Red Sorghum (1987)

November 17, 2003 • Film, Reviews

Director: Zhang Yimou
Writer: Jianyu Chen, Wei Zhu

Cast: Gong Li, Wen Jiang, Rujun Ten

Running Time: 91 min.

Plot: In 1930s China a young woman is sent by her father to marry the leprous owner of a winery. In the nearby red sorghum fields she falls for one of his servants. When the master dies she finds herself inheriting the isolated business.

After years of thoughtful, well-developed films as a cinematographer, Zhang Yimou directed this feature that put mainland Chinese cinema on the international map. That said, it’s one of the worst movies of the so-called fifth-generation Chinese filmmakers. It has a crisp look and bright, bright color, and it has a strong woman in the principal role, but the story itself just dissolves as the film plods on. It’s too slow to sustain any of the drama inherent in the story. All this is a shame because the film is based on a stunning and evocative novel.

The movie doesn’t do justice to the novel at all. Zhang takes as his subject events that comprise about twenty-five pages out of a 315-page book. The novel Red Sorghum ripples with event, action, and wonderful passages of description that create evocative landscapes. The movie advances at a snail’s pace, appropriating author Mo Yan’s title but none of his substance. The novel is made up of fantastical stories of Mo Yan’s grandparents, who fought against the Japanese occupation of Manchuria. Time and again throughout the narrative, we see how the grandmother and grandfather rebel against their confining social structure and boldly forge their own destinies. This is perhaps the one point Zhang does lift from the novel, but he invests only actress Gong Li’s character with the ferocity that both the woman and the man share in Mo Yan’s story.

The problem is that after reading the relentlessly exciting, inventive novel, the movie Red Sorghum comes across as a missed opportunity. There is no real excitement in the film, and what dramatic substance makes it into the script is killed by Zhang’s ridiculously deliberate pacing. Zhang would fare much better in his later film Raise the Red Lantern, his first real masterpiece

The one standout item in this film is that it introduced the world to actress Gong Li. For the first time in recent history, we would see a woman, and actress, become the biggest movie star of her country. Gong Li remains the reigning queen of Mainland Chinese film (although now young actress Zhang Zhiyi is on the verge of becoming a truly international movie star), in terms of performance craft and popularity, and she is known for just this kind of role: a fierce, multi-faceted woman at war with the status quo.

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