Directed by Zhang Yimou
Written by Chen Jianyu and Zhu Wei (based on the stories "Red Sorghum" and "Sorghum Wine" by Mo Yan)
It is perfectly appropriate to call 1987's Red Sorghum, Zhang Yimou's directorial debut, his "first film," but it's customary to mention that it wasn't by any means the first film he worked on. That honor goes to a thing for children called Red Elephant, which Zhang photographed back when he was still attending film school in loaned-out space from the agricultural college in Beijing, as they prepared to graduate their first class since the Cultural Revolution had shuttered the institution. Even scholars don't care about Red Elephant, though if I wanted to be glib maybe I'd speculate it led to his very intense fascination with hue, or at least putting the names of colors in his movie titles, which would include something like half his filmography.
Or maybe that could be pinned instead upon one of his first post-graduation films as a cinematographer, 1984's Yellow Earth—his very first professional gig had been shooting 1983's One and Eight for Zhang Junzhao at the Guangxi studio in southern China, and the following year his success on that film earned him the position of DP on the directorial debut of the man that you could, if you wished, call Zhang's rival, Chen Kaige. They'd been classmates, and were and presumably still are friends (he was never his nemesis; apparently that slot was waiting to be filled by Wong Kar-Wai). But they were also in many ways opposites. Chen was the child of respected Communist Party members; Zhang was from a Kuomintang family and has labored under their inherited suspicion his entire life. Chen was two years Zhang's junior, and had little trouble getting placement into the director's program at the film academy; Zhang was over their age cut-off and had to beg to be let in (which is how he's basically Spielberg's age despite his filmography being fifteen years shorter), and then they put him in cinematography. On the other hand, both of them are most-beloved in the West for shit they did with Gong Li thirty years ago; so they have that in common.
But then there's Yellow Earth itself, which is one of the most important Chinese films ever made, kicking off their so-called "Fifth Generation" of cinema, though thanks to Mao, there was never a Fourth Generation to speak of. It's maybe not too much to say that it was the very first mainland Chinese movie that any significant number of Western tastemakers ever noticed. For such an important film, Yellow Earth is hard to watch today—by which I mean it's literally difficult, because while it's on YouTube it's only available in a deeply compromised form. Very deeply: it looks like a movie that was recorded on a wax cylinder rather than celluloid, then digitized onto a floppy disk, and then taken into a video editor and framed wrong. So I cannot speak to the qualities that captured the attention of the artsy-farts of my civilization, as these are predominantly visual, bound up in the bleak desolation of Chen's compositions and the rich colors of Zhang's photography. I can only speak to the story, and Yellow Earth set a certain set of parameters for early Fifth Generation cinema, with its neorealist impulse to capture the lives of forgotten women and men scraping out their existence at the lowest levels of Chinese society, but putting more poetry in it than communist propaganda, and removing the triumphalism. And it's... fine. Frankly, it's the kind of movie I have a hard time respecting—it's right-sized for its purposes at 87 minutes, so I can give it a smidgen of regard—but as Preston Sturges would tell you, it's not serving the higher purposes of its art form. Any idiot can point a camera at a girl living under patriarchy and rural poverty and make that kind of sad. It takes a real genius to make you cry over the tragedy of a talking cat. (Happily, I am speaking about the same filmmaker.)
Yet stories of desperate Chinese peasants turned out to be surprisingly brisk and prestigious business; after Zhang and Chen parted ways and the former had relocated to the Xi'an studio in his hometown to be a director in his own right, Zhang naturally did yet another desperate Chinese peasant movie. If I've belabored Yellow Earth it's because practically everything that Chen had done in his desperate Chinese peasant movie, Zhang did the opposite. Yellow Earth is reserved, observational, and, other than its peasant song soundtrack, quiet. It's also dignified. Red Sorghum isn't any of those things. I suspect Zhang was conscious of how he was zigging where Chen zagged, because while maybe it's just that the films' respective source materials didn't leave him other options, Red Sorghum at least begins exactly like Yellow Earth began (and, for that matter, ended). It's rather less inspired by the prospect of trying to use cinematography to make moving Wang Hui landscape paintings, but it's still shot and designed in much the same way: a red sedan carrying an unhappy woman across a yellow dusty desert to a marriage to a husband she's never met. However, in this one the sedan-bearers start razzing her almost the instant we make their acquaintance, jostling her around till she almost pukes in her box, then indulging in some gentle ribbing about how she's off to marry a leper, whereupon she'll probably get leprosy herself and die.
