Hong Kong Flashback: Zhang Yimou Put China on Art House Map with Period Epic 'Red Sorghum'

Red Sorghum Still 1 - HKIFF Publicity-H 2019
Courtesy of HKIFF/Hong Kong International Film Festival

Thirty years ago, the auteur burst onto the international stage with a stunning debut that would help usher in a new era for China's nascent film industry.

Looking back on Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum now, it’s hard to believe that a first-time filmmaker (though he was a cinematographer who’d worked for a guy called Chen Kaige) managed to assemble such an army of talent on his first try — talent that would go on to shape China’s emergent art house film industry for decades. Star Gong Li made her acting debut alongside third-timer Jiang Wen (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story). Cinematographer Gu Changwei would go on to shoot Chen’s Farewell My Concubine and direct the Silver Bear-winning Peacock in 2005, and the film was based on a work by eventual (if controversial) Nobel laureate Mo Yan. Not a bad start for a director that would arguably become the quintessential Fifth Generation filmmaker.

Red Sorghum’s narrator tells the story of a young peasant woman, Jiu’er (Gong), referred to by the narrator as Grandma, who’s sold to an elderly, infirm, Ching-era sorghum winemaker for a mule, but becomes embroiled in a romance with a local laborer, named simply Grandpa (Jiang). When the winemaker dies, Jiu’er takes over the distillery and rallies the workers to restore the crumbling business to its former glory. The Second Sino-Japanese conflict is in full swing, and when the Shandong town is invaded, a beloved distillery worker is brutally murdered by Japanese army troops. That leads Jiu’er to incite another labor action, this time to avenge the death of their co-worker by ambushing some Japanese soldiers. It ends tragically, of course. It’s also absolutely beautiful.

Before he ventured into soapy, romantic bodice rippers with gorgeous sets — Hero, House of Flying Daggers, The Great Wall, Shadow — Zhang was an inspired and clever filmmaker navigating a sea of rules and restrictions and making some salient points about the female struggle in post-Mao China (Ju Dou, To Live, Not One Less) and the weight of failed party policy on all Chinese. He’s also been held up to criticisms, though, and his films have been accused of sanctioning fascism, fawning over the government and of being facile tales of the resilience and indefatigable nature of the Chinese working class. Paul Verhoeven faced the same “Is it satire or is it glorification?” with Starship Troopers in 1997. All of Zhang’s films have endured that skepticism.

Nonetheless, there is a subversive tone to Red Sorghum that makes for a chewier viewing experience than it appears on the surface. There are bandits, plenty of crass and petty behavior from the “honorable” peasants, and it could be argued Grandma and Grandpa’s romance stems from his stalking and assaulting her. But it is the lush and lusty visuals — the vibrant red that defines the entire film and much of Zhang’s later work — that made viewers stand up and take notice and still stoke curiosity today. Zhang may not have invented imagery hinting at the cycle of life and death, of rebirth and renewal of both people and systems, but he certainly made it more visceral. The swaying of the sorghum field grass, blood mingling with wine, and a landscape bathed in the otherworldly light of a solar eclipse for the operatic finale announced a singular new voice from China, whether or not you agreed with what it was saying.