Most fans of Chinese director Zhang Yimou will have been introduced to him with Hero (2002) and the commercially successful House of Flying Daggers (2004). Yet Yimou has received critical acclaim since 1987 with Red Shorgum winning a Golden Bear Award at the 1988 Berlin Film Festival. Raise the Red Lantern (1991) was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 1992 but missed out to Italian director Gabriele Salvatores's Mediterraneo.
For those of you who have yet to view a Zhang Yimou film then there are two immediate things that spring to mind to recommend his films to you. Firstly it is his use of colour in costume. We first see the beginnings of this with the opening scene of Red Sorghum as the female lead (Gong Li) is being dressed in Chinese bridal wear. Yimou uses tonality to counter the red with greys and beige in the other characters. This visual technique adds a dimension to the narrative which almost spotlights a character but equally highlights them in their setting. Yimou carries this on to great effect in his later films particularly Hero. The second compelling aspect of his films is the strong female characters. Zhang Yimou's films give a greater breadth of female characterisation than your typical Hollywood blockbuster.
The story of Red Shorgum is essentially a story of a young women married off to a prosperous leper. It is set in a winery near a field of red shorgum and involves the workers, a local villain and eventually the impact of the Japanese occupation and invasion of areas of China. It is in essence a simple story with clear narration to accompany the story. The sub text is its attempt to sympathetically deal with the communist conversion of China from its Imperialist past and give understanding and meaning to change. However, Yimou and other film makers at the time would not have been able to be overly critical of the Chinese regime. It was made at the Xi'an Film Studios - where daring and innovative filmmakers were shielded to some extent by the dynamic studio boss Wu Tianming, who was also the producer of Red Shorgum - until 1989 when Wu Tianming fled to the US due to political differences. The period of film making from 1984 is widely referred to as the 'Fifth generation' of Chinese film making as directors Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige the two most famous directors were graduates in 1982 from the Beijing Film School where Yimou studied cinematography.
Red Shorgum with its intense but unseen sexual relationship between Gong Li and Jiang Wen is contrasted with the steadfastness of the character Luohan. The thrust of the film is about people as individuals and includes a fantastic ritual involving the wine making. It is understandable that such a film was a threat to the Communist Party rule given the expression and freedom embodied in the film. It is a story of love with out sentiment and a beautifully shot one at that.
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