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Red Sorghum will delight those that enjoy the art of cinematography. This
visually stunning film truly deserves its international acclaim simply
because of the way it presents the tale through its remarkable use of
imagery, lighting, and filters.
Until I saw this film, I would have never thought that one could say so much about character, setting, mood and plot simply through the use of layout and image composition. This controversial film set in the 1920's - 1930's, by the rebellious Zhang Yimou, follows the life of sorghum wine farmers from Northern China.
If you follow the history of Chinese film, you will see how nicely this film combines motif's of many of its precursor films. Chinese history and culture has been vastly explored through many Chinese films, however I believe that this is a good film for the average American film goer to get a taste of the Chinese film industry and culture through their perspective. I say this for a variety of reasons, the pacing of this drama is quicker and faster moving compared to other related Chinese films before its time. Generally Chinese film have a tendency to be slow, when set aside the general American preferred standards.
It presents to us some of the Northern Chinese cultural traditions. Its display of the Japanese brutality could not have been better presented. The Japanese have been quite swinish during this period in Chinese history. All I can say is it says it all as it really was, very well indeed.
This is the last but most important reason to watch this film... look at its cinematography. It has to be among the best I have ever seen. It amazed me to see how resourceful a cinematographer can be when working for a film of little budget. Yimou showed me how simple things can be filmed to be works of art. Unfortunately I have not been able to see the film in its original cinematic scope however, even in full screen it is still quite visually stunning. The aperture, f-stop and lens settings were set just perfectly giving the film a very rich vibrant look making Yimou my favorite Chinese film cinematographer/director of all time to date. Oh, it is a film that you just have to see for yourself! Hope you enjoy it! Happy Viewing!
Although I don't think this is quite as good as some of the other films
that master Chinese film maker Zhang Yimou has made--e.g., Raise the
Red Lantern (1991); The Story of Qiu Ju (1991); Ju Duo (1990)--Red
Sorghum is nonetheless an outstanding film strikingly presented
visually and thematically.
Gong Li stars as the betrothed of an old leprous wine maker. The film opens with her being carried in a covered sedan chair to the consummation of her wedding by a rowdy crew from the sorghum winery. It is the 1930s or a little before. They joust her about according to tradition and sing a most scary song about how horrible her life is going to be married to the leprous old man. Through a break in the sedan's enclosure as she sits alone in fear and dread she catches sight of Jiang Wen, a burly, naturalistic man with a piercing countenance. A little later after a bit of unsuccessful highway robbery during which she is released from her confinement, they exchange meaningful glances. The young man doing the voice-over identifies them as his Grandmother and Grandfather. (Obviously the leprous old man is going to miss out!)
Zhang Yimou's technique here, as in all of his films that I have seen, is to tell a story as simply as possible from a strong moral viewpoint with as little dialogue as possible and to rely on sumptuous sets, intense, highly focused camera work, veracious acting by a carefully directed cast, and of course to feature the great beauty of his star, the incomparable and mesmerizing Gong Li. If you haven't seen her, Red Sorghum is a good place to start. Jiang Wen is also very good and brings both a comedic quality to the screen as well as an invigorating vitality. His courageous and sometimes boorish behavior seems exactly right.
I should warn the viewer that this film contains striking violence and would be rated R in the United States for that and for showing a little boy always naked and for the "watering" of the wine by Jiang Wen and the boy. Indeed the film is a little crude at times and represents a view of pre-communist China and its culture that the present rulers find agreeable. The depiction of the barbarity and cruelty of the Japanese soldiers is accurate from what I know, but I must say that this film would never have seen the light of day had communist soldiers been depicted in such a manner.
Nonetheless the treatment is appropriate since Red Sorghum is a masculine, lusty film suggesting the influence of Akira Kurosawa with perhaps a bit of Clint Eastwood blended in. There are bandits and tests of manhood. The men get drunk and behave badly. Masculine sexual energy is glorified, especially in the scene where Jiang Wen carries Gong Li off to bed, holding her like a barrel under his arm, feet forward, after having "watered" her wine as though to mark his territory. The camera trailing them shows her reach up and put her arms around his neck and shoulder as much in sexual embrace as in balance.
Obviously this is Zhang Yimou before he became completely enamored of the feminist viewpoint; yet somehow, although Gong Li is allowed to fall in love with her rapist (something not possible in contemporary American cinema), Zhang Yimou manages to depict her in a light that celebrates her strength as a woman. One can see here the germination of the full blown feminism that Zhang Yimou would later develop in the aforementioned Raise the Red Lantern, Ju Dou and Qiu Ju.
