Breaking up is hard, even if you are the one orchestrating the break-up. Zhang Yimou, one of China’s best-known filmmakers, has learned this first hand. When he parted company with his business partner of more than 16 years, Zhang took the ‘bad-boyfriend approach’ and just stopped picking up his phone calls. And in an interview with Sina, an online portal, film producer Zhang Weiping (the two are not related) said he hasn’t heard from his former partner since last September. “He [Zhang Yimou] didn’t answer my calls, didn’t reply to my short messages and I have no idea where he is now,” he says.
Zhang Yimou’s less than gentlemanly approach to the break-up has made headline news. That’s because the pair have worked closely since Keep Cool (1997), in which Zhang Weiping was the producer. He was also in charge of production for Zhang Yimou’s blockbuster hits House of Flying Daggers, Hero and The Flowers of War. The pair produced the movies via their production company New Horizon Pictures and were dubbed as “duo Zhang” within entertainment circles.
But rumours started circulating that the two had split after their most recent war epic The Flowers of War, a bilingual offering starring Hollywood actor Christian Bale. Although the film – China’s most expensive and internationally-ambitious to date – was the domestic bestseller of 2011, it only just broke even. A plan to distribute it widely in overseas markets also failed to pay off. And talk that it might bring home an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film also proved misplaced (in fact, it wasn’t even nominated). Industry insiders told Xinhua that this modest rather than runaway success marked a watershed in the previously golden partnership between the two Zhangs.
But Weiping claims he first heard of Zhang Yimou’s intention to dissolve their working relationship months before the release of the film last September. “A friend said Zhang Yimou was planning to leave New Horizon Pictures after finishing The Flowers of War. I couldn’t believe it. So, I tried to confirm with Yimou on his mobile. He told me not to believe rumours. I certainly didn’t take it seriously back then,” says the producer.
So what’s the reason for the split? It seems to have been cannily timed. Just last week there were news reports that Zhang Yimou has plans to set up an entertainment-focused private equity fund to back large-scale film and other arts productions. Century Weekly says Zhang and his investors intend to raise Rmb2 billion ($315 million), and that they have already received commitments for 10% of the funding.
There is also speculation that Zhang Yimou wants to exercise total control over his future film productions. According to Southern Metropolis Daily, despite their close relationship, producer Weiping didn’t always see eye-to-eye with his director partner. In fact, Yimou has complained of having to make changes to castings or scripts based on commercial considerations. For instance, Weiping is said to have pushed Yimou to insert a love scene between Bale and actress Ni Ni in The Flowers of War, despite the director’s misgivings (WiC agrees with Yimou on this one, although we’ve noted in the past that he seems to have drifted in a more commercial direction himself as his career has progressed. Headlining for a private equity firm seems a step on from his artsy roots, too).
But Zhang Yimou’s track record also gives him enormous influence in China’s film industry. Along with director Feng Xiaogang, he is one of the few guaranteed box office draws. So perhaps it should come as no surprise that he now wants to control every detail of production. So much so, in fact, that he rejectedlucrative offers from Beijing Galloping Horse and Wanda Film (a subsidiary of Wanda Group, which recently acquired AMC Theatres) to collaborate on new projects.
WiC has written before about tensions between directors and producers in China. In the case of Painted Skin 2 (see WiC159) the producer assumed fuller control over the creative process and the film then struck box office gold. By contrast, the director was little-known. This public spat between the two Zhangs seems to confirm that the very top directors still hold the true power in Chinese cinema.
But while Zhang Yimou appears to have moved on, his jilted business partner Weiping is still hung up on the unceremonious break-up. “The only thing I want to know, of course, is what happened between us,” he says. “I don’t care about all the rumours and nonsense circulating on the internet. But at the very least give me a reason – if you are not happy with me, tell me why. Hiding doesn’t solve any problem. But he [Yimou] is nowhere to be found, so I think I just have to give up.”
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