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4.2 out of 5 stars
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 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.
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on 18 July 2011
A tale of violence, love, comradeship, and the horrors of war, this film is really strange to the eye and yet affecting and lingers in the mind long after. I first saw it on release in an art cinema and was knocked out. Now 24 years later it is still a great film for me and so I recommend it. But not for the faint hearted or if you like something that fits in a known box. The story follows the fortunes of a young girl sold to an ageing wine maker who suffers from VD. Her wedding procession is hilarious and sets the scene for the thread of love that weaves through the film and holds it together. Naively told yet it handles complex and difficult subjects.
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on 13 January 2016
Striking, emotive film, entertaining, harrowing and beautiful. Saw this film years ago and found it deeply moving. Perhaps not typically Art film but not all great films have to be and are in fact are perhaps better for this on occasions. Like in fact certain iconic pieces of pop music that have a great effect on the multitude of the population - not great music perhaps .... yet...
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on 20 June 2017
A story with happy ending. In those days, the movie was pretty good. The plot is tortuous. The film is too good to be true. I watched this movie with my father. I like the leading lady.
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on 31 October 2003
As I see it, this film is the epitome of Zhang's film language: simplicity in story-telling, simplicity in dialogue, non-extravegance in characters, use of local music, enhanced by landscape, a blend of realism and high-romanticism, all forwarding a sense of profound human emotions.
I must have been no older than eleven when I first saw this film, and the song the hero sings in the sorghum field still lingers on in my mind.
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on 18 February 2009
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.
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on 19 January 2009
I can't say how pleased I was when I saw that Red Sorghum was to be released on UK dvd. At last a modern edition to replace the ancient Palace video from the late 80's. Sadly however this disc is pathetic, a disgrace - it is essentially the same old Palace version (taken I believe from an old Channel 4 broadcast) slung onto disc with no care taken as to quality control and with a picture as grainy as that implies. This also means for your money you get a film incorrectly letterboxed at about 16/9 but with the frame moved up towards the top of the screen and with burned on subs underneath. In other words if you have a widescreen TV you cannot expand the picture and have to watch the film in 4/3!
(There is a Chinese edition available which at least is letterboxed properly but unfortunately fails to subtitle the songs - which are very important dramatically - and also, at least the copy I have, is of poor picture quality.)
If the company who released this could not afford to do the film justice then they really shoudn't have bothered - or maybe they don't care and just wanted to cash in on the maker of 'Hero' and 'House of Flying Daggers.'
Sadly the wait for a proper release of this superb film goes on...
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on 29 November 2016
This film is based on the well known novel by Mo Yan, which I have reviewed here in this blog. The story is that of three generations of a family in the deep Chinese hinterland during the first half of the XX century. China is in the midst of great upheaval, as the old order of the Qing Empire crumbles and the new republic is not strong enough to take its place. At the family level, a young woman who is forced by her father to marry an old leper so he can receive a mule in payment, rebels.

This would have been unthinkable in the past, but she does. At a broader social level, bandits rule the countryside and the state can not enforce law and order. Then the Japanese invade, and cruelly plunder the country taking advantage of its weakeness.

It is an interesting historical novel, useful to understand the conditions that gave rise to Communist China after Japan's defeat and a brutal civil war.

In my view, the film in not as good as the book. The take on the story lacks credibility. It is also not as harrowing as the book, but that is just as good as some scenes from the book could only be put to film at the cost of making it impossible to watch but for the toughest souls.

Gong Li is a young actress here, and she has not developed her skills quite yet. The script, too, is a bit naive, which the book is anything but.

I would recommend watching the movie but much more so reading the book.

A better movie by the same director, with a similar thread is Ju Dou. Same lady forced to marry same old man (silk dyer instead of wine producer) in a traditional Chinese context where the odds are stacked against her. But in the later movie (1990) she succumbs to the overwhelming odds.
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on 2 February 2009
I take on board the points from 72trails of smoke in the review below, however this is still an absolute classic film. The picture quality is good & you get a real feel of the fantastic scenery from the unbelievable cinematography in this chinese masterpiece. Still in my opinion Zhang Yimou's greatest work. A Must buy for all film lovers
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 13 October 2012
I refer to, of course, 2008's Olympic opening ceremony in Beijing being designed and choreographed by the visionary director of this, his first film - China's own Yimou Zhang.

And here is where it all started - though previously he had been a cinematographer - and it shows - Red Sorghum is beautiful, visually but with that extra edge of human darkness; lust, greed, violence, death, murderous invaders, all set within or close to the wavering seas of sorghum grasses, grown for making a blood-red wine.

Both blood and wine flows copiously at times as this tale gets handed down through the generations; a story that starts simply but which builds into a brazen attack on the senses, the superb use of colour mixing with excellent dramatic acting, slow-moving and evocative long takes and occasional bursts of action - and some comedy, good natural comedy that's actually a joy and which breaks down any boundaries concerned with race, or time.

I quite like the narration that occasionally ables us and the songs, more like spiritual war-dances than pretty ditties.

If you prefer your Chinese/Hong Kong movies more action-based with high-kicking martial arts or big-scaled epic battles, then this might leave you disappointed - this is more Arthouse, something to ponder and savour than having your eyeballs filled with non-stop thrills.
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