“Red Sorghum” - Zhang Yimou (1987)

Red Sorghum (Hong Gaoliang, 1987) was Zhang Yimou’s first directorial outing (he started out earlier as a cinematographer), and it was also the first modern Chinese film to be commercially released in the U. S. [1].  Although earlier films by fellow Fifth Generation Chinese filmmakers, such as Tian Zhuangzhuang and Chen Kaige, had received significant critical admiration on the Western art-house circuit, they apparently didn’t have the eye-popping blockbuster production values of Red Sorghum (such as its spectacular, brightly-hued wide-screen cinematography) to attract mainstream commercial distributors.  They also didn’t have the magnetic allure of Zhang’s dramatic star and artistic partner, Gong Li.  Anyway and for whatever reasons, Red Sorghum did go on to win the Golden Bear Award (Best Film) at the 38th Berlin International Film Festival in 1988.

Certainly Red Sorghum does have narrative and production features likely to appeal to a broad audience spectrum, but just what is its overall intended meaning has been the subject of a variety of interpretations.  The general topic could be said to be that of aspirations of heroic masculinity, but is the underlying tone worshipful, reproachful, or ironic? 

The story of the film is loosely based on 2012 Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan’s first novel Red Sorghum Clan (1986), but the film adopts its own distinctive perspective.  In the story here, we follow the changing circumstances and experiences of a young woman who inherits and operates a liquor distillery during the 1930s.  The focalization is persistently on her, but the action of the film consists of a series of events imposed on the woman arising from traditional Chinese (and Japanese) notions of masculinity. 

Because masculinity is such an important underlying theme in this film, it might first be best to mention the wider cultural lens through which masculinity is sometimes viewed in China.  This is associated with the traditional Daoist yin-yang dualism.  According to this conceptualization, the world is permeated with two complementary conceptual forces:
  • yang – associated with: light, warmth, summer, daylight, masculinity, ascent, and action
     
  • yin – associated with: darkness, coldness, winter, night, femininity, descent, and inaction
So yang can be considered to be an abstract conceptualization of masculinity, and yin is an abstract conceptualization of femininity.  According to most traditional accounts, both yang and yin are necessary and just need to be maintained in a proper balance.  However, Confucian sage Dong Zhongshu (179-104 B.C.) is said to have held that yang is essentially good and yin is detrimental, to wit [2]:
"The yang is benign while the yin is malign: the yang means birth while the yin means death.  Therefore yang is mostly present and prominent: yin is constantly absent and marginal."
In any case, one could certainly argue that Red Sorghum’s treatment of masculinity needs to be considered from the larger Daoist perspective.  Moreover, as Yeujin Wang has remarked [3]:
“One distinction that marks the contemporary Chinese New Wave cinema is its sense of cultural urgency couched in the collective consciousness, and the impossibility of there being private isolation in this critical moment of historical transformation that will eventually implicate every individual. In this context, issues of masculinity and femininity acquire more social and symbolic resonances than they may in the West.“
Apart from any specific Daoist considerations, though, there have been three main stances that critics have adopted with respect to the general depiction of masculinity in Red Sorghum:
  • Celebration of heroic masculinity
    Critic Roger Ebert, for example, saw the film as a throwback to the old Hollywood-style “shoot ‘em up” action movies, like the old Hollywood Westerns, that featured heroic good guys going up against bad guys [1].  For him, the movie was a celebration of heroic masculinity among the common people.
       
  • Condemnation of crude, narcissistic masculinity
    Others have seen the film as a portrayal of reprehensible male narcissism, with the female protagonist in the story shown being continually subjected to the ego gratification activities of males with whom she is forced to interact [4].
         
  • Masculinity seen through a feminine perspective
    But one can also see the film from the feminine perspective.  After all, the focalization of the film is entirely on the female protagonist, and she is not entirely passive.  Within the social constraints imposed on her, she expresses her own feminine assertiveness and personal responses to the masculine-dominant world surrounding her.  In fact in this regard [3]
    “Female sexuality is represented not through the frank sexual scenes which are kept off-screen, thus defying the male spectators' voyeuristic impulse, but rather by focusing on the female presence as the locus of discourse. Gong Li, who plays Jiuer, has a temperamental look of rapture and ecstasy that is always there.”
The story of Red Sorghum plays out through five sections, or “acts”; and to help trace this masculine-feminine theme that I have been discussing, I will identify moments in the narrative that show expressions of masculinity (with “(M)”) and feminine assertiveness (with “(F)”).

