A devastating first feature from Zhang Yimou, one of the "Fifth Generation" of Chinese filmmakers, previously known as the photographer of Chen Kaige's THE BIG PARADE and YELLOW EARTH and as the lead actor in Wu Tianming's OLD WELL. RED SORGHUM won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film
Festival and was acclaimed at the New York Film Festival, marking a new level of Western interest in Chinese cinema. The film opens in the 1930s, an unseen narrator informing us that this story is about his grandparents. The grandmother (Gong Li) is a pretty 18-year-old whose name means "Nine,"
called thus because she was the ninth child, born on the ninth day of the ninth month. Sold in exchange for a donkey, Nine is prepared for a wedding to a leprosy-infected winemaker. When her wedding party is attacked by a masked bandit, the bandit tries to rape the young woman, but the
chair-bearers, led by the strong Yu (Jiang Weng), attack and kill him. Later, before the wedding, Nine and Yu make love in the sorghum fields, and the leprous winemaker is found murdered. Nine takes charge of the distillery, marries Yu and eventually has a son. China is in the midst of war, and
invading Japanese soldiers have recruited the winemakers to trample the fields to make way for a new road. The Chinese are treated savagely by the Japanese; at the close, a solar eclipse turns the sky and the sorghum field a deep red.
Although the visual style of RED SORGHUM is one of resounding natural beauty--wide-screen horizon shots, flowing sorghum fields, heavenly sunsets--and the directorial style invokes myth and legend, the film does incorporate a certain level of realism. Shown in great detail are the distilling of
the sorghum, the preparation of an ox-head meal at the butcher's, the trampling of the fields, and the bloody butchering of an ox during the Japanese attack--all of which contrast with the sense of fable Zhang Yimou creates. While the film essentially seems a sentimental ballad to the director's
grandparents (and to their generation), RED SORGHUM is also a documentary on the color red--the red of sorghum, wine, a bridal robe, blood, the Communist victory, solar eclipses, and camera filters.
Some of RED SORGHUM's best moments come from the violent yoking together of moments of humor and pathos. The male bearers transporting the young bride-to-be, for example, sing a raucous, vulgar song and make her trip as bumpy as possible, while the poor Nine looks alternately sick and suicidal.
When the men hear her terrible sobbing from inside and realize their mistake, though, they carry on ceremoniously. Much of the film's humor comes from Jiang Weng, a large man, bare-chested and bald, who recalls some of Toshiro Mifune's clownish antics. Gong Li's character is equally compelling--a
powerful, independent woman who drinks and works like a man but who has a coy, girlish sexuality.
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- Released: 1987
- Rating: NR
- Review: A devastating first feature from Zhang Yimou, one of the "Fifth Generation" of Chinese filmmakers, previously known as the photographer of Chen Kaige's THE BIG PARADE and YELLOW EARTH and as the lead actor in Wu Tianming's OLD WELL. RED SORGHUM won the Gol… (more)