The Olympic opening ceremony is in rehearsal. But until it is unveiled in the evening of August 8, the extravaganza will remain a State secret, known to only those involved.
What will the performance be like? Will it be the mother of all stadium shows?
Without any inside information - even if we had, we couldn't tell you, or we'd have to kill you afterwards - we'll mount the mother of educated conjectures, just to intrigue you and make Zhang Yimou's job of creating surprises more difficult.
Now, we know Zhang, artistic director of the Beijing Olympic ceremonies, is an artist of versatility. He is equally comfortable with art-house flicks and blockbuster epics; he has helmed three tourism-oriented open-air shows and three productions of Western operas. Unless he reinvents himself from the ground up, a Zhang Yimou aesthetic is not difficult to discern. Our guess is based on his existing oeuvre, which we believe reflects and encompasses his artistic upbringing and convictions.
Chinese icons, such as kungfu performances, may feature at the Olympic ceremonies.
Zhang has a penchant for bright colors.
The trio of films that established him in the international arena, Red Sorghum, Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern, all made daring use of the color red. It is a symbol of passion - sometimes forbidden passion. In folk culture, it is also celebratory. Many of the ornaments for Chinese holidays, such as banners, lanterns and clothes, accentuate red as the essential element in the color scheme.
The burst of colors is found in different ways with different implications in his early and late works. The delirious golden shimmer in Curse of the Golden Flower suggests a mental state of the imperial family and may lead to less-than-positive interpretations. However, there is little possibility Zhang will tone down the color saturation in favor of something such as, say, the Taoist colors of black and white. A Zhang production will not be like a demure watercolor - not a chance for the Olympic gala.
A Zhang Yimou production depends heavily on symbols - anything that yells Chinese, from household bric-a-brac to royal ornaments. He has been ridiculed for this predilection. (Sardonic writer Wang Shuo called him a "home designer".) But there is no denying that symbols represent a country more efficiently than a nuanced picture
Given the size of the overseas audience, symbols may be the only way to go. So, expect bicycles, pandas, dragons and the whole mascot army.
Zhang excels at crowd control. Except for the one who lights up the stadium torch, there is little likelihood that any one person will steal the show. Taking a hint from the Spring Festival gala on CCTV, more than one artist may get the honor to sing the theme song.
Geometric formations appear in all of Zhang's stage productions. They can be awe-inspiring, but also lyrical if needed. The dance numbers in Impression Lijiang often feature hundreds of performers. Not everyone likes this kind of group calisthenics or its variations, but it is visually direct and speaks a universal language. Of course, what Zhang concocts will be more artful than what we saw 30 to 40 years ago.
The emphasis on the collective over the individual is not only his preference but also a necessity. How can he highlight solo artists without offending the vast number of artists of similar stature?
However, while the live audience will be astonished by the sheer size of the spectacle, the television screen will need a few close-ups. That's when cute girls in miniskirts playing erhu can be zoomed in on, as he did for the eight-minute segment at the closing ceremony of the Athens Olympics.
China's richness in culture presents a problem: How to boil down the endless varieties into a manageable sampling? What will be considered essential and representative?
He has too much material and his headache is how to whittle down the long list of choices. But the big challenge is how to avoid clichs and retain freshness when faced with domestic and overseas audiences, who may have diametrically opposed expectations.
I have confidence that Zhang will serve up an abundance of crescendos with acrobatic stunts and large crowds, which will set your heart pulsating. What I worry about are the quiet moments necessary to balance the grandness with breathing space. Zen tranquility and Taoist non-action may not be appreciated by the billions of viewers who form the lowest common denominator in taste.
It is easy to crystallize a local or ethnic culture into a consistent style - just look at Zhang's Impression series of live shows at scenic attractions - but China is too diverse. And showcasing diversity may spiral into a laundry list of symbols and totems.
By temperament, Zhang is a child of northern China, with constant restraint punctuated by emotional outbursts, which have found an ideal outlet in excessive use of bright colors and folk elements. He is not as familiar to the southern style of grace and atmospheric creation, something often seen in a traditional Chinese painting or poem.
The show will feature hi-tech wizardry and it will have eye-catching scenes galore.
But will it have originality? Will it please the home audience as well as those who know little about China? Will it leave a lasting impression?
We'd have to wait until the fat lady sings.