Blog Directory CineVerse: A foreign fable washed in scarlet

A foreign fable washed in scarlet

Thursday, April 25, 2019

CineVerse took a trip to 1930s China last night, courtesy of "Red Sorghum," Zhang Yimou's colorful and poetic paean to his nation's people and their spirit of solidarity in the face of struggle and oppression. Our post-screening conversation covered several topics, including:

What took you by surprise about this film? What did you find memorable or resonant?

  • It features lush, deep colors and serves as a visual feast, compliments of its stunning cinematography. Note that the filmmakers used the Technicolor process and the CinemaScope anamorphic lenses for ultra-widescreen.
  • It is considered the first contemporary Chinese movie to be released commercially in America.
  • Additionally, it’s the most important work to that date of The 'Fifth Generation'—a group of directors whose movies signify an especially creative period in the history of Chinese cinema, generally spanning the 1980s and early 1990s. Zhang Yimou is often regarded as the most gifted and important Fifth Generation director.
  • Blogger Jonathan Wroot suggests that Zhang took risks with this film, possibly incurring the wrath of the Chinese government and censors by depicting a conservative slant on 1930s China; Wroot said it retains a left-wing message, but does so in a creative and artistic way that ran contrary to what many assumed about China—that it’s people suppress their emotions, passions and interests.
  • The film also turned actress Gong Li into a big star in China and a muse for Zhang to recast in subsequent films.
What is this film about? What are the big ideas and themes at work here?
  • Legend and fable vs. harsh realism. The first half of the movie is told more like a parable or fable; consider how the urine in the wine seems like something you’d read in a Greek mythology story. The second half of the film almost plays out like Italian neo-realism in its brutal violence and ugly details.
  • The primal pleasures of the physical and the flesh, and “a celebration of the carnal,” according to essayist David Neo. He contends that the movie is focused on basic biological urges, including drinking, eating, love-making, and expelling waste. Ponder how we see nude, dusty, sweat-drenched and even mud-caked bodies; a man urinating into vats of wine that, ironically, the people agree makes it taste better; men and women taking off or wearing skimpy clothing.
    • “The scenes of the invocation of the wine god succinctly encapsulate the celebration of the carnal as the characters of the film overtly evoke the Nietzschean celebration of the Dionysian spirit. The semi-nude men displaying their raw masculinity get drunk in the worship of the wine god and chant,” wrote Neo.
  • An introspective search for roots and a “questioning of the Chinese heritage,” Neo suggests. Think about how the story is narrated by the grandchild of the two main characters; this narrator isn’t certain who his ancestors are, how the sorghum came to flourish in the territory shown, and more.
  • The strength and resilience of the Chinese people. Consider that the main conflict in the second act concerns the Japanese invasion of China in World War II and how the workers stand up against their oppressors.
  • The power of people united, which is a strong Maoist/communist message.
    • Yet, consider that, “by allowing the only avowedly Communist character to perish at the hands of the invading imperialists, Zhang also suggested that the workers resisted their tyranny through their own innate heroism, just as their own labour and ingenuity had revived the fortunes of the winery,” wrote reviewer David Parkinson.
  • China’s emergence into the modern era and rejection of its old ways and regimes. The leprous winery owner is a stand-in for the corrupt Ching dynasty that fell in 1911.
  • The color red represents a character unto itself in this film, perhaps symbolizing, as Parkinson wrote, “life and death, birth and renewal, and the physicality and humanity of the villagers” as well as standing for communism.
Other films that Red Sorghum reminds you of
  • Once Upon a Time in the West
  • Ju Dou
  • The Story of Qiu Ju
  • Farewell My Concubine
  • The Road Home
  • The Flowers of War
  • Purple Sunset
Oher movies directed by Zhang Yimou
  • Raise the Red Lantern
  • To Live
  • Hero
  • House of Flying Daggers
  • Curse of the Golden Flower
  • Coming Home
  • Shadow

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