TIFF’s A Century of Chinese Cinema Review: Red Sorghum (1987) - Essential Viewing



Cast: , ,
Director: Zhang Yimou
Country: China
Genre: Drama | War

Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s A Century of Chinese Cinema which runs from June 5th to August 11th at TIFF Bell Lightbox. For more information of this unprecedented film series visit http://tiff.net/century and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.

When Red Sorghum debuted in 1987, it did not so much announce the arrival of two new major talents as it did shout it from the rooftops.  The debut film from director Zhang Yimou, it also marks the first film for Gong Li, an actress who would be a muse for the director over the next decade, collaborating with him on films such as Raise the Red Lantern and To Live.  While Red Sorghum feels like a debut film - with rough edges here and there - it still packs a powerful wallop and highlights Zhang’s innate skills as a director.  Less thoughtful than some of his later films, Red Sorghum aims from the gut and the nerves: a raw, resonant work of art.

While Red Sorghum feels like a debut film - with rough edges here and there - it still packs a powerful wallop and highlights Zhang’s innate skills as a director.

Perhaps because it is based on a novel that originally appeared in serial form, Red Sorghum’s plot feels sporadic, even somewhat improvised.  In essence the film details a few small slices of the life of the narrator’s grandmother and grandfather.  They first meet as he carries her by sedan to be married off to a leprous old wine merchant.  The two young people share a spark and become lovers.  The old man soon dies and the Grandmother gains control of the winery, which she runs with the help of Luohan, a devoted and skilled winemaker.  The Grandfather shows up, seeking to take up with The Grandmother, but after being rebuffed takes his revenge by peeing in the wine.  Lo and behold, it turns out urine was the missing ingredient all along, and the winery begins turning out its best vintage ever.


To this point, Red Sorghum plays like many other rural slice of life films (albeit one where people drink pisswine).  There is some concern over money and a sense of isolation, but also much humor and vivacity.  Then, two thirds of the way through, the film takes a sharp turn for the sinister.  The action jumps forward nine years.  Life still rolls on at the winery, with a young boy added to the mix (the narrator’s father, of course).  These idyllic conditions end abruptly with the Japanese invasion of China.  Japanese soldiers come to the area near the winery and force the peasants to build a road through the sorghum fields.  The brutality of the Japanese is underscored in a sickening scene where Luohan meets a grisly end.

After the meandering, relatively light tone of most of the movie, this scene thuds like a gut punch and leaves the audience gasping for air.  It perhaps even justifies the rambling feel of the film’s setup - ordinary life, with its irregular rhythms and slow unfolding, gets pierced through by the horrors of war.  Luohan’s death galvanizes the workers of the winery who, inspired by the quiet fury of The Grandmother, plot an attack on the Japanese.  Things do not go well, to say the least, and the film ends on a distinctly elegiac note.  No uplifting montage here, just the wavering mournful voice of a child lifted to the heavens.

Through all these events, the dull and the tumultuous, Gong Li acts as a center for the film.  There are other fine turns, but she owns the screen. 

Through all these events, the dull and the tumultuous, Gong Li acts as a center for the film.  There are other fine turns, but she owns the screen.  Though slight of build and inexperienced, The Grandmother possesses layers of strength and calm.  She endures all sorts of indignities through the film, from being married off to a sick man to being waylaid by a fake bandit to being captured by real bandits, but she endures all with a stoic strength.  Though she refuses to be called boss and runs her winery with an egalitarian eye, she nevertheless commands the full loyalty of her workers.  By contrast The Grandfather - played by the charismatic Jiang Wen - is a buffoon, an overgrown man child.  When the Japanese arrive, she incites the men to action, and it seems they respond as much for her sake as for the sake of Luohan’s memory.  Gong Li brings a steely reserve to the film, but also opens up at the right moments, giving small expressions that convey a whole inner world.  One of the best scenes in the film details her first encounter with the winemaking process.  As Luohan and the other workers show her the ropes, she experiences an unbridled joy, smiling and laughing like a cooped up child finally let out to play.  Indeed, Gong Li shows us a woman given meaning in life for the first time, and helps us enter into that joyful freedom.


Zhang Yimou also leaves a lasting impression with Red Sorghum, showing remarkable instincts as a visual stylist that would continue to develop over the course of his filmography.  Even when slightly hazy and grainy, Red Sorghum is a beautiful film.  Zhang frames his shots with daring, from the exhilarating POV rushes through the sorghum fields to the jolting of the sedan car to the splashing of wine on the ground.  The film features the best use of sunlight this side of Days of Heaven - sometimes pure, sometimes filtered, the sun’s light almost becomes a character of its own as it illuminates the sparse countryside and the lush sorghum fields.

A few of the symbols Zhang uses seem almost too on the nose.  Shots of the Japanese pushing over sorghum to make a path echo an earlier point when The Grandfather knocks the crops over to clear a space for lovemaking, and the theme of butchery recurs not so subtly at various points.  It is in the use of color as symbol that Zhang excels; he would go on to use color in almost fetishistic ways in Hero, but here his uses are more restrained and simultaneously more striking.  As the title implies, red is the film’s dominant hue - an obvious stand in for blood, of course, but also sensuous and rich in its own right.  Red light covers the face of The Grandmother as she lurches off to her wedding.  Red sorghum wine sloshes over bare stone and down thirsty mouths, refreshing as it goes.  Red blood spills as peasants are slaughtered by the Japanese.  And, in a stunning closing scene, the sky itself turns red as an eclipse comes and goes.  Red, hovering in the air, a testament to the life and death of those whose bodies were cut down but whose spirits linger in the memory, like the trace of wine on the tongue long after the cup has been drained.

[notification type=”star”]92/100 ~ AMAZING. Red Sorghum is a masterpiece. Not simply a warm up for his later works, Zhang Yimou’s stunning, evocative debut stands on its own considerable merits.[/notification]


About Author

Asher Gelzer-Govatos fell in love with film in high school, where the one two punch of Lawrence of Arabia and The Third Man opened his eyes to the beauty of the filmed image. Asher is a PhD student in Comparative Literature at Washington University in St. Louis. He lives with his wife and children in Columbia, Missouri.