PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 April, 2006, 12:00am

Red Sorghum (1987)

Zhang Yimou's directorial debut swept China's Golden Rooster Awards and made his name internationally when it won the Golden Bear in Berlin.

Red Sorghum (below) introduced Gong Li, whose collaboration with Zhang lasted until the mid-1990s, and blossomed into romance.

The film's lavish, detailed sets, minimal dialogue, and focus on strong characters would all become hallmarks of Zhang's style.

The plot begins in the 1930s, with Gong's character taking over and reviving a sorghum winery after the death of her husband. When the Japanese soldiers take over the area and destroy the sorghum, the widow and her workers join the resistance.

Raise the Red Lantern (1991)

What is probably the best known of Zhang's early films revolves around life in a mansion, which Gong's character enters as a fourth wife. She initially resists the household politics, but is gradually drawn into the scheming.

Zhang refined his technique of using visuals to tell the story. The nightly red lantern, for example, ostensibly signals simply which of the four wives the master will spend the night with. But its intensity signifies the hidden passions and violence lurking off screen.

The Story of Qiu Ju (1992)

Filmed with Gong and non-actors, Qui Ju was a departure for Zhang, who abandoned his sharp, stylised colour in favour of an austere, realistic look at the Chinese peasantry. Gong plays a pregnant woman struggling through layers of bureaucracy to get compensation for her husband, who was kicked in the groin by the village chief. Zhang exposes the absurdity of the situation with humour. The film won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, as well as best actress and best film at the Golden Roosters.

The Road Home (1999)

Zhang launched the career of Zhang Ziyi (above, who went on to star in Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon the next year) in a love story that won awards at the Berlin and Sundance festivals.

There are similarities with Red Sorghum in the use of flashback. Businessman Luo Yusheng (Sun Honglei) returns to his village for the funeral of his father, and recalls during its procession, how

his parents met and fell in love.

Hero (2002)

This martial-arts epic (below) grossed US$53.5 million in the US, riding the wave of interest generated by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. But Hero's cast (featuring Jet Li, Zhang and Maggie Cheung Man-yuk) and extravagant visuals make it a first-class movie in its own right.

The story, about assassins and China's first emperor, is told through different perspectives. The film's use of vivid colours to identify characters and the swirling, wavy fabric is reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa's Ran. Zhang followed up Hero with House of Flying Daggers, also starring Zhang, in 2004.