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A Prayer on the Great Wall

26 October 2006

One is the best known Chinese film director, and the other is the most famous Chinese actress. They were best business partners, together having produced unforgettable classics like Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern, Qiuju and To Live. This fact is known by many people in the world.

They were also great lovers. She waited for the day to marry him, and waited for nine years. He waited for the right moment to ask her to marry him, and waited for nine years. This fact is known by many people in China.

When they were young and rest-ful on the Great Wall
they made a wish:
One shall be the empress and the other the empress-maker

When they went to the Great Wall to make prayer, Zhang Yimou (张艺谋) was 42, and Gong Li (巩俐) 27. Zhang prayed for seeing Gong playing Wu Zetian, the only woman emperor in Chinese history; and Gong prayed for being able to play the woman emperor in Zhang’s film.

Later that year Gong Li became queen when she won the title of the best actress of the year in Venice film festival for her role in Qiuju, and Zhang, the queen-maker, won Gold Lion for Best Film.

Three years later, they parted, in film and in life – a fairytale did not eventuate.

Zhang Yimou has never made a film about Wu Zetian, and Gong Li has never played the woman emperor.

But Gong Li has already been a queen of the Silver Screen, and her fans are all over the world. And she needs to wait no more – a marriage proposal from another man was gracefully accepted.

So Zhang, alone, went on searching and making the replica of Gong Li. Years later, another Silver Queen loomed larger than life on the screen, that is Zhang Ziyi.

It seemed the story about the lives of Zhang and Gong together on and off screen had reached the finale.

Then one day in 2006, 11 years after the parting, a sequel bluntly emerged. They once again teamed up in Zhang’s new film The City of Golden Armour (《满城尽带黄金甲》), and this time Gong Li plays the empress.

The pair’s prayer on the Great Wall has been fulfilled, to a degree.

Gong Li as the empress and Chow Yun-Fat as the emperor
and they are all in golden coloured costume, a colour became the symbol of royalty after the third Ming emperor, several thousand years later

But, on the other hand, the man of queen-making on screen is still a queen-lacking off screen. Zhang Yimou is yet to find a right moment to make a proposal to a woman.

Then, which woman? After Gong Li is there still a woman out there somewhere on the planet? In the eye of Zhang Yimou? Doubt.

If a typical romance of the West is like a stir-fry, making all the audio and visual spectacles amid the burning heat, then a typical Chinese romance is like a pot of stew, quietly and slowly shimmering over a small fire. It doesn’t have much to see on the surface, but has a lot of bubbling inside the pot - which is a passion that could touch the very deep corner in the heart.

Zhang Yimou, a native of Xi’an, the ancient capital of Tang Dynasty, is in a way an old fashioned Chinese man. He may keep shimmering his stew and never lift open the lid.

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