WHEN Zhang Yimou made his directorial debut, Zhang Yimou made his directorial debut, Red Sorghum, in 1987, he was better known as a cinematographer whose talent had been crucial to the success of critically acclaimed films like Zhang Junzhao's One and Eight (1984, released 1987) and Chen Kaige's Yellow Earth (1984). Not only did Red Sorghum become a seminal film of the Fifth Generation, it also won the Golden Bear at Berlin in 1988, becoming the first mainland Chinese film ever to be awarded the highest honour at a major international film competition. Set in the 1920s and '30s in northern China, Red Sorghum's narrative centres on the fate of a young woman who is forced to marry a rich old leper but who eventually falls in love with a younger man. The motif of female oppression in feudal China is repeated in Zhang's next two films, Ju Dou (1990) and Raise the Red Lantern (1991). The films form a loose triptych, linked not only by similar thematic concerns but also stylistic elements. The latter include the luscious use of colour, lighting and bold composition to create the sensuous images and metaphors which have distinguished Zhang as an original auteur. Equally prominent are the silences and spare dialogue; music and sound are used with precision -- nothing extraneous is added. This article focuses on how visual and aural components in Red Sorghum are employed to enhance the dramatic aspect of the narrative as well as to convey philosophical and metaphoric meaning.
RED SORGHUM is narrated as much through its storyline as by its splendid images and aural qualities. The film is photographed by Gu Changwei (who also shot Chen Kaige's (Farewell, My Concubine) in Cinemascope; the music is composed by Zhao Jiping, who has since composed the rest of the music scores for Zhang's films. The opening sequence establishes the vibrant mood and mythical atmosphere of the film and introduces the themes of passion and freedom through powerful imagery and music. It also establishes Zhang Yimou as a visual sensualist. In a deserted setting comprising mainly sand and stone, a strain of wedding music grows progressively louder. A traditional red sedan chair carried by a group of shirtless men, followed closely by a retinue of trumpeters and drummers, enliven the harsh landscape. Inside the covered sedan chair, the pretty face of a young bride is cast in crimson shadow. The twenty-two year-old Gong Li projects a charismatic blend of sensuality and rebellion in her acting debut as Nine (Jiu), qualities that will characterize her imminent roles in Zhang's next two films. Gong Li, who has since become China's most well-known female star, confesses that she can easily identify with the headstrong Nine: "Jiu dares to act and take responsibility for her actions; she dares to love and hate. She is fearless. I think our temperaments are similar. I was interested in the role and was confident I could play it well."(1) In this scene, Nine's impassive features reveal a hint of defiance and a touch of boredom as she sits in brooding silence. Parting the red curtain before her ever so slightly, she seems to be mesmerised by the sight of the bare, muscular back belonging to one of the sedan carriers whom we later know as Yu, the narrator's grandfather (played with finesse by Jiang Wen). The seemingly innocuous image of sexual curiosity provides the first suggestion of Nine's eroticism. The sedan chair carriers, all earthy and muscular peasants, tease Nine about her impending fate as the wife of Big Head Li, their leprous boss. Nine, too proud to reply to their jibing, obstinately remains silent. Wishing to break down her reserve and at the same time acting in accordance with the local custom, the men jolt the wedding sedan chair and make fun of the bride in a raucous song. As they sing and dance in synchronized steps with clouds of sand and dust flying around them, the revellers create a mythical image of solidarity, freedom and vitality. However,...
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