In the same year, Zhang began work on his next project, the period drama Ju Dou. Starring Gong Li as the titular main character, along with Li Baotian in the male leading role, Ju Dou was an early example of Zhang's unique use of colors and lush cinematography and female-centered films. The picture garnered as much critical acclaim in film circles as his Red Sorghum and became China's first entry to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
Fresh after the success of Ju Dou, Zhang began work on what has been considered by many as his magnum opus, Raise the Red Lantern. Based on novelist Su Tong's book Wives and Concubines, the film depicted the realities of life in a rich family compound during the 1920s. Gong Li was again featured in the leading role, her fourth collaboration with director Zhang. With a unique filmmaking style characterized by highly intense scenes through controlled, formalized color photography, Raise the Red Lantern was Zhang's most personal effort to this point.
The film was released in its home country in 1991 to immediate political controversy, due to officials fearing that the story would be taken as an allegory against Chinese communist authoritarianism. Although the screenplay had been approved by censors prior to shooting, the film itself was initially banned from theatrical release in China.
On the other hand, international reaction to Raise the Red Lantern was almost unanimous acclaim. Film critics such as Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times noted its "voluptuous physical beauty" and sumptuous use of colors. Gong Li's acting was also praised as starkly contrasting with the roles she played in Zhang's earlier films. Raise the Red Lantern was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 1991 Academy Awards, being the second Chinese film to earn this distinction (after Zhang's Ju Dou). It eventually lost out to Gabriele Salvatores's Mediterraneo.
The Story of Qiu Ju (1992) marked a significant change in direction for Zhang. Employing a far lighter tone and generous touches of everyday humor, Zhang used non-professional actors together with his long-time collaborator Gong Li to achieve a neorealist effect in telling a tale of Chinese peasantry waddling through ineffective bureaucracy. It was also released to critical praise, winning the Golden Lion for Best Picture at the 1992 Venice International Film Festival.
Subsequently, Zhang directed To Live, an epic film based on an acclaimed novel by Yu Hua. To Live highlighted the resilience of the ordinary Chinese people, personified by its two leads, amidst three generations of historical upheavals throughout Chinese politics of the 20th century. It was released at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival and won the Grand Jury Prize (the second-highest accolade behind the prestigious Palme d'Or), as well as a Best Actor prize for Ge You.
Having received international recognition for his earlier works, Zhang completed a major phase of his directorial work with the period gangster drama Shanghai Triad. The film, which was released in 1995, featured leading actress Gong Li in her seventh film under Zhang's direction. The two had a romantic as well as professional relationship, but this would end during production of Shanghai Triad. Zhang and Gong would not work together again until 2006's Curse of the Golden Flower.
1997 saw the release of Keep Cool, a small-scale film about life in modern China. After its release, Zhang found a new leading lady in the form of the young actress Zhang Ziyi. His 1999 film The Road Home, featuring Zhang Ziyi in her film debut, is a simple throw-back narrative centering around a love story between the narrator's parents. As in The Story of Qiu Ju, Zhang returned to the neorealist habit of employing non-professional actors and location shooting for the companion piece in Not One Less (1999), which won him his second Golden Lion prize at Venice.
Happy Times, a relatively minor film by Zhang, represented his second foray into modern Chinese city life. A seriocomic drama starring popular Chinese actor Zhao Benshan and actress Dong Jie, it was an official selection for the Berlin International Film Festival in 2002.
Zhang's next major project was the ambitious wuxia drama Hero (2002). The film was a major change in direction for Zhang, as it represented his first foray into epic filmmaking. Boasting an impressive lineup of Asian stars, including Jet Li, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Zhang Ziyi, and Donnie Yen, Hero introduced a fictional tale revolving around Ying Zheng, the king of the State of Qin (later the first Emperor of China) and his would-be assassins. The film became a huge international hit and, with the intervention of American director Quentin Tarantino, was released in North America two years after its Chinese release after being shelved by American distributor Miramax Films. Hero became one of the few foreign-language films to debut at #1 at the U.S. box office, and was one of the nominees for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2003 Academy Awards.
Zhang followed up the huge success of Hero with another martial arts epic, House of Flying Daggers, in 2004. Set in the Tang Dynasty, it starred Zhang Ziyi, Andy Lau, and Takeshi Kaneshiro as characters caught in a dangerous love triangle. House of Flying Daggers received universal acclaim among critics, who noted the splendid use of color that harked back to some of Zhang's earlier works.
Released in China in 2005, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles was a return to the more low-key drama that characterized much of Zhang's middle period pieces. The film stars legendary Japanese actor Ken Takakura, who wishes to repair relations with his alienated son, eventually led by circumstance to set out on a journey to China. Zhang had been an admirer of Takakura for over thirty years.
Zhang's most recent film, 2006's Curse of the Golden Flower, saw him reunite with leading actress Gong Li. Taiwanese singer Jay Chou and Hong Kong star Chow Yun-fat also starred in the period epic based on a play by Cao Yu. Zhang's recent films and his involvement with the 2008 Olympics ceremony has not been without controversy; critics of Zhang claim that his recent works contrary to his earlier films has received approval from the government. However, Zhang in interviews has stated that he is not interested in politics, and it was an honor for him to direct the Olympics opening ceremony because it was "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
In May 24, 2010, Zhang Yimou was awarded Doctor of Fine Arts by the Yale University, as was described as "a genius with camera and choreography."
Beginning in the 1990s, Zhang Yimou began directing stage productions, as well as continuing his film career. In 1998, Zhang directed an acclaimed version of the music opera, Puccini's Turandot, firstly in Florence and then later at the Forbidden City, Beijing, with Zubin Mehta as conductor. Zhang Yimou reprised his version of Turandot in October 2009 at the Bird's Nest Stadium in Beijing. He has plans to tour this production in Europe, Asia and Australia in 2010. In 2001, Zhang Yimou adapted his 1991 film Raise the Red Lantern to the stage to direct a ballet version. Zhang Yimou has also co-directed a number of folk musicals under the title "Impression"; all performances are outdoors most performing all year round. These performances include: "Impression, Liu Sanjie" - began August 2003 on the Li River, Guangxi province; "Impression Lijiang" - began June 2006 at the bottom of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in Lijiang, Yunnan province; "Impression West Lake" - began late 2007 on the West Lake in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province; "Impression Hainan" - began late 2009 set in Hainan province; "Impression Dahongpao" set on Mount Wuyi, Fujian province. All five performances are co-directed by Wang Chaoge and Fan Yue.
Zhang also led the production of Tan Dun's opera, The First Emperor, which had its world premiere at the Metropolitan Opera on 21 December 2006.
Zhang was chosen to direct the Beijing portion of the closing Ceremonies of the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece, as well as the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China alongside co-director and choreographer Zhang Jigang. He directed the Closing Ceremony with Zhang Jigang as well.
Zhang was a runner-up for Time Magazine Person of the Year 2008. Steven Spielberg, who withdrew as an adviser to the Olympic ceremonies to pressure China to help with the conflict in Darfur, described Zhang's works in the Olympic ceremony in the Time magazine, stating: "At the heart of Zhang's Olympic ceremonies was the idea that the conflict of man foretells the desire for inner peace. This theme is one he's explored and perfected in his films, whether they are about the lives of humble peasants or exalted royalty. This year he captured this prevalent theme of harmony and peace, which is the spirit of the Olympic Games. In one evening of visual and emotional splendor, he educated, enlightened and entertained us all."