Zhang Yimou’s debut feature is a haunting and visually hypnotic tale of lust, love, and how the ravages of war affect rural community. In terms of Zhang’s later work, the narrative of Red Sorghum is more akin to The Flowers of War (2011) and Coming Home (2014), than Hero (2002) or House of Flying Daggers (2004). However, instantly noticeable is the veritable feast of colors that Yimou has used across his entire career.
The story begins with the bleak colours of a yellow and orange wasteland, as a narrator tells the story in flashback. Jiu’er (Gong Li) is being sent against her wishes to marry a leprous distillery owner. Jiang Wen plays the nameless leader of the entourage that escorts the bride to be. The two characters have a passionate encounter after he rescues her from an attempted kidnap. This is the beginning of a tumultuous affair that is visually punctuated by the greens of the sorghum leaves, and the deep reds of the wine that is created from them. Jiu’er’s husband is never seen, and does not live long. Instead, Jiang’s boisterous farmhand is the cause of the rocky road the affair takes, though it eventually leads to a child and newfound success for the distillery. But then the Japanese invade China.
A tense atmosphere permeates most of the film – right from the lovers’ first sexual encounter, to the drunken tantrums of Jiang’s roguish brute, and confrontation with the Japanese soldiers. This brings great dramatic impact to events early on, especially in the tribulations of Jiu’er in getting the owner’s employees to stay after his death and her attempts to turn the distillery’s fortunes around. The tantrums of Jiu’er’s lover exacerbate this atmosphere further, as they are caused by Jiu’er refusal of his further advances. These continuous tension should prepare the audience for the violent introduction of the Japanese and how they deal with resistance in the countryside. Nonetheless, the shock of the violence in the latter half is not lessened as the deep reds switch from wine to blood.
Most of this tension is aided by the lack of dialogue between the characters. There is some narration, as mentioned earlier, but it is sparse and does not distract from the images on screen. It is the visuals and the actors’ skills that really aid the storytelling. Gong’s portrayal of Jiu’er makes her transformation from doe-eyed virgin to matriarchal leader believable and realistic. Jiang is also equally worthy of praise, but for different reasons. It is almost unbelievable how many emotions he can convey from what is essentially a hard stare.
The aesthetic power of the film makes it clear that Zhang was destined to bring more lavish images to the silver screen. What is all the more astounding is that Zhang could put this much artistic creativity into a mainland Chinese production, and especially within the very familiar context of the Japanese invasion. Rather than simply bowing to the government’s censorship regulations, Zhang decided that he could experiment with sound and visuals in the framework of a conservative view of 1930s history. As a result, a left-wing message is provided, but it is made universal through the director’s compositions. The aftermath of the bloody final scenes is simply followed by one of the only sources of music throughout the film – the chanting of the farm workers as the wine is made. Their song lives on despite the actions of the Japanese, meaning that actions often speak louder than words: the narrator finally states that the sorghum fields disappeared some years later, but he is still telling the story of what happened there.