by Freda Nada
Photo Credit: Still from Red Sorghum
Film Notes is a bimonthly column about Asian film by Freda Nada, part of an upcoming series of columns that will be introduced to New Bloom over the course of the next month.
AFTER A SERIES of films studying rural areas and living in them, director Zhang Yimou was given permission by novelist Mo Yan to film a carte blanche adaptation of Red Sorghum. The result is a life-affirming film that functions as a shallow critique of contemporary Chinese life. As a film, it is a stunning example of storytelling and propaganda. Red Sorghum seamlessly adapts a structurally complex novel into a comprehensible populist fantasy film. Despite or because of its aesthetic value, the movie’s dissemination into Chinese popular culture and the ideology it professes makes it an interesting subject of critical reflection.
Gong Li stars opposite Jiang Wen in this romantic drama with political overtones. The plot focuses on a young bride, Jiu’er, who is sold to a distillery owner. Following the owner’s unexpected death, Jiu’er inherits the distillery, which exclusively produces red wine made from the sorghum crop. Zhang Yimou employs rich cinematography that lends valor to country life and labor. The story is heavy with folk heroism, utilizing red sorghum as the central symbol and visual motif of the film. Liberal use of the color read is easily interpreted as passion for wide audiences.
Zhang Yimou, as in his other work, romanticizes peasant life in this film as a stance against modern Chinese attitudes. Zhang states in an 1988 interview about Red Sorghum, ‘Chinese people are too inhibited; everything in this society is about politics and society. People aren’t people; they’re stature is already small, and then they shrink back even further. So we definitely wanted to restore human feelings and relationships.’ But his version of rural china is a well-constructed reactionary fantasy that hypnotizes audiences with nostalgia for a China that exists only in popular imagination.
In the same interview, Zhang details the effort it took to reconstruct the setting for the film. In the late 80s cash crops had already usurped sorghum in the Shandong region so the director paid peasants to regrow the crop. The project failed initially since the farmers didn’t care to make the sorghum pretty for the cameras. In addition, the peasants used a genetically modified version of the crop that the filmmaker deemed undesirable. So Zhang and his team had to groom the crop themselves. Even then, the mature red sorghum was regarded as unsightly for the film and so he chose to film the sorghum in an unripe, green state.
Red Sorghum contains multiple folk archetypes that are venerated on screen. Gong Li plays the stoic woman who in her resignation overcomes circumstances to become a successful small business owner. She exercises poise and pragmatism in both personal and business affairs. Jiang Wen acts out the part of hotheaded romantic interest. He’s a brash but brave drunk who ultimately wins the girl’s heart. His possessiveness is so brutish as to be comedic; literally, he swings his girl onto his shoulders. This possessive drive later evolves into the generalized possession of the country of China by its people. Implicit is the problematic characterization of the countryside as a defenseless feminine entity. Supporting characters round out the cast of folk characters: the loyal old man, the naive apprentice, etc. and finally all characters imbibe in the symbolically domestic red sorghum wine in somewhat eroticized scenes of song and patriotism.
In effect the movie idealizes a ‘cultural china’ that despite its own internal prejudices is shown to be wholesome, authentic, and even radical in its cruelty. This essentialized form of culture is preciously framed with ‘dirty’ make-up carefully applied to its facade. Simple values of sharing and honesty are upheld as the pillars of a noble life. Red Sorghum juxtaposes the vibrant chauvinism of rural Chinese during the second Sino-Japanese war with the tyrannical Japanese. Laughing, sweating, glistening male bodies and Gong Li’s reserved matronly character are political caricatures, underdogs, that must stand up to Japan’s uniformed fascism. Even the film’s villain, a cunning bandit, deserves our sympathy as he is put on trial against military brutality.
Sound in the film carries with it a deliberate contrast between the modern and the traditional. Though not a musical, Red Sorghum features music as the natural accompaniment to a traditional community’s rituals from wedding to battle. Drums, horns, and the splashing of red wine contribute to Red Sorghum‘s conviviality. Zhang Yimou intentionally chose a calm, deferential narration style to reflect the audience’s passive, complacent attitude when recounting a story of fierce spirit and passion.
Red Sorghum is an incredibly successful film that utilizes sound, image, and pacing to deliver a beautiful and ideological product. Zhang Yimou seeks to critique the cold rigidity of modernization by contrasting it with a period lush yet simple enough to enjoy and experience. Yet the romantic peasant life he constructs is more like the posters of The Great Leap Forward than a radical critique. When adapting from the vague, magically real source novel, Zhang had to invent the humanistic vision of rural china. He did not research it. He just made it up: “After seeing [the film], many people said that it preserved folk customs very well. What folk customs? I made it all up.”