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A Stunning Piece Of Film-making
on 11 July 2014
Red Sorghum marked the 1987 film debuts of both its director Zhang Yimou and star (and future wife’ and muse of the director) Gong Li and, given its mesmerising visual qualities and its (near) epic, and increasingly powerful, storyline, is all the more remarkable that it emerged from such 'fledgling’ talents. That director (previously cinematographer) Zhang went on to develop his acute visual sense still further in films such as Ju Dou, Raise The Red Lantern and To Live and the later (more conventional) action pics, Hero and House of Flying Daggers, comes as no surprise, but Red Sorghum remains (for me, at least) one of his most innovative and engaging works.
Set in 1930s China and narrated in flashback by the grandson of Gong Li’s 'peasant’ girl Jiu’er (known as 'Nine’) and her mercurial husband Yu (played by Jiang Weng), as a 'mythical story from folklore’, Zhang’s film (initially, at least) has an intimate and ethereal quality reminiscent of Kurosawa’s Rashomon before opening out into something with more epic qualities as it takes in the decade-long story of Gong’s 'adopted’ 'wine’-maker (the film’s title referring, in effect, to one of her ‘products’), culminating in her country’s conflict with Japan. Zhang’s film moves effortlessly from being a (frequently comic) story of societal convention (as Nine’s 'innocent’ girl is initially 'forced’ into arranged marriage with a local businessman and leper!), jealous romance, bandit assaults (at times reminiscent here of Leone) and war-time conflict, but what remains unchanging are Zhang (and cinematographer Gu Changwei’s) stunning visuals – the film’s colour palette (frequently reds) never failing to impress, whether it be for the depiction of the amazing landscapes, sunsets or fields of swaying sorghum grass.
And, although Zhang nearly bites off more than he can chew with his film’s scope (though, amazingly, Red Sorghum runs to only just over 90 minutes), I am always drawn back to Gong’s brilliant and emotionally complex performance, which is the real (and consistent) heart of the film. Indeed, it is not until the film is well over half way through that you (or I, at least) begin to realise that Zhang’s apparently rather haphazard plot, with Jiang doing a great, eccentric Mifune-like turn as the volatile husband, whilst Teng Rujun is equally impressive as the restrained and kindly Luohan, is being transformed into something altogether more profound, principally via the film’s running 'mystical’ red sorghum 'wine’ motif (which provides another impressive 'visual opportunity’). We are, though, brought thumping back to earth as (a decade on) Nine, Yu and their young son (the narrator’s father) are confronted with the uncompromising barbarism of the invading Japanese, providing Zhang (post-battle) with an opportunity to give us one last stunning visual feast in the film’s powerfully emotional denouement.