1.   1929 – An Arranged Marriage

The film begins with an unseen narrator saying that this tale is about his grandmother, Jiu’er (played by Gong Li).  As a very young woman, she is sent off on a marriage palanquin to the remote home/business of her new bridegroom, Li Datou, who, we are told (he is never seen in the film), is a 50-year-old man who owns a liquor distillery and suffers from leprosy.

The palanquin carriers are workers from the groom’s distillery, except for the leader, Yu (Jiang Wen), who is a professional sedan carrier.  Yu is a brawny, super-confidant fellow who leads the other carriers in singing ribald songs to taunt and embarrass the unhappy bride inside the closed palanquin (M).  Jiu’er is anguished by these antics, but we see that she is secretly carrying a pair of scissors with her, which she apparently intends to use in case things get out of hand (F).

Along the way, the palanquin is carried through a wild sorghum field (the sorghum plants have tall stalks and thereby provide concealment for anyone who wants to hide among them), and they are ambushed by a masked bandit, who wants all their money and to carry off Jiu’er into the sorghum field (M).  However, Yu manages to fight off the bandit and kill him (M).  Finally Jiu’er is delivered to Li Datou’s remote home.

2.  Jiu’er Visits Her Parental Home
Following custom, Jiu’er must visit her own parents three days after her wedding, so her father comes to fetch her and escort her back to her parents’ home on the back of a donkey.  With her father trying to walk beside her on foot, Jiu’er rushes ahead on the donkey and out of her father’s sight (F).  When she gets to the sorghum fields, she is again attacked by a masked bandit.  But this one turns out to be Yu, a person Jiu’er had earlier been eyeing.  When Jiu’er sees who her attacker is, she willingly succumbs to his  demands for sexual intercourse in the sorghum field (M), (F).

Later Jiu’er makes it to her parents’ home, but there she renounces her father for having arranged her unwanted marriage to a leper just so he could secure a valued dowry (F).  She tells him that she never wants to see him again.

3.  Jiu’er Returns to the Distillery

When Jiu’er returns to the distillery, she learns that Li Datou has been murdered.  The voiceover narrator says he presumes that the murderer was Yu, whom he refers to as his grandpa (M). 

Since Li Datou had no heirs, Jiu’er inherits the distillery.  Although she has no experience running a distillery, she convinces all the workers, who have been packing their bags preparing to leave, to stay and help run the distillery in communal fashion (F).

Then an inebriated Yu comes to the distillery and drunkenly boasts to everyone that he had had sex with Jiu’er (M).  He tries to barge into Jiu’er’s quarters, but she has him thrown out (F).  Then the workers dump the passed-out Yu into a large empty clay jug.

4.  Sanpao, the Bandit
Suddenly the notorious gun-wielding bandit Sanpao (Ji Chunhua) and his gang now attack the distillery.  Sanpao abducts Jiu’er and holds her for ransom (M).  Yu, now sober, can only cower in helplessness.  Later, though, after the ransom is paid Yu daringly tracks down Sanpao and after a scuffle, gets the bandit to confirm that he did not have sex with Jiu’er (M).

Now feeling more macho than ever, Yu comes to the distillery during a new-liquor ceremony and contemptuously urinates into all the new-liquor vats (M).  Then after wrecking some distillery equipment, he proudly carries Jiu’er off into her bedroom to have sex with her (M).  The workers only watch helplessly.

Later, however, the distillery foreman happens to taste the pissed-in liquor and discovers that it has an exquisite taste.  He reports this news to Jiu’er, and they start producing liquor according to this new formula.

5.  1938
The scene shifts forward nine years, and the distillery is shown to be booming, thanks to its secret formula.  Jiu’er is the happy mother of a nine-year-old son, Dou-Guan, the narrator’s father. 

However, the Second Sino-Japanese War has begun, and invading Japanese troops come to the distillery locale and force all the villagers in the area to trample the sorghum fields so they can build a road there (M).  The Japanese soldiers are shown here to be cruel and inhuman, and revelling in torture, which reflects general Chinese feelings concerning the holocaust that the Japanese inflicted on them at this time [5].