As usual in Zhang Yimou's films not only are the sets gorgeous but the accompanying accouterments--the pottery, the costumes, the lush verdure of the sorghum fields, even the walls and interiors of the meat house restaurant/bar and Gong Li's bedroom--are feasts for the eyes, somehow looming before cinematographer Gu Changwei's camera more vividly than reality.
There are some indications here however that Zhang Yimou had not yet completely mastered his art, and indeed was working under the constraint of a limited budget. For example there was no opening in the sedan through which Gong Li could see Jiang Wen, and there shouldn't have been one (a peephole maybe). The pouring of the wine (into presumably empty bowls that obviously already contained wine) by Jiang Wen needed more practice. In his later films Zhang Yimou would reshoot such scenes to make them consistent with the audience's perception. Additionally, Gong Li's character was not sufficiently developed early on for us to appreciate her confident governance of the winery she had inherited. "Uncle" Luohan's apparently jealous departure from the winery and his implied relationship with and loyalty to Gong Li were also underdeveloped.
However these are minor points: in what really matters in film making--telling a story and engaging the audience in the significance and the experience of the tale--in these things Zhang Yimou not only excelled, but gave promise of his extraordinary talent that would be realized in the films to come. See this by all means, but don't miss his Raise the Red Lantern, in my opinion one of the greatest films ever made.
(Note: Over 500 of my movie reviews are now available in my book "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote!" Get it at Amazon!)
There are several versions of this film available on video. Some are in
wide screen, some aren't. The impact of the visuals is lost without the
full-shot wide screen. Then there are two different subtitled versions,
that has large subtitles and another that uses smaller but less intrusive
subtitles, which is the best of the two. So depending on what version of
the video you're watching, your experience of the film can vary. But
assuming you get your hands on the good version...
This film is like a quiet fairy tale that transforms into something that I didn't see coming. The visuals are stunning. The story slowly unfolds but is presented so well that it's completely compelling. The acting is as good as it gets. And the ending hits you like a punch in the stomach.
This films stands out from all other Chinese films I have seen. It has a character uniquely its own, and is well worth seeking out.
Credit goes to Yimou for stripping this epic 2 novel series down to this spare and gorgeous little hour and a half. For all the recent fantastic forays into Chinese fantasy, this story (which is allegedly true) shown as it is, is as close to a fairy tale as it gets, at least until the very end. Every shot is a painting. For some reason this film is still near-impossible to find on DVD. I truly hope it is not being suppressed for anti-Japanese sentiment expressed in it. That would be a terrible shame. This film was released shortly before Tienanmenn (sp) and it has a boldness and frank humor rarely seen in Chinese film since.
Red Sorghum. Red is for blood. Blood/Wine coursing through your veins.
Blood Pumping Love in your heart and Courage as well. Blood of your loved
ones killed in war. Blood of your enemies. Blood of your Brothers. I
it now. I remember his masterful use of color. Just like how he retells
the stories in different colors for "Hero". This is how I felt after
watching "Red Sorghum."
Gong Li is stunning as usual. Check out Zhang Yimou as Brother Lohan. He displays such dignity. Muscle Man quite often steals the show with his bravado. The songs are uplifting and beautiful to hear. The scenery takes you away and the fields of sorghum are alive and pulling you in like Nature Herself.
While gutwrenching like his other movies, the characters in this one are especially endearing in their loyalty to each other. What more can I say. Poetry brought to life.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I have been a fan of Zhang Yimou's films since 1999 when I first
watched his 1991 film Raise The Red Lantern for my East Asian Novel
class, and since then I have watched several other of his films such as
Not One Less, To Live, The Road Home, Happy Times, and Riding Alone for
Thousands of Miles. Each one of his films brings something new to the
table and delves into such issues as urban/rural conflicts, political
corruption, and Japan-China relations. Red Sorghum is Zhang Yimou's
first film as a director and while it may be a bit simpler than many of
his later films it contains elements that almost every fan of his films
will be familiar with: beautiful settings, very fleshed out characters,
and moments of conflict where those who possess little power are
overwhelmed by larger forces. Also, Red Sorghum is Gong Li first film,
and it is nice to see that even at such a young age, 21, that she
already possessed on screen charisma that can really grip the viewer's
heart. While not as masterful as her performances in To Live or Chen
Kaige's Farewell My Concubine, her tears and iron core are still quite
Based on Mo Yan's novel of the same name, Red Sorghum tells the story of a young girl nicknamed Nine, she is the ninth child of her family and she was born on the ninth day of the ninth month, who was given to a leper named Big Head Li who traded a mule for her. On her trip to Big Head Li's home, while being jostled about in the sedan chair as custom would have it, Nine peeks from behind the curtains and spots one of the well-muscled sedan carriers and falls in love with him at first site. Later, After killing a would be thief and being able to see Nine for the first time, the sedan carrier, who is only referred to as "my grandfather" by the narrator, falls instantly in love also. On a trip back to her father's home, as custom would hold on the third day of marriage, Nine is accosted by a masked man who turns out to be the sedan carrier. There under the shadows of the sorghum they make love. While a her father's home Big Head Li is killed although no one knows who did it, so upon her return to the winery Nine inherits the place and asks the workers to stay and work for her. Included amongst these workers is an older man named Luohan whom Nine takes to immediately. However, the Sedan carrier also returns drunk and says some quite rude things about Nine, however, the two eventually come to peace with each other and for a while things seem to be going well until the Japanese army invades.
