For a long time, we have very little idea of when this film is set. A narrator talks about his grandmother and father, but we can't be sure whether this places him in the present, as the story-teller telling us. What we are watching is timeless, a folk-tale of the bride Jiu'er (Gong Li in her debut role) married against her will to an old man by parents who are more keen on getting a donkey (the bride-price) than keeping their daughter. She is carried on a sedan-chair across endless swaying pampas, bright red against the green. And so it goes on; the ancient ways of making wine from the red sorghum - a kind of sugar-cane - the ritual thanks to the wine god. A tight little community of men held together by the feisty young woman who comes to be their Mistress, but who insists they are all equal, and takes the name Little Nine. It seems like a way of life which has lasted forever, and it comes as a real shock when, about three-quarters of the way into the movie, we see a lorry for the first time, the Japanese invading the Chinese mainland in 1937. In the savage reprisals which follow, Jiu'er is killed and most of the wine-makers, and the way of life is gone forever.
The film works on many levels. On one level it's the story of a young woman who has to learn to grow up, fast, and a celebration of female independence and survival in a very traditional society. On another it's a lament for a lost generation and way of life. It's both political and personal. It is impeccably shot, and the ending, during an eclipse of the sun which is also an eclipse of everything we have seen, is heartbreaking.
If I don't give it five stars, it's because I have two criticisms. One is that I don't think the narrator is necessary, and he adds a dryness of tone which is out of keeping; the other is that Zhang Yimou in his debut film as a director is more of a cameraman than a director; sometimes he looks at something which is very beautiful, but doesn't add to the rhythm of the drama of a scene.
Still, an astonishing debut it is, even if it is only the start of the road to greater things.