Director Zhang Yimou and DP Hou Yong collaborate on The Road Home

The year 1998 was a busy one for Chinese director Zhang Yimou. He restaged Turandot, which he had directed for the Florence Opera, in Beijing's Forbidden City. And he made two films--Not One Less, which played in the US in 2000, and The Road Home, which Sony Pictures Classics released in May--practically back to back. "I was interested in making a film about schoolteachers, so I commissioned two scripts," Zhang explains. "Originally, I was planning on filming only one, but I liked both scripts."

The two movies have several elements in common, including the general subject matter, and director of photography Hou Yong. But they also differ in many ways. Not One Less was a naturalistic project, using exclusively non-professional actors and often shot guerrilla-style, like the director's earlier film The Story of Qiu Ju. In rural classroom scenes, Zhang forbade the use of a light meter and lighting equipment because he felt such items would distract the children; Hou's crew had to make holes in the wall to pump light from outside. Sequences shot in the city of Jiangjiakou were often captured with a hidden camera in a discreetly parked car.

The Road Home is a much more romantic story, photographed in anamorphic format and featuring a lush soundtrack. "For me," Zhang says, "The Road Home is more Chinese in its aesthetic, and more poetic in that it uses imagery to evoke emotions." Black-and-white contemporary scenes of a man returning home to a rural village for his schoolteacher father's funeral bookend the central narrative: the courtship of his parents (played by Zheng Hao and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon's Zhang Ziyi) in the 1960s. Those scenes are shot in full color, with a sweeping use of the widescreen canvas.

"Salon Films in Hong Kong gave us a special rate on the Panavision camera and lenses," says the director, who started his career as a director of photography. "The idea of using Panavision widescreen was the cinematographer's--it was his dream; he'd never worked with it before, and he kept talking, trying to persuade me. When we got the camera, he was so happy; he kept saying, 'See what this lens can do?'"

Zhang was well acquainted with Hou from the cinematography program at Beijing Film Academy, but the two had never collaborated on a film before Not One Less. As it happens, most of the DPs the director has worked with--Gu Changwei, Zhao Fei, Lu Yue--are former classmates. But since Zhang is somewhat older than the others (his studies having been interrupted by the Cultural Revolution), their deference has not been difficult to obtain. "If we come to any disagreement, I can be very specific," he says. "I don't get into the abstract. I'll say, 'Instead of a 35mm lens, I want an 80mm lens.' That's how we end the disagreement."

Photo: Bai Xiaoyan/Sony Pictures Classics