Colourfield Cinema

By Poppy Sebag-Montefiore

red-sorghum-zhang-yimou.jpgRed Sorghum, 1987

Red Sorghum ravishes the eye as it surveys the ravages of the heart and homeland  

Usually Chinese romances tell of pure love rendered impossible in forbidding societies. Red Sorghum takes place in what used to be a leper’s retreat in a desert, it couldn’t be further from the world, but the film tells a story of a love so impossible that it is barely conceived.

Red Sorghum was Zhang Yimou’s first film, made in 1987 and based on the writings of one of modern China’s acclaimed independent novelists, Mo Yan. This is an independent film by a Chinese director who now makes mainstream blockbusters in China and the West, and who was commissioned to design the Beijing 2008 Olympic Opening Ceremony.

Several of his long shots in Red Sorghum are painted with colour, more naturalistic and less formalised than the entire scenes which highlight a single colour, his trademark in his recent box office hits. Surrounded by a red cloth enclosing her sedan chair, the main character Little Nine’s (Gong Li) face is washed with a feverish red. As she is carried to meet her future husband (who gets mysteriously killed) the dark blue of the night soaks cobalt over the Sorghum fields, until they reach a dry-desert-yellow sand-scape. This red, blue and yellow reoccur throughout the film.

Set in an age before dentistry came to western China, on a Sorghum wine estate in the 1930s: the winemakers sing, “drink our wine and your breath won’t smell.” the film centres on the relationship between Little Nine and one of her late-husband’s winemakers, known to us as by the narrator as his grandfather. Gender and status issues overwhelm their interaction. She wants him, yet does not want to be seen to want him; she expects to be made to give in, but does not want to be forced. He needs to force her, yet he also worships her. Humiliation and shame creates conflict within the lovers, a power play between them and has a destructive impact on their community.

War comes. Japanese troops kill everyone on the estate except for the narrator’s grandfather and father, the child he and Little Nine conceived. They emerge from the rubble to an eclipse of the sun. The grandfather freezes, blinded almost by the red sky. Just as he was unable to get close to her, it seems he cannot mourn her either. The screen fills with a tomato red, brashly bleached onto the end of a film that otherwise has been delicately and beautifully told. Perhaps a sign of things to come, or that Zhang Yimou would later over-rely on colour as motif.

In Red Sorghum Zhang Yimou crafts a love story with no intimate exchange, no physicality except by force in an environment of increasing social brutality: from school-playground-like jeering to international battle. He shows us that the consequences of failed attempts at intimacy, honesty and consideration share some of the elements of war.

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore is a Sinologist.