The woman is Jiu'er, and that's Gong Li, so that probably has to be acknowledged right upfront, too (or as close to "upfront" as a plot summary coming after 800 words of historical backdrop can be). As the beginning of the great actress's collaboration with the great director (she eventually would make nine films with him, plus one that he supervised), it was also the beginning of their long affair, something I'm quite prepared to believe was deeply and mutually romantic, even if it also inaugurated Zhang's habit of sleeping with his actresses. Well, drafted out of the drama academy in Beijing, it was Gong's debut, too; its success, maybe its international success particularly, marked the beginning of Gong's rise to be mainland China's greatest global star.
So: Jiu'er is off to marry the leprous owner of a winery in an isolated and geologically-wondrous desert in some nebulous dreamscape of "northern China." To get there, however, they must travel through a field of metaphorical and symbolic wild sorghum that's grown taller than a man, so tall that one could hide in it, or get lost in it. Presently, it harbors a bandit, who robs the convoy and attempts to abduct Jiu'er, but one of her carriers (Jiang Wen, on his way to having a pretty important career himself) intervenes, leading to the whole group mobbing the bandit and killing him. The downside is that Jiu'er still has to marry the leper, but on a visit back home, she's attacked again, another man springing out of sorghum with a belligerent lust—but revealing himself as the man who had saved her before, and whom she had been most conspicuously eying even before that, they make love in the grass. In a complete coincidence, not long thereafter her husband ends up dead, too.
Red Sorghum places me in a horrible bind: it is egregiously beautiful, and, besides that, I've got no use for it. But it is truly gorgeous, not only for the way it began Zhang's career-long obsession with color-coding, though there's certainly that, but for his and cinematographer Gu Changwei's treatment of nature, so often captured at just the exact right moment for the light to look like heaven's descended to earth. You almost want to say, "how the hell did they do this without CGI?", but even that doesn't describe it, because it's so real and so present, and so imbued with the undeniable tangibility of existence. (And then there's the eclipse at the end that's a Bava-level use of the color red to gesture at horror so unmanageable that it's of another world altogether.)
Zhang's stated inspiration to do Red Sorghum was the idea of untamed grass growing tall and free, embodying the passions of peasant life, capable of swirling suggestively around a red-clad woman whose name means "ninth" but could also mean "intoxicating liquor." (And who happens to be played by a world-class actor who, even in her very first role, is able to quietly intimate with the slightest movement of her eyes that, for example, she's considering the upside of being kidnapped and raped by a bandit if it means being freed from her marriage.) So by no means is it any kind of bad starting place.
But if it doesn't sound like a story concept to you, you're damned right. The synopsis I sketched out doesn't even take us to the halfway mark; maybe it's worth mentioning that the source material's author, Mo Yan, hated it. That's not necessarily a strike against it (it's a cliché for authors to hate their film adaptations). There are themes there, I suppose: maybe Zhang wanted to gesture toward the idea that womanhood in the bad old days was a choice between sex slavery and the kind of rape where you might at least have an orgasm; but that's surely over-intellectualizing it (and over-contextualizing it, in the light of his later films), for Red Sorghum is exclusively playing with archetype, and the archetypes of a bodice-ripper, at that. What Zhang wanted was to make a lusty peasant romance about a lovelorn petit bourgeois woman and the shirtless sweaty beefcake servant who roughly takes her in a sorghum field. Well, he succeeded, and it's hot: from the way she sticks her foot out of the curtained sedan, shy and discreet and desperate for his touch, to the annihilating blasts of sunlight, to the violent smashing of reeds to make a bed, to the way the sorghum blows back and forth in the breeze, so erotically-charged that Zhang somehow makes shots of swaying grass feel pornographic.
