“Red Sorghum” is a sharp alternative to the fashionable boy-meets-girl story. Jiu-er may eventually get her lumbering man, but it’s nowhere close to late-eighties American fare
Li Gong,Cunhua Ji,Liu Jia,Wen Jiang
“Red Sorghum” marks Zhang Yimou’s directorial debut after a credible run as a cinematographer (“One and Eight,” “Yellow Earth”) It’s also the first of several films to feature Gong Li as a victim of traditions bent backwards to serve all things masculine and land-owning. When the film’s shifts the role of evil-doer to invading Japanese forces, it becomes all things masculine and land-coveting. The film begins and Jiu’er (Gong Li) is being carried in a cloth covered box to her leprous husband to be, Datou Li. He’s a man of some wealth, a sorghum winery owner. but also a master of men, and as such is spoken ill of by his laborers and a hired man, the dopey but likable Yu (Jiang Wen). We come to know them early on as a raucous group with a playful side. They sing and rattle Jiu-er in the box, poking fun at her situation with kindergarten antics. Midway through a field of wild sorghum, the men settle down. The field is haunted, or believed to be. There are no mystic repercussions though; it’s no Children of the Sorghum. Even so, many significant events happen in and near the field, symbolically allying it with the reddish themes of passion, love, fear, joy, and death. Sure enough, the procession is stopped and confronted by a man in a cloth sack who announces himself as Shanpao, a local gangster. He robs the men then takes Jiu-er into the field at gunpoint. His intentions are typical of the men in Zhang’s earlier films, to covet. Luckily she’s already managed to smitten the half-charming brute, Yu. He saves her before they’re well into the field, and afterwards takes her for himself in the same wild sorghum. But here at least, the desire is mutual.
Before the marriage is consummated, Li dies unexpectedly and Jiu-er emerges as the winery’s new owner. But the men are uneasy about staying put. They’re jarred about the mysterious nature of Li’s death. They pack and are about to march when she addresses them in an unlikely way: as equals. It’s a human appeal and they latch onto it. Jiu-er’s confidence is her strength. In spite of all the forces she plays puppet to, a father who sells her, the sickly proprietor who buys her, and the thugs who try to forcefully possess her, she keeps her mind in a stronger place. In this world it’s enough to inspire loyalty from Li’s men. Together they form a community of the oppressed. It’s the closest they come to being free.
“Red Sorghum” is a sharp alternative to the fashionable boy-meets-girl story. Jiu-er may eventually get her lumbering man, but it’s nowhere close to late-eighties American fare. There’s no hopeless sidekick, no last ditch chase through the airport, and no drunken almost-blew-off-the-new-girl-care-of-being-seduced-by-the-old-one scene, though there’s plenty of pain. Zhang uses washes of color and backlighting to even greater effect than in his next project, “Ju-Dou.” The nights are glazed in a cold anti-freeze wash while the daylight warms dusty browns up to yellow and thick orange hues. The connection between the use or overuse of red and the daily stew that is life in 1930s Shandong province can’t be understated. It underlies every situation that Jiu’er and her villagers seem to face. They’ve earned the right to feel them, and in one sense the color gives them permission to. When Yu returns to the village to find the group celebrating over a new batch of kaoliang (sorghum wine), he lines up the caskets and urinates into them one by one. He’s fallen for Jiu’er but doesn’t have any idea how to show it, outside of crassing his way into her life. When life is struggle and duress, when does a guy have time to practice the art of wooing.
If anyone is entitled to snap though, it’s Jiu’er. She’s been throttled, roughhoused, kidnapped, sold by her father for the promise of livestock, and humiliated as a commodity practically from the opening frame. Incredibly, she’s managed to keep a sense of dignity. But when a friend and veteran of the winery, Luohan is killed during a run-in with the Japanese occupation, it’s too much. Now she’s the one to rally the men, and suggests they avenge his death. As the men prepare for an ambush against a Japanese patrol, Jiu’er cooks a hero’s feast and lays it out for their return. The plates will sit empty. It’s not difficult to condone Jiu’er’s choice. For 90 minutes Zhang lays out a comic colored panel of reasons for her to hate her world or crumble apart. The period and culture demands that she lead a life directed by tradition and Chinese feudalism. Along with the villagers, Jiu’er represents the subjugated, the people wronged politically, socially, sexually, and with the arrival of the Japanese, racially. “Red Sorghum” isn’t heavy into political statements though; words like “communist,” “revolution,” and “imperialist” are barely mentioned. To the victims, pain is pain, regardless of the source. When a cockroach holes up in ice cream, no one much cares what the flavor is. And by the end, it’s the bloodiest of all.
“Red Sorghum,” won the Golden Bear at the 1988 Berlin International Film Festival.
Reviewer : Colin Moore