RED SORGHUM (Zhang Yimou, 1987)

Telling the story of his grandparents, the invisible narrator introduces an element of modesty to Hong gao liang, Zhang Yimou’s most immodest directorial debut. Pitched between rambunctious family fable and exotic fairy tale, this brash film is full of raucous humor in its first movements. Young Nine (Gong Li, adorable here, but soon to become world cinema’s most beautiful woman) is sold into marriage to an old leper in exchange for a mule, and this sets the tone of the period comedy that begins in the 1920s. The leper, who owns and operates a winery, dies, giving Nine the chance to prove her acumen when she must run the business on her own. The narrator’s grandfather is a peasant who protects Nine from a would-be rapist before raping her himself. What jolliness! With the Japanese invasion of China in the 1930s, however, the humor dissolves on a dime and the movie turns into a horror show. Two men are skinned alive in public by the sadistic military invaders—a scene that is unnervingly convincing.
     Zhang’s film has been described as being “anti-war.” Well, let us say that the film doesn’t express any love of peace as much as it does a hatred for the Japanese—which, under the circumstances, is wholly understandable. It makes for a revoltingly bloody film, however.
     Zhang, of course, would make some exceptionally fine films, preëminently, Raise the Red Lantern (1991), in which partner Gong gives a tremendous performance. Every filmmaker has to begin somewhere, and Hong gao liang launched Zhang’s career with a big splash, winning him, even, the top prize at Berlin. Like anti-Nazi Soviet films, moreover, it stood on politically safe ground.
     But I don’t have to like it—and I don’t.
     For Zhang, political difficulties came later.

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