Written by: John White on March 26th, 2006
Theatrical Release Date: China, 1988
Director: Zhang Yimou
Cast: Gong Li, Ge You, Zhang Yimou
DVD released: December 6, 2005
Approximate running time: 90 mins
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Rating: 18 UP
Sound: Dolby Digital 2.0/5.1
DVD Release: Chinese Classics/Xinsheng
Region Coding: Region 0 NTSC
Retail Price: $14.95
Nine, grandmother, has been sold by her parents to be the wife of an ageing leprous winemaker, Big Head. En route to Big Head she is transported in a palanquin carried by his workers, one of whom will become her husband, grandfather. They are ambushed by a bandit who attempts to kidnap her but is overpowered by grandfather. When Nine arrives at the winery she meets her husband and after a month she returns to see her family but is ambushed again, this time by grandfather. They make love and when Nine returns she finds her husband has been killed and that she inherits the business. Her first act is to involve the workers in a collective and they continue to work like this through grandfather’s jealousy, Bandit problems up to the Japanese occupation of their lands. Faced with tremendous cruelty the workers rise up as saboteurs.
Red Sorghum is very much an allegory for Chinese history between the wars. The film offers an act of revolution in the murder of Big Head and the collectivisation of the vineyard and then shows explicitly the experience of Japanese invasion. For Zhang Yimou, it was one of his many collaborations with his long time lover, Gong Li, and he even pops up as Little Brother who meets a grisly end. In 1988, Yimou was a film-maker whom the Chinese government was uneasy about and Red Sorghum was banned in some provinces. Given the more approving nature of Yimou’s current relationship with Chinese authorities, this is important to remember when viewing early work like this film, Lifetimes and Raise the Red Lantern. Yimou’s criticisms of communist rule were always subtle and more from the standpoint of a critical friend than a dissident.
Yimou started as a cinematographer and his films are strong evidence to this point. Red Sorghum is beautifully shot, blisteringly hot, disturbingly red and totally in love with Gong Li. Red Sorghum is as much a testament to the strength of rural women as a history lesson. Nine is sold despite her wishes, undergoes sexual sacrifice to a leper, is kidnapped by male bandits and taken by “grandfather”. She is not though simply a victim or an angel of domestic sacrifice as her political acts of collectivising the winery and her eventual martyrdom state. The film finishes with her son and grandfather facing a solar eclipse as she has been killed. This maternal image of China is a constant theme through Yimou’s films.
Red Sorghum is wonderfully authentic and sincerely stated drama. Much like Yimou’s masterpiece, The Road Home, this film is told as much as personal history as political with the narrator being the grandson of Nine. Some of this film’s censorship problems probably came about from the depiction of this happy collective farm in pre-communist China but this depiction is not idyllic. The images are simply truthful and the happiness is destroyed by the Japanese army’s atrocities and eventual destruction of the sorghum that the workers live for. The solar eclipse is the end of this sorghum era and this marks another Yimou concern, the loss of the values of rural life.
Red Sorghum is an outstanding early example of a great film-maker. If you like Yimou’s more intimate pieces like Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, then Sorghum might be right up your street.
Red Sorghum like many of Yimou’s early works is yet to get a DVD release which does it justice and this Xinsheng disc carries that less than proud tradition on. The transfer has appalling colour balance with the sharp reds lost in muddy browns and the picture is intermittently soft at the centre. The sound is battered and bruised and clearly the source materials were poor. The removable English subtitles will leave you in a constant state of being a human spellcheck and searching for what word they might mean when the subtitles get it laughably wrong.
The Chinese menus are cheap looking and a Xinsheng logo appears every 20 minutes or so when you are watching the feature. There are no extras.
The recent poor treatment DVD producers have meted out to Raise the Red Lantern and Ju Dou is matched by this poor release.