Red Sorghum (Hong gao liang)

Red Sorghum

On the 9th day of the 9th moon…

My biggest question going into Red Sorghum was what the hell sorghum was. Thanks to the film, I learned it was a grain plant, kind of like a combination of corn and maize, that grows in endless fields throughout the region, and it’s the red variety that is used in the film to make liquor. But the film isn’t about sorghum; it’s about what takes place in the fields of sorghum, and what takes place after. Red Sorghum is Zhang Yimou’s directorial debut; he’d previously been a cinematographer, and the look of this film shows that. It has an artist’s eye, and seems more focused on being memorable visually than telling an outstanding story. The story is good, don’t get me wrong, but if you’re going to remember this film for anything, it’ll be the aesthetic and the mise en scene.

The film deals with the life of a young woman, Jiu-er, as she is married to a distiller with leprosy. Along the way to his house, a chance encounter leaves her and one of her sedan carriers pining for each other, and he kidnaps her one afternoon to make love to her in the sorghum fields. From there, the husband dies, and she decides to inherit and keep running the distillery, which brings her oft and again in contact with her would-be suitor. The film uses the narrative device of being told in flashback, by the grandchild of the leading pair (though he never see him; he only provides narration), so you’d think you’d know where the film is going to end up, or so one might believe. Naturally, being the product of a cinematographer’s eye, the film has some absolutely majestic landscapes and scenery, and it loves to indulge in what it has, which makes for a very sumptuous visual film. I was reminded a lot of Mat i Syn, only this had an actual story rather than just being nothing but a set of interesting images to look at. The character of the grandfather got really annoying through the film, as everything he did was pretty much designed to get a reaction out of everyone else, including the audience, but I guess I can understand why he’d do what he does; what I don’t understand is how the grandmother even liked this guy to begin with. And, like I hinted at, the story goes a different route in the third act than you would think, but it does a very nice job of integrating the new story direction into the existing story elements.

There was lot in this one for me to like, from the excellent visual composition and artistry to the surprising performance by the lead woman. Normally, films like this are great in the visual department, but lack in the story department, but here, there really wasn’t a lack of very much, if anything. Now, I will say, for a film that’s only an hour and a half, it feels slower than it is, so heads up if you don’t like or appreciate somewhat slow films. Still, this was a nice little excursion, especially on a day that I wasn’t particularly up to watching one of the longer films. You could do a lot worse than this one, as long as you know what you’re getting.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

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