China's Zhang Yimou

Film director Zhang Yimou is working 12 hours a day, on location in a mountain village in Hebei province. It's far from the glitter of the film festivals in New York and Cannes, where he often has been honored as one of China's most innovative directors. But here in Chicheng county, Zhang, 48, can draw on his best source of inspiration: the ordinary lives of China's people. His latest movie, still untitled in English, looks at rural children who must work to support their families instead of going to school. "On every film I've made, I've passed small rural primary schools and seen the poverty of their situation," says Zhang.

It's a theme that could prove controversial with China's film authorities. But that's Zhang's great strength--portraying reality and provoking debate instead of meekly obeying the censors. Other Zhang films--Judou, the story of a village love affair; Shanghai Triad, a tale of big-city gangsters; To Live, a look at China's recent history--have sparked official protest. But Zhang films on. "We grew up being told to only focus on class and party," he says. "Now my biggest hope is that China will become more free and open." And if Zhang's films have anything to do with it, it will.

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