WHEN Zhang Yimou made his directorial debut, Zhang Yimou made his directorial debut, Red Sorghum, in 1987, he was better known as a cinematographer whose talent had been crucial to the success of critically acclaimed films like Zhang Junzhao's One and Eight (1984, released 1987) and Chen Kaige's Yellow Earth (1984). Not only did Red Sorghum become a seminal film of the Fifth Generation, it also won the Golden Bear at Berlin in 1988, becoming the first mainland Chinese film ever to be awarded the highest honour at a major international film competition.
Set in the 1920s and '30s in northern China, Red Sorghum's narrative centres on the fate of a young woman who is forced to marry a rich old leper but who eventually falls in love with a younger man. The motif of female oppression in feudal China is repeated in Zhang's next two films, Ju Dou (1990) and Raise the Red Lantern (1991). The films form a loose triptych, linked not only by similar thematic concerns but also stylistic elements. The latter include the luscious use of colour, lighting and bold composition to create the sensuous images and metaphors which have distinguished Zhang as an original auteur. Equally prominent are the silences and spare dialogue; music and sound are used with precision -- nothing extraneous is added.
This article focuses on how visual and aural components in Red Sorghum are employed to enhance the dramatic aspect of the narrative as well as to convey philosophical and metaphoric meaning.
RED SORGHUM is narrated as much through its storyline as by its splendid images and aural qualities. The film is photographed by Gu Changwei (who also shot Chen Kaige's (Farewell, My Concubine) in Cinemascope; the music is composed by Zhao Jiping, who has since composed the rest of the music scores for Zhang's films. The opening sequence establishes the vibrant mood and mythical atmosphere of the film and introduces the themes of passion and freedom through powerful imagery and music. It also establishes Zhang Yimou as a visual sensualist.
In a deserted setting comprising mainly sand and stone, a strain of wedding music grows progressively louder. A traditional red sedan chair carried by a group of shirtless men, followed closely by a retinue of trumpeters and drummers, enliven the harsh landscape. Inside the covered sedan chair, the pretty face of a young br...
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...vineyard. The workers revolt against the Japanese, and after their uprising is crushed, the Japanese order two of the local people skinned alive in front of the others. This sequence, shocking in its detail, is a dramatic change from the fable that went before.
"Red Sorghum" perhaps can be read as a parable of China's development, or as a hymn in praise of the way the workers resisted the Japanese invaders. Western audiences probably are going to be more interested in the melodrama and the overwhelming visual quality of the film.
It is some kind of irony that when Hollywood switched over to cheaper and faster forms of making color films, classic Technicolor equipment was dismantled and sold to China - which now makes some of the best-looking color films in the world.
The cinematography in "Red Sorghum" has no desire to be subtle, or muted; it wants to splash its passionate colors all over the screen with abandon, and the sheer visual impact of the film is voluptuous. If the story is first naive and then didactic, that is one of the film's charms; Hollywood doesn't make films like this anymore, because we have forgotten how to be impressionable enough to believe them.
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