Thursday, July 4, 2013
Red Sorghum (1987)
Red is everything in Red Sorghum. It places the elements that matter most to the film along one continuum: binding the sacred, like ceremonial garb, to the profane: crops, wine, sex, and blood. It symbolizes birth and death—the big concepts—but also the living in between. It is everything.
Red Sorghum marked the directorial debut of Zhang Yimou, a man who appreciated the power of colour. A noted cinematographer, Zhang had brought his vision to Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth three years before. He’d distinguished that film’s vast landscapes from an equally vast sky with forceful use of yellow, green, and brown against blue. Now, helming a film of his own, he chose a scarlet pallet both lurid and violent.
The story is simple. Jiu’er (Gong Li) is a peasant girl from China’s Shandong province, betrothed to the much older Li Datou, who owns a distillery. The distillery makes sorghum wine. Li is wealthy, but also a leper. It is a grotesque fate for the young and beautiful Jiu’er, who sits, unhappily jostled, in her red bridal sedan as Li’s men transport her to meet her groom.
Jiu’er’s future is not with Li, however. Soon afterward, the old man is found dead—murdered, nobody knows by whom—and she becomes intertwined with one of her sedan bearers (Jiang Wen). A brave man, but an aggressive, obnoxious one too, this man, we know, will bear her at least one child: the father of the film’s unnamed narrator. In the meantime they spar, and Jiu’er adapts to life at the distillery, where she is the lone female, commanding a small force of labourmen. It’s a surprisingly good fit for all of them. Freedom, it seems, is what Jiu’er always wanted.
Red Sorghum is a film of extremes, which may be appropriate for a film so full of wine. For some time after the death Li Datou it is a happy, bawdy story. The labourmen are characters: grubby, earthy and genuine, with a joyous spirit and commitment to their work. Jiang Wen dives headfirst into his role, playing a hothead with a lot of guts and not so much forethought. At one point, irked by Jiu’er’s public rejection of him, he pisses in a wine vat. Somehow, this creates a uniquely delicious batch. The distillery, we are told, later becomes famous for the quality of its wine. Does every vat contain human urine? We do not know.
There is a timeless, legendary quality to some of this. When Gong Li, clothed in red, first lies down with Jiang Wen, it is within the field of sorghum—and we don’t see the sex, just the tall grasses: a multitude of undulating stalks. It’s pure fecundity. Later, the distillery is attacked by bandits. Jiu’en is captured and held for ransom; her drunken lover, meanwhile, spends three days sleeping in an empty wine crock. These sound like mythical tales. And the issues they address—rape, poverty, illness, murder—seem to lose their sharpness because of it.
Yet the film isn’t set in some mythic time, but in the 1930s, during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Eventually the events of this war reach the distillery, and when they do, the film’s tone turns much darker. Japanese soldiers advance through sorghum fields, hacking and flattening the grasses. Chinese peasants are enslaved, put to work, beaten and tortured. This leads to one of Red Sorghum’s best scenes, and its most horrific, when the Japanese force a peasant butcher to skin his countryman alive.
There is nothing romantic about a machine gun. Blood has been spilled and the distillery’s crew, woefully ill-equipped, vow to avenge it by blowing up a Japanese truck. They guzzle bowls of wine, red like the blood, by firelight. It symbolizes their commitment. And possibly their fate.
Events move swiftly after this. Perhaps too fast—I would have liked to have spent more time with Jiu’er and her lover, and their son, on that hilltop. The distillery felt like a real place and the labourmen, their extended family. What did their life become in those weeks and months after things turned grim? How were the rhythms of that place, in many ways so primal, disrupted? Red Sorghum doesn’t tell us much about it.
Still, it gives us the colour: Rich, lusty, gory, and vital. Like a good life, or at least, one worth telling about.
Where to see Red Sorghum:
Red Sorghum screens at TIFF Bell Lightbox on Sunday, July 14, 2013—part of the multi-film retrospective, A Century of Chinese Cinema.