But that's barely the thirty-minute mark, and when it's over, Red Sorghum throws up a "mission accomplished" banner and spends the next full hour casting around for something, anything else to be about. It finds a number of things, notably Jiu'er's never-named lover immediately becoming a giant asshole and getting almost-as-immediately thrown out of the winery. It's also about the wine-making process, and bandits, and Jiu'er's lover's return, which is somehow triumphant and one of the biggest what-the-fuck moments you'll ever experience, so divorced from human behavior, even on that archetypal level, that it feels like Zhang handed his movie off to space aliens for ten minutes. Look, he pisses in all the wine they just made right in front of them, then carries Jiu'er off to have more of the sex. Apparently, the idea is that this alpha display is what worked, but the last one less so, for some reason. The wine turning out to be good is... actually, far less weird, as I'm pretty sure urea is used in all sorts of food processing. The other problem, and I suppose it's a littler problem, is that this whole middle stretch of the movie, where it's just stumbling through one situation after another, is rather less pretty than what came before: having blown his load, perhaps literally, on his mythic scenario, the mythic imagery comes to an abrupt stop. Even the basic storytelling suffers: the cut immediately after the lovemaking scene is to the same location, days later; it takes about a full minute to figure out why Jiu'er's dad's here now, when she was banging her boyfriend just seconds earlier, and it's so actively perplexing that it feels like a genuine mistake.
The saving grace of the middle section—and it's more like an escape hatch to justify liking a movie from a director I admire—is that this tale is actually a retelling by a narrator who identifies himself as our lovers' grandson. I suppose I approve of it as a distancing device. Mostly, it just provides an artificial way to link together random scenes so Zhang doesn't have to. But it does permit us to maybe suspect that there's an unreliability to what we've been shown, and maybe grandpa's version of the story has been slightly exaggerated. And there's not one hint this was intentional.
But that first act, and that photography, is so good; it justifies getting excited about the movie, whatever else it does wrong. Even so, forty-four years after the fact, I don't think we need to keep pretending that Zhang hit the art form with a masterpiece on his first try. It was treated as something close to that in its day, of course, so it's maybe the one time I'll ever find myself agreeing with the censorious scolding of mainland Chinese critics. First impressions matter, they say, so maybe it was Red Sorghum that first put Zhang on the party's bad side. It made a splash in the West, which was one of the problems, in Chinese critics' view; it's not what similarly-scolding folks nowadays would describe as "good representation." The contemporary criticism that Zhang's early filmography received for presenting China as primitive and atavistic is almost entirely overblown, but then there's Red Sorghum, which really does feel like a bunch of animals scrambling around in the dirt. (Though if you think that this isn't Zhang Yimou's erotic fantasy of rural China, then, Jesus, I guess the scolds were right.)
My own concern isn't that it presents 1930s China poorly; it's that in presenting China poorly, it presents it tediously, too. The good news is that after spending an inordinately long time meandering, Red Sorghum finally finds something to focus on, namely the Sino-Japanese War, and it brings Zhang back into focus as a filmmaker in the process: everything from the arrival of the Imperial Japanese Army still feels like an entirely different movie than the one we started with, but at least it has its share of marvelous, searing visual storytelling. (The way Zhang pans up from Jiu'er and her lover's "bed" to the entire field being smashed flat is more affecting, in its way, than the more concrete tortures and sacrifices it prefigures.) I wish this second movie did have something to do with the first one—I also wish that the studio could have given Zhang enough money for the IJA to be more than three guys and a truck, but now I'm being unfair—but there's too much that is masterful here to just dismiss it, even if I'm not totally sure I even like it.