Zhang Yimou’s first feature film from 1987 Red Sorghum shows many of the characteristics that would become familiar in the director’s work over the years, from Raise The Red Lantern, Ju Dou and To Live right through to Hero and House Of Flying Daggers - a focus on strong central female characters, a sense of epic romanticism and the preponderance of the colour red. The latter might seem like a minor characteristic to associate with a filmmaker, but not in the films of Zhang Yimou, where the colour carries the usual connotations of blood, passion, anger as well as being the traditional Chinese colour for weddings, and in none of the director’s films is the emphasis placed more on the pure use of imagery, symbolism and colour than in his debut feature.
The reliance on visual qualities for storytelling and their importance over the actual narrative in Red Sorghum could be put down to the inexperience of Zhang Yimou as a director, coming from a background as a cinematographer and having worked in that capacity for Chen Kaige on Yellow Earth and The Big Parade, but while the dialogue is certainly sparse in his adaptation of Mo Yan’s epic story told in the books "Red Sorghum" and "Sorghum Wine" the film has a visual richness that obviates the need for any excessive exposition other than that provided occasionally by a narrator who examines the film’s 1930s setting from the viewpoint of how his grandmother and grandfather met and gave birth to his father during a troubled historical period.
The circumstances are indeed unusual the film opening with the grandmother (Gong Li), being transported to a remote winery where she is to be married to the owner, a leper known as Big Head Li. In exchange for his daughter, known as Little Nine on account of her being the ninth child and born on the ninth day of the ninth month, her father will receive a mule, which he considers to be an equitable deal. Before she even arrives at the winery, there are dangers to be faced by Little Nine, cloaked in red in the journey by sedan, initially through the playful ebullience of her carriers and then through bandits who prey on travellers in the surrounding countryside. Both have a significant impact on the direction her life takes when Big Head Li dies, particularly her experience with one of the more aggressive drunken workers who is to become the narrator’s grandfather. The winery flourishes under her management however, its produce drawn from the sorghum that grows wild around them, despite the unusual treatment that goes into its making. Happiness and prosperity abound until the fateful arrival of the Japanese soldiers in the land.
Despite some curious quirks in characterisation and delightful performances from Wen Jiang and from Gong Li (only 21 years-old and in her debut feature, but still a tremendous force and a striking beauty), the storyline of Red Sorghum is little more than the stuff of folklore and it’s hardly exceptional. For the time it was made it keeps fairly safely within he limits of what would be acceptable to the Chinese authorities, depicting a happy little commune who have overthrown their ugly, corrupt leader for a more equitable cooperative, working together off the bounteous produce of the land, facing down the threats to the regime from outlaws and outsiders in the form of the Japanese military. Despite some criticism and misinterpretation of the subject matter of his films and the undoubted restrictions of working under strict censorship laws, Zhang Yimou has never been about making films that adhere to ideological lines. Rather, the viewer is more likely to find himself confronted by a more challenging and ambiguous treatment of political issues with a focus being more on the circumstances of the impoverished people of the country and on the fate of women in a patriarchal society.
Those issues certainly appear less developed in Red Sorghum, at least on a narrative level, but on a purely sensory and visual level it sees Zhang at his most expressive. Later films by the director would blend narrative and striking cinematography more successfully - Raise The Red Lantern being the culmination of this perfection, with later Zhang Yimou films having a tendency to flit between overwrought imagery and soap-opera narratives – but it’s remarkable to see that raw visual force of his work, also evident in Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth, given free rein in Red Sorghum, the director finding in his photography of the landscape, in the movement of the sorghum fields, in the play of light and in the deployment of the colour red, a pure expression of the nature and life-force of his characters.
Red Sorghum is released in the UK by Drakes Avenue. The film is presented on a single-layer disc, in PAL format, and is encoded for Region 2.
As mentioned in the review of the film, the visual qualities of Red Sorghum are exceptional and perhaps even more vital to complete appreciation of the film than any of the director’s other works. Sadly, this edition utterly to fails to meet those requirements, the original scope ratio cropped down to 1.78:1 and the image not even anamorphically enhanced. Even disregarding the aspect ratio problem, the picture quality is not great. It’s clear enough with only a few dust spots and it’s also reasonably toned and coloured, though almost certainly not accurately, the image looking a little soft and faded. This captures some of the film’s golden-hour look, but not in its full richness. The letterboxed image is pushed slightly upwards to allow fixed subtitles to be shown outside the frame, which preserves the print, but means that it can’t be zoomed to fit a widescreen TV. I don’t know what source the master came from, but would suspect it’s an old VHS or TV master.
A comparison is provided below with the unsubtitled Japanese DVD edition, which has an anamorphically enhanced aspect ratio of 2.55:1. As well as revealing how much of the frame has been lost through cropping, the comparison also shows that the print used by Drakes Avenue looks slightly squashed, causing figures to look elongated.
The audio track is straightforward Dolby Digital 2.0, and it’s certainly adequate, clear and reasonably well-toned. I couldn’t detect whether or not it’s in stereo.
English subtitles are in a white font and placed outside the film frame in the black border below. They are not removable. The letterboxed image is shifted slightly upwards to accommodate them. There are some fixed Chinese subtitles on the film itself when songs are sung.
There are no extra features on this DVD, the menu only giving the option to play or select a scene.
You can question whether Zhang Yimou’s debut feature from 1987 promotes Communist propaganda and ideology or whether it is just a colourful representation of traditional folklore elements, but what it unquestionably demonstrates are the director’s evident qualities as a filmmaker of exceptional talent for storytelling through visual representation. Red Sorghum is consequently a wonderful film with a broad dynamic, full of humour and tragedy in a story that has depth and meaning, with strong characterisation and engaging performances, notably from a young Gong Li. Its visual qualities, which are so important to how the film is seen, are unfortunately lacking on this DVD edition.