dismiss Zhang's early films for their traditional settings is to miss their depth and danger. Though they may be set in the feudal China of the 1920s and 1930s, these films deal with themes that are universal. Red Sorghum (1987), the film with which Zhang made his name, started with a woman travelling by sedan to her arranged marriage and being waylaid and seduced by a stranger. 'Waylaid' might be 'kidnapped'; 'seduced' could be 'ravaged' or 'raped'. Zhang pitches the scene in a dangerous region, somewhere between fear and desire, where few movies dare to go. The sex is represented by just a wail of music on the soundtrack and the wind blowing through the blood-red sorghum grass. It was the first example of Zhang's ability to depict the exploitation of women without exploiting them himself.

In this he was able to draw on the services of a great actress. Gong Li has starred in all Zhang's films, providing a long-running, minutely detailed study of female passion and suffering. After Red Sorghum, Zhang made a conventional action thriller, Operation Cougar (1989). But with Ju Dou (1990) he expanded on the ideas of Red Sorghum. Gong Li played a woman in 1920s rural China, bought and abused by a cruel husband, the overseer of a dyeing workshop. She falls for her husband's adopted nephew. While he eats, she grasps him with a force and need that is startling. As they fall back and he enters her, she brushes into motion a wheel which releases yards of cloth into a pool of red dye (no other director has been so delirious with scarlet fever since Michael Powell). The unspooling cloth laps her face, like a soothing flannel for an overheated brow. As we fade into the next scene, a baby cries on the soundtrack.

What elevates the film to greatness is the way Zhang switches our sympathies around. The husband is crippled and Gong Li and her lover taunt his incapacity, flaunting their adultery. Their love, which had seemed courageous, becomes selfish. In an extraordinary scene, the husband, in his wheelchair, steals up on the couple's child, who is standing by the pool of dye. At the last moment he seems to change his plan and embraces the boy, calling him his own. He realises that the best revenge is not to take his life but to steal his affection. And so, in time, the child (a mesmerising performance, superbly directed) rejects his true parents. The film is about violence, its persistence and its poisonous inheritance.

The theme was continued in Raise the Red Lantern (1991). Again set in the 1920s, it is Zhang's most pessimistic film. The flicker of female freedom is snuffed out right at the start, with Gong Li playing a young woman who gives up university to become a rich man's concubine. She is one of four wives, alternated by the master according to his fancy: he calls for the red lanterns to be raised at the house of the mistress he is visiting. The same old story about oppressed women, critics (largely male) complained. But Zhang refined and darkened it. For one thing, he was not above admitting that in the repression and ritual of this society there was a kind of inhumane beauty. And he showed how much the woman's role was - still is - to do with acting and devotion.

Above all he pointed up the hierarchies within hierarchies, the way in which the oppressed women in turn mistreated their servants. Injustice, Zhang argued, breeds injustice, and corrupt systems infect every individual, leaving the task of living a decent life impossible. In other words, the film was a study of communism. If that subtle but devastating critique were the reason for its banning, you might grudgingly respect the censors for a twisted sort of sensitivity. But what they took exception to was a scene in which Gong Li was given a foot massage ('A woman's feet are very important: when they are comfortable, she is healthier, better able to serve a man'). It was a ludicrously blinkered reaction, but also typical of a tendency, among critics as well as censors, to miss the danger lurking behind Zhang's shining surfaces. As with To Live's puppet show, there is usually a bayonet beneath the silk.

The Story of Qiu Ju (1992) was a more serene piece of film-making, less concerned with high passions than lowly misdemeanours. Gong Li played a peasant woman whose husband is kicked in the groin by the village chief. In a kind of 'Mrs Deedes goes to Peking' Gong Li goes through the courts of appeal in search of justice. Finally, the chief is severely punished. The film closes on the dismayed face of Gong Li, who had only wanted an apology. The idea of the system failing the individual was to be at the heart of To Live.

The cinema verite style of Qiu Ju veered away from the smoothness of Zhang's earlier work. Before, his cinematography was closest to that of Vittorio Storaro (director of photography on films such as The Last Emperor, Apocalypse Now and The Conformist), with the same bold colours and graceful camera movements. When, in To Live's civil-war sequence, Zhang's camera peers, as if on tiptoe, over a ridge on the battlefield, to be faced by hordes of Communist soldiers, it echoes the scene in The Last Emperor when the infant ruler looks over a balcony to see his thronging subjects. And yet Zhang's images feel new. In conversation he seems oblivious to critical comparisons, which he may regard as a distraction from creation. He is reluctant, also, to talk about Chinese cinema history. The past, where film was so much a tool of the state, is a hostile country.

To Live continues Qiu Ju's journey towards cinematic simplicity, as if the trauma of the events it describes, over 40 years of Chinese history, needed balancing by a steady style. In the first scene a man loses his house in a game of dice. It turns out, when the Communists come to power, that losing his house saved his life. The worst misfortune may be the best good luck. The film reflects, according to Zhang, the old Chinese saying that 'It's not definitely bad luck to lose your horse.' Happiness in To Live is always a compromise.

Zhang's films hold 50 years of Chinese history up to the projector's light, and find it wanting. The dogma of the state is seen to be comically, tragically inadequate to the complexities of life. The state has ground away at them, but the people have not yielded. To Live reflects this fragile triumph of hope over despair.

'The state's helplessness towards the reality of society,' Zhang argues, 'has been the theme not just of these films, but of the Chinese history of the past 100 years. Chinese life always adapts to Chinese society. The philosophy is very passive: keep silent and go on living is the message - even in the Nineties. But the Chinese mind is very realistic and very durable - and that is why the culture has been preserved through so many historical traumas. For everyone, not only for film-makers, the most important thing is to survive. To live.'

'To Live' (12) opens in London 14 Oct, Manchester 28 Oct, Glasgow 11 Nov, and elsewhere later. 'Raise the Red Lantern' is on C4, 10.45pm Sat; 'Big Fish in China', a profile of Zhang, is on C4, 11pm Wed.

(Photographs omitted)