(Hong gao liang)
People's Republic of China, 1988
Director: Zhang Yimou
Production: Xi An Film Studio; color, 35mm; running time: 91 minutes. Filmed 1987; released 1988.
Producer: Li Changqing; screenplay: Chen Jianyu, Zhu Wei, Mo Yen; photography: Gu Changwei; editor: Du Yuan; art director: Yang Gang; music director: Zhao Jiping.
Cast: Gong Li (My Grandma); Jing Wen (My Grandpa); Liu Ji (Father, as child); Teng Rijun (Uncle Luohan); Ji Chunhua (Bandit); Qian Ming; Zhai Chunhua.
Awards: Golden Bear Award, Berlin Film Festival, 1988; New York Film Festival Best Film Award, 1988.
Kauffmann, Stanley, "Red Sorghum" (review), in New Republic, 17 October 1988.
Klawans, Stuart, "Zhang Yimou: Local Hero," in Film Comment, September-October 1995.
Ye, Tan, "From the Fifth to the Sixth Generation" (interview), in Film Quarterly, Winter 1999.
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When Red Sorghum was released in 1988, it attained immediate fame and success, both in its Chinese homeland and around the world. To the outside world, the film promised a rare view into a China just emerging from the protective isolationism that surrounded the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. To moviegoers inside the People's Republic, Red Sorghum marked a new kind of cinema and the beginning of a new generation of filmmakers.
Zhang Yimou, who directed Red Sorghum, was born in 1950, in the thick of the revolution. Like many others born into privileged families at that time, his higher education was factory labor, and his cultural entertainment consisted of government sponsored films and theatrical productions, which were usually simplistic, moralistic, and patriotic. Though Zhang was fascinated by film, and managed to buy his first camera while working in factories, he would be forever influenced by his disgust with the overtly propagandistic films of his youth. Later he would recall, "When we were in film school, we swore to each other we would never make films like that."
By 1982, the Beijing Film Academy, which had been closed during the Cultural Revolution, was reopened, and Zhang was part of the first post-Mao graduating class. It was the fifth class to ever graduate the Academy, giving Zhang and his classmates their sobriquet, the "fifth generation" of Chinese filmmakers. The fifth generation were not establishment filmmakers, but they gained international notice because of the moral complexity and gritty realism of their films.
Adapted from a novel by Mo Yan, Red Sorghum was one of the first of this new breed of Chinese film. Set mostly in the 1920s, the film is told in flashbacks from the point of view of a man recalling his grandparents' lives as they try, and finally fail, to protect their village winery from Japanese invaders. It is a lyrical film, which seems at times almost like an epic or folk tale, as it challenges repressive traditions such as the subjugation of women. Zhang, who was trained to be a cinematographer, has a sharp eye for the visual elements of his film and the color red—of the sorghum crop, the wine, the Chinese bridal dress, and blood—permeates the film. The red, red setting sun that ends the film might represent the flag of the Japanese conquerors, or simply the inevitable shortness of every human life.
Red Sorghum is a film of contradictions. Containing darkly comic elements, it is also a violent film; the villagers treat each other violently and the men treat women violently, but their violence pales compared to their treatment at the hands of the Japanese army. The reception of the film was itself contradictory. Director Zhang received ten thousand letters accusing him of treason when Red Sorghum was released, yet the movie houses showing the film in China were packed. A new generation of Chinese audiences were hungry for a film that expressed the moral ambiguity and the sense of chafing under authority that they themselves were beginning to feel.
After the release of Red Sorghum, Chinese leader Den Xiaoping increased the repression of Chinese intellectuals. Where Red Sorghum had been an accepted film that brought international awards home to China, Zhang's next films (Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern, for example) were banned in his own country, though they were popular around the world. In 1994, Zhang was forbidden to make films for five years.
Red Sorghum was a breakthrough to a new kind of filmmaking in China. It was also a bridge between China and the world outside it, from which it had been largely cut off during the years of the Cultural Revolution. Later, as the government cracked down, and the fifth generation filmmakers outgrew their youthful rebelliousness, Chinese film stepped back under a more comfortable umbrella of popular propaganda. But, thanks to films like Red Sorghum, the world outside China would never be shut out in the same way again.