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Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou, who has beguiled audiences with his lavish, breathtaking period films and recently found success with "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers" has stepped away from the camera to direct a ballet.

Yimou, who dabbled in theater in 1996 when he directed Puccini’s opera "Turandot," has adapted his internationally acclaimed "Raise the Red Lantern" for dance.

What Yimou’s movies "Raise the Red Lantern," "Shanghai Triad" and "The Story of Qiu Ju" - which BAMcinematek will screen from Oct. 10-18 - have in common is stunning leading lady Gong Li, whom Yimou dated from 1987 to 1995.

What remains to be seen - for Brooklyn audiences anyway - is whether Yimou’s magic touch can bring the story of "Raise the Red Lantern" to heartbreaking life on stage without the talented Li. Yimou’s theatrical adaptation of his film - which is itself inspired by Su Tong’s novel of the same name - will be performed by the National Ballet of China from Oct. 11-15 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

The National Ballet’s production, choreographed by Wang Winpeng and Wang Yuanyuan, combines modern dance techniques with Chinese folk elements, and Chen Qigang’s original music, performed on both Western and Chinese instruments, with elements of Peking opera.

On screen

Yimou’s 1991 film of this tragic tale, which was nominated for an Academy Award, also incorporates elements of opera. Set in 1920s China, the film centers on 19-year-old Songlian (played by Li), whose stepmother sends her off to be the fourth wife of a wealthy man. Songlian must compete against his three other concubines - and even a servant - for his attention. The third wife (He Caifei) was an opera singer prior to her marriage and attracts the household’s attention by taking to the castle’s rooftop in the early morning hours, cavorting in her exquisite costumes and singing her old roles.

In the film, the servants hang red lanterns outside of the rooms of the wife the husband chooses to be his lover that evening; and with that designation, the chosen woman briefly has additional privileges.

Headstrong Songlian bravely battles for prominence against her fellow wives, matching their treachery and deceit with her own. But there is no escaping the isolation and degradation of their lives, and ultimately, Songlian lacks the mental fortitude to accept her own guilt over the deadly consequences of her actions.

Yimou’s film sets the action against majestic views of the castle in every season, and each actress is lavishly costumed according to the weather. Certainly many of these elements of Yimou’s cinematic vision, which will be screened at BAM on Oct. 11, would translate beautifully to the stage.

On stage

In adapting "Raise the Red Lantern" for dance, Yimou’s formidable talent is matched by the National Ballet of China, founded in 1959. The company incorporates its Russian dance heritage with traditional Chinese dance under Executive and Artistic Director Zhao Ruheng.

"It’s just stunningly beautiful," said BAM Executive Producer Joseph Melillo about the ballet. The lavish production includes dancers bursting through Chinese paper screens in each performance, which are repaired daily for the next show.

In addition to Yimou’s film version of "Raise the Red Lantern," BAMcinematek will also screen 1995’s "Shanghai Triad" (on Oct. 18) which features Li as the gangster’s moll, Jingbao Xiao. Like Songlian, Jingbao is also trapped by a fabulously wealthy man - the gangster Tang, this time in a mansion in 1930s Shanghai. In "Triad," Li is showcased in over-the-top, Las Vegas-style showgirl numbers in Tang’s nightclub.

A young boy, Shuisheng, is recruited from the countryside to be her servant, and Jingbao’s arc from ruthless sexpot to defender of innocents is told from his point of view. When the urban gang is uprooted from their stylish urban digs to an island hideout, stripped of artifice, in order to save Tang’s life, Yimou once again demonstrates his ability to capture breathtaking vistas on film.

Finally, in 1992’s "The Story of Qiu Ju," which will be screened on Oct. 11, a hugely pregnant Qiu Ju (also played by Li) charges through layers of bureaucracy in pursuit of justice for her husband who was severely injured by the village chief.

Rather than the poetic landscapes that Yimou creates in "Shanghai Triad" and "Raise the Red Lantern," here he adopts a documentary style of filmmaking to capture this heroic, country woman of modest means who isn’t deterred by those who attempt to humiliate or discourage her from getting the apology she seeks.

In many of his films, Li proved to be an effective muse for Yimou. When the curtain is raised on the National Ballet of China’s touring production of "Raise the Red Lantern" at BAM, we’ll see if these ballerinas prove to be as magical a medium for the director.


The National Ballet of China performs "Raise the Red Lantern" Oct. 11-15 at 7:30 pm at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House (30 Lafayette Ave. at Ashland Place in Fort Greene). Tickets are $20, $40, $60 and $70.

From Oct. 10-18, BAMcinematek presents a series of three films directed by Zhang Yimou at 30 Lafayette Ave.

For more information about the dance or film series, call (718) 636-4100 or visit

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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