Zhang Yimou has one of the most willfully contradictory yet often inspired oeuvres of any contemporary filmmaker, one indelibly tied to the politics and development of China. He was the international face of the “Fifth Generation” of mainland Chinese directors — the post-Cultural-Revolution movement that downplayed social realism in favor of more lavish style. With works like Red Sorghum (1987) and Raise the Red Lantern (1991), he gained recognition on the world stage, even (perhaps because) his films were often banned in his home country. The 2002 martial arts epic Hero marked a turning point for Zhang, establishing his talent for spectacle. Since then, his work has alternated between smaller-scale dramas and historical action. Lauded by critics and audiences alike, he has found great favor with the Chinese government. He stands out not only as one of the most prominent popular Chinese directors, but one with a particularly malleable political outlook. No matter what their genre, Zhang’s films build out of their internal drama first, involving exterior forces only insofar as they feel germane to their narratives. While it would be too much to read his movies as reflections of evolving political involvement, they tend to cater to the status quo, whatever that may be.

From the 2008 Summer Olympics opening ceremony (photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

This combination of gifted aesthetics and safe politics were likely the main reasons Zhang was picked to helm the opening ceremony for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. It would be inaccurate to say that prior to this, these ceremonies lacked ambition, but Zhang unmistakably raised expectations for how they play out. Before 2008, the Olympics’ “artistic sections,” first instituted at the 1980 iteration in Moscow, had mainly been directed by artists with a background in theater. Zhang also had substantial experience with the stage, but he was the first filmmaker to direct an opening ceremony. The result ranks among the greatest spectacles of our time. It spurred the next few host countries to hire similar metteurs en scènes to helm their own ceremonies — Danny Boyle for 2012 in London and Fernando Meirelles in 2016 for Rio. But Zhang’s epic still stands above, thanks to its extravagant use of 15,000 performers, its proud invocations of Chinese history, its dramatic use of lighting and live visual effects, and its overall astounding scale.

In contrast, Zhang’s return to direct the recent opening ceremony of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing comes as an enormous letdown. The winter editions of the games of course carry considerably less global cachet than the summer ones, and so their opening ceremonies seldom come with such fanfare. (This time around the artistic section lasted less than 20 minutes, nearly an hour shorter than 2008’s.) COVID-19 also remains an enormous concern; hygiene precautions probably precluded the kinds of performances we saw before. But even setting those factors aside, everything that distinguished Zhang’s artistic contributions in 2008 feels either lacking or missing altogether.

From the 2022 Winter Olympics opening ceremony

The ceremony opened with a short film countdown that moved backward through the 24 solar terms in the Chinese calendar as a commemoration of the Lunar New Year. Each term was represented by glossy, often slow-motion images, intended to showcase each spray of snow and ice in a manner far removed from the simplicity of the 2008 paper-making video. This reliance on technology to the detriment of real-world performers and cultural representation escalated with the first physical act, in which 400 people carried LED sticks to represent the lifecycle of the dandelion. That lovely image was entirely upstaged by the fact that the dancers were standing on the world’s largest LED screen. The intended effect was to evoke delicacy and the harmony of nature, but the lights from the floor created the uncanny suggestion of a void beneath the figures. Less than 14 years prior, 2,008 drummers were pounding away on that same floor; there’s simply no comparison.

From the 2008 Summer Olympics opening ceremony (photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

The final part of the initial artistic portion, before the Parade of Nations, was another LED extravaganza, in which the dates and locations of the previous Winter Olympics were projected onto a digital block of ice, followed by human skaters “hitting” a giant projected hockey puck which broke the ice to form the Olympic rings. This was another moment that totally lacked the cultural specificity and humanity that 2008 so vividly exhibited. Additional artistic portions were woven throughout the rest of the ceremony, such as the introduction of a snowflake motif, a line of people walking across the screen to showcase images of community amid the pandemic, and performers skating to a cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” of all things.

From the 2022 Winter Olympics opening ceremony

But all that paled in comparison to the thorniness of a decision that was likely not Zhang’s: Uyghur skier Dinigeer Yilamujiang was one of the athletes to light the Cauldron. Such an overtly political gesture threw into sharp relief how passive and technology-obsessed the previous displays had been. If Zhang, as per the NBC broadcast, sought to make a more “introspective, thought-provoking” ceremony that emphasized unity, then he missed the mark. He was unable to bring out these qualities in the face of the drive for escalating innovation and spectacle in these events — which he himself ironically helped usher in.

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Ryan Swen

Ryan Swen is a freelance film critic and a cinema and media studies MA candidate at the University of Southern California. He co-hosts the podcast Catalyst...