Olympic pressure for a Chinese miracle

The opening ceremony of the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens was «a great gift» for its director Dimitris Papaioannou. For Zhang Yimou, the same task in Beijing is such a heavy obligation that the success of Athens is like a nightmare. This is what he told Papaioannou a few days ago, adding that «the Olympic Games in Athens were the best organized ever.» This confession may have been made out of courtesy and noble rivalry, but his task is formidable. The fourth-largest economy in the world has invested in yet another Chinese miracle for the opening ceremony. How will the Chinese director who has so many fine films to his credit meet the extraordinary demands of planning the three-hour artistic extravaganza? The official 2008 Olympic Games site reports that Zhang Yimou is working night and day with a team of 300 close collaborators, and that he continually refills a large teacup because «his throat gets dry from the constant discussions with so many people.» Director Chen Qigang and special effects specialist Cai Guo-Qiang share his anxiety. Along with his assistant Chen Weiya, they are trying to keep up with Zhang. The focus and structure of the ceremony are top secret, so access to the space requires special permission from eight different officials. What kind of surprises can there be from Zhang the stylist, with his taste for vast, grandiose productions («Hero,» «House of Flying Daggers»), as well as for artfully crafted minimalist works («The Road Home»)? The creator of «Raise the Red Lantern» is very familiar with the technique of melodrama and does not underestimate it. In fact, his work overflows with love, hate and tension. «Films have to tell simple stories,» he claims. «In China, we believe that deep philosophical meanings are to be found in simple things.» As for the visual aspect, nobody doubts that Zhang can present a fantastic ceremony. And what about the ideological aspect? How can he ignore the problems that are already casting a shadow over the grandeur of the great power? Can he close his eyes to the dangerous levels of pollution and the suppression of human rights (which, rumor has it, were responsible for Steven Spielberg’s departure as artistic adviser)? Zhang has shown in the past that he does not hesitate to clash with the regime when his views diverge from the official line. In August 2008, at a crucial moment for China, how will he present the image of a country that can totally change the balance of the world but also has to pay a huge price for that? These were the questions we had hoped to ask Zhang when we traveled to Beijing in mid-November. But he was absent and our requests for an interview met with repeated refusals («He’s extremely busy,» they kept telling us). Eventually Zhang responded to Kathimerini’s questions with the intervention and assistance of Yiannis Exarchos, general manager of Beijing Olympic Broadcasting. At the same time, Kathimerini contacted Papaioannou, asking about his impressions of his meeting with Zhang.