Red Sorghum is at times hilarious such as when The sedan carrier, Jiang Wen, sings and cries to himself when he is in a wine pot for three days, sad, and absolutely brutal. There are some scenes after the Japanese army has invaded that will truly make one cringe. While some of his later films are better known and show the evidence of skilled craftsmanship from years of experience, Red Sorghum should not be missed for its significance in the history of recent Chinese cinema as the first pairing of Zhang Yimou and Gong Li.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Definitely one of the best anti-war movies with an unforgettable ending where a child sings a song that goes to your heart. Red colours the whole movie, which deals with wine (remember the recipe) and love as well as with the cruelties of the Japanese in China. This film lacks words and totally relies on cinematography. A feast for the eyes, even stronger as the later JI DOU or RED LANTERN by the same director, each image wants to burn itself into your brain.
Here is a solid film by Yimou Zhang, from the fifth generation of
Chinese directors. Red Sorghum is told as a flashback, a narration by
the main character's grandson. Gong Li plays an attractive lower-class
Chinese woman who is sent, against her will, to be married to an old
leper who runs a winery.
The story takes place on the eve of the Japanese occupation before World War II and later features some ugly scenes from their invasion. There is an underlying motif regarding feminism (a lot of this generation of Chinese directors seemed to deal with this) and the inability of females to be even remotely empowered in this time and place. I enjoyed seeing the class boundaries and customs of late-Qing China, the occasionally goofy sense of humor, and the almost lawless, ruthless communities out in the desert.
The film takes place in only a handful of locations, but features some gorgeous cinematography. The vibrant red colors (perhaps an allusion to Communist rule and foreshadowing bloodshed? It's hard to tell whether this film is for or against Communist China) are illustrated vividly by the sorghum wine and the long views of the sun setting across the Chinese desert. The pacing is slow but efficient and the story is a memorable one.
It's quite indisputable (to me, at least!) that, although this was Yimou Zhang's first film, it's loads better than his later movies, "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers". Hopefully one day he'll catch up to where he started.
The much heralded renaissance of New Chinese Cinema can be an acquired taste to many Western filmgoers, but this handsome period piece (directed by the cinematographer of 'Yellow Earth', 1984) is livelier and more accessible than most. Part folk tale, part historical drama, it tells the story of a young virgin (sold by her father into marriage with a wealthy leper, in return for a mule), who after her husband's mysterious death continues to run his successful vineyard, with help from her loyal wedding bearers. And yet for all its undeniable physical beauty and colorful action the film can be a dry experience, at least until the outbreak of the second Sino-Japanese War in the 1930s. With the Japanese occupation some emotional urgency finally breaks through the film's mantle of reserve, which up to that point had marked even the more bawdy episodes of communal singing and drinking.
This film captures the Chinese landscape with a touch of love, love that the filmmakers had for their people and their culture which fuses with the sorghum fields and the folk songs they sing when they are happy or when they are in pain and anguish, beautifully. I felt the Japanese effect or the tyrannical force with which they subdued the Chinese should have been shown a little more, it all happened in a jiffy. The storytelling is pretty but fails to connect on many levels. Like the transition of a poor village girl into a strong distillery owner and the level of trust and love she is shown by the workers and the sudden infatuation that develops and is accepted between her and Yu. Also the way we are shown the attack sequence was not at all engaging, it only had slow-mo shots of people falling/running but the final shot of redness surrounding Yu and his son was brilliant. Watch it, for you'll get a peek into Chinese culture, the position of women in it, their traditions and songs and most importantly the red wine, red like blood mingling to mark a jarringly tough Chinese wartime life.
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