Tuesday, 7 August 2007

Red Sorghum (1987)

Few movies trickled out from China in the 1980s having only been opened its door recently. This was 1 of them, and turned out to be very eye-catching. 1 of its attention grabbing feature is the breaking of taboos in cinema in general, especially Chinese cinema in particular - explicit depiction of female orgasm, urination (by adult and kid), skinning of beast and man, child nudity (much more problematic in the West than in China). Of course, these things are no big deal if this is an exploitation flick (in fact, not graphic enough). As a mainstream, serious drama, this film is pushing the boundary of respectability.

Red Sorghum (1987)But I'm talking about genre boundary. Also, the cinematic boundary also depends on national boundary. What's considered "too much" in PRC isn't necessarily so in Hollywood. And what's deemed as "obscene" in Hollywood may not seen so vis-à-vis the French cinema or Scandinavian cinemas for that matter.

With this film Zhang tested the national boundary of Chinese cinema.

Of course, it wasn’t the taboo breaking that put Zhang Yimou, the so-called 5th Generation Chinese director, onto the attention of the world. There were many reasons, not the least is that many Zhang (and his temporary Chinese fellow directors) were obsessively focusing on the question of what China is via the examination of its histories, its society, cultures and issues. With 3 decades under Mao, such candid self-examination/navel-gazing/soul searching was discouraged, in fact, down right dangerous. Now the 5G Chinese directors like Zhang were going to go crazy with it, given half a chance. And at the same time the rest of the world just happened – naturally – to have a great thirst for knowledge about China after decades of their cave dwelling away from the rest of the world. Well, it isn't true that they're allowed to make any movie that candily examines China. At least, they can make it before being banned, rather than being banned to make it.

Mo Yan's Red Sorghum
Let's look at the symbolism of 'Red Sorghum',

Colour Red
Colour of the sorghum wine, China, revolution, Communism.

Sorghum Wine
The weapon against (leprous) germs, and invading Japanese army.

Sorghum Field
This is where the narrator is conceived.

This is the source of the livelihood for all the characters. When the Japanese came, the field is cleared to remove danger of hidden enemy, and thus removing their livelihood. In short, the sorghum field is life-giving, and the Japanese army takes it away.

The tall standing sorghum - literally means Tall Beam (高粱) - are being bent, cut down and flattened, this in itself is a symbol of domination.

The sorghum field is the battlefield between the Chinese and Japanese in microcosm in the final scene.


Without realising it, the audience is exposed a great deal of Shaanxi culture. The tradition of the wedding procession in this film, and the musical instruments are distinctly Shaanxi’s. In fact, Zhang put this Shaanxi music in several of his films. Not surprisingly. this is because he was born in Shaanxi, and his childhood was probably steeped in these traditions.

This is his very few masculine - some may call male chauvinist - film he made, after this most of his subsequent films could be arguably labelled feminist films, or at least has a feminist slant. This masculinity and violence are major features in Japanese samurai (and Japanese exploitation) films, perhaps this is the point of the movie - to show the Shaanxi's traditional masculine culture and the Japanese violence.

The idea of violent chauvinism here is, you want her, you take her by force. 'Her' is our heroine, or China. Mo Yan, the novellist of Red Sorghum, is cynical of male power. If in doubt read his other novel, Big Breasts & Full Hips.

We were also introduced to the fab Gong Li, Zhang's romantic interest/friend/collaborator/muse. And Jian Wen, the talented actor/director like Zhang himself.

Fun Facts:
  • Mo Yan, the writer of the novel where this movie is based, is a Nobel Laureate in Literature (won in 2012).
  • Mo Yan is a pen name for Guan Moye. Mo Yan (莫言) means "Don't Speak".



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