Despite being a feature debut for both its director and star, Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum is both an excellent, award-winning drama and a landmark in Chinese film history.
China was one of the earliest nations to embrace cinema, thanks to a visit to Shanghai by the Lumiere’s camera operator in 1896. The first screenings occurred that year, although it would take until 1905 for a Chinese-made silent short to be produced. Film production kicked into high gear during the 1930s via a generation of enthusiastic left-wing activists. By the end of the decade, a military occupation by the Empire of Japan put a hefty dent in China’s cinema aspirations, and following a brief resurgence in the mid-1940s the industry shifted largely to propaganda works for the new communist government. Arguably the most critical shift in Chinese cinema occurred in the late 1980s. A new generation of filmmakers entered the industry, and their arrival coincided with a general ‘opening-up’ of Chinese culture to the rest of the world. The resulting films were often the first new Chinese cinema international audiences had seen in decades. This so-called “Fifth Generation” largely came from the Beijing Film Academy, and included directors like Chen Kaige, Tian Zhuangzhuang, and – of course – Zhang Yimou. Red Sorghum (1987) was Zhang’s first feature, was screened at the Berlin International Film Festival, and was awarded its Golden Bear.
The film stars Gong Li as Jiu’er, a young woman sent by her parents to marry the elderly owner of a local sorghum wine distillery. By the time Jiu’er arrives, the old man has died. Since he did not have an heir, Jiu’er inherits the entire distillery. The ensuing film sees its young protagonist earn the respect and loyalty of her employees, sees both her and the distillery threatened by bandits, and a romance develop with one of the winemakers.
This is vital, lively cinema, depicting a simple way of life among Chinese peasants in the 1930s. For the most part the story is simple and directly told, with broadly written characters and pleasant day-to-day incidents about the winery. The romance is passionate and heartfelt, and the narrative varied. It is cleanly shot by Zhang with a strong eye for colour: reds, greens, and the sparse beauty of rural Shandong province.
The lead performances are strong and emotive. Red Sorghum marks Gong Li’s on-screen debut; she collaborated several more times with Zhang over the ensuing decades (these films are currently available in an exceptional boxed set from Australian distributor Imprint Films), and independently established herself as one of the great actors of contemporary Chinese language cinema. As her unnamed lover, Jiang Wen juggles a combination of strong will, good heart, and rank stupidity. He too moved on to enormous success in film.
The film takes a sharp, bleak turn in its final act with the arrival of an invading Japanese army. The sequence presents something of a shock, and reframes the entire genre and tone of the film. The shift could be disastrous, but Zhang manages to engineer the change in such a way that makes the Japanese presence all the more shocking and difficult to watch.
By comparison to American and European cinema of the late 1980s, Red Sorghum may seem rather simple – even ordinary – but its narrative purity and photographic beauty seem genuinely ageless. As an introduction to Chinese cinema it is an obvious and worthwhile choice. As a film in its own right, it is simply wonderful.