The Japanese then order a local butcher to skin alive the captured bandit Sanpao.  When he resists them by killing Sanpao quickly, the soldiers shoot the butcher.  Then they order the butcher’s assistant to skin alive the captured former distillery foreman, who had left earlier and apparently joined the Communist forces (M).  All the locals, including Jiu’er and Yu, are forced to watch this horror in silence.

That evening, Jiu’er gets Yu and the distillery workers to swear to avenge this cruel murder (F).  They go out at night to set up an alcohol-based bombing ambush on the Japanese truck for the next morning.  However, in the morning the Japanese truck still hasn’t come, and Dou-Guan reports back to his mother at the distillery that the ambushers are getting hungry.  So Jiu’er prepares some food for her team and brings it out to them (F). 

Just when she arrives, though, the Japanese truck shows up, and she is machine-gunned.  The attack is triggered too early and botched, and in the ensuing mayhem almost everyone is killed.  The only ones to survive are Yu and Dou-Guan, who are shown at the end staring forlornly at the devastation.


The film ends in despair, with Jiu’er finally succumbing to one of the many acts of masculinity-fed brutalization that had plagued her throughout her life.  But there are images and sequences that resonate in the mind long afterwards.  So before returning to the key issue of Red Sorghum’s portrayal of masculinity, we might comment on the excellent wide-screen cinematography of photographer Changwei Gu (Farewell My Concubine (1993) and Ju Dou (1990)) and director Zhang Yimou, himself a former cinematographer.  The color red is a symbolic image in the film and is featured in various places.  At one point, after Yu has had sex with Jiu’er in the sorghum field, he sneaks along, hidden in the sorghum stalks, and sings to her a ribald song extolling the virtues  of red.  In it he says that red is the color for (a) the blaze of love, (b) the bride’s chamber, (c) a virgin’s blood, and (d) red sorghum liquor.  More generally, Yeujin Wang comments [3]:
“Redness bespeaks desire, passion, blood (itself signifying birth and death), beauty and cruelty, destruction and construction (in that the homogeneous color scheme destroys the previous world of color and re-orders a new world).”
Thus red might be considered to be representative of the Daoist notion of the yang force, but at the same time it is associated with images of femininity that invite lustful masculine thoughts.  This powerful but ambivalent nature of red with respect to the masculine-feminine dualism is what seems to lie at the heart of Red Sorghum.

So returning to the three main critical stances in connection with the film, I would reject the “celebration of heroic masculinity” line adopted by some critics like Roger Ebert.  Yu shows some bravery in this story, but he is also crude, boorish, and narcissistic towards women.  He sees femininity as just there to be exploited for his pleasures.  The other manifestations of masculinity – the leprous Li Datou, the bandits, and the Japanese soldiers – are even worse.  As Yeujin Wang remarks, Jiu’er is seen as an object [3]:
“Jiuer is carried off by men four times in the film: first as an unwilling bride carried by a group of lusty chair-bearers to the leprous bridegroom; a second time as a potential rape victim in the sorghum field; a third time as a willing mate on her second trip through the sorghum field; and finally in her kidnapping by the local bandit for ransom.“
At the same time, I don’t see the film as a “condemnation of crude, narcissistic masculinity”, either.  Jiu’er is shown to have an affinity for men who can be cooperative and work with her.  And we do see occasions of positive masculine responses to her team-spirit approach.  Consequently I would go along with the stance of seeing the film as “masculinity seen through a feminine perspective”.  Again, Yeujin Wang has some appropriate comments in this regard [3]:
“The film Red Sorghum - ostensibly about the uninhibited manners of masculinity - is ironically and structurally contained in a discourse about the maternal which is narrated by a first-person voice-over.
    . . .
In other words, it is through a feminine vision of totality that the masculine past is re-constructed and obtains coherence and meaning.“
Nevertheless and despite Gong Li’s magnetic performance, this feminine vision doesn’t truly come together in the film.  Over the course of the story, Jiu’er is subjected to a sequence of masculinity-fuelled actions of oppression, but is there any sense of narrative progression here?  She has her own feminine assertiveness, but in the end she simply falls prey to urges for revenge, the same kind of crude impulse characteristic of her male antagonists.  She just used her male coworkers as instruments for her revenge.

But the real problem with Red Sorghum’s storytelling is with its characterization of Yu.  He is the major figure of Jiu’er’s attention, but I am unable to empathize with his point of view or otherwise “get inside” him.  And why she is attracted to him is a mystery to me.  Moreover, he doesn’t strike me as a figure worthy of being a representative of the Communist common man.  So although the film has its fascinating attractions, it doesn’t quite add up.  Zhang Yimou, however, would soon go on to make some truly outstanding works of a universal nature.


Notes:
  1. Roger Ebert, “Red Sorghum”, Roger Ebert.com, (28 February 1989).
  2. Dong Zhongshu, “The Noble Yang and the Base Yin”, Chunqiu Fanlu Yuyin, quoted in
    • Zhang Dainian, “Zhongguo Zexue Dagang (An Outline of Chinese Philosophy)”, (Beijing: China Social Sciences and Humanities Press), quoted in
      • Yeujin Wang, “Mixing Memory and Desire: “Red Sorghum” A Chinese Version of Masculinity and Femininity”, Public Culture, Vol. 2, No. 1: Fall 1989, Duke University Press, pp. 31-53.
  3. Yeujin Wang, “Mixing Memory and Desire: Red Sorghum A Chinese Version of Masculinity and Femininity”, Public Culture, Vol. 2, No. 1: Fall 1989, Duke University Press, pp. 31-53. 
  4. Chris Berry, “Neither One Thing nor Another: Toward a Study of the Viewing Subject and Chinese Cinema in the 1980s”, New Chinese Cinemas, (ed. by Nick Browne, Paul G. Pickowicz, Vivian Sobchack, Esther Yau), Cambridge University Press, (1994), pp. 88-113.
  5. Iris Chang, The Rape of Nanking, Basic Books, (1997).

“Yellow Earth” - Chen Kaige (1984)

The Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakimg was made possible by the ending of the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and the subsequent reopening of the Beijing Film Institute for study in 1978.  Among that first group of students graduating in 1982 were future leaders of the Fifth Generation movement: Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou, and Tian Zhuangzhuang. These young cineastes had ambitions to pursue new forms of cinematic expression in a Chinese context, and the first major film to emerge from this group was Yellow Earth (Huang tu di, 1984), which was directed by Chen Kaige and photographed by Zhang Yimou.

Upon its release, Yellow Earth was not a major hit in China, but it quickly attracted attention outside China [1].  Indeed, because the film abandoned the prevailing government censorial preference for socialist realism, it was probably fortunate that the film was even approved for release in China at all.  Nevertheless, the film did have an immediate impact on the filmmaking community in China.  In this connection, Tian Zhuangzhuang remarked in 1986 that [2]
“If it wasn’t for Yellow Earth, then there wouldn’t have been the whole debate about film aesthetics . . . [the film] represents the future of Chinese cinema now.”                     
And ever since then Yellow Earth has been, over the years, the subject of scrutiny concerning various aspects of its presentation and of multiple interpretations concerning its underlying meanings [3,4].  I will get to some of those interpretations later, but first I will give a basic picture of the film’s narrative, which can be considered to play out through five segments.

1.  Early Spring, 1939
In 1937 the opposing Kuomintang Nationalist Party (KMT) forces and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) forces realized that they would have to cooperate in order to fight against the invading Japanese in the Second Sino-Japanese War.  By 1939 the KMT had recognized the autonomy of the CCP soldier to cross over the Shaanxi-Gansun-Ningxia border region.  In the early spring of that year, a soldier from the CCP’s Eighth Route Army, Gu Qing (played by Xue Bai), is shown to have travelled 200 miles from CCP-controlled Yan’an to the northern KMT-controlled area of Shaanxi, Shanbei.  His mission is to collect local peasants’ folk songs that the CCP soldiers can then sing and affirm their commonality with the local people.

In the opening shots, Gu is seen walking over the barren Loess Plateau of that region.  When he happens upon a peasant wedding procession, he takes out his notebook and prepares to record the festivities.  The people involved in the procession appear to be enjoying the party, but the red-hooded 13-year-old bride looks glum when briefly seen and clearly represents just an artefact, not a person, in this social setting.  Gu is invited to the wedding banquet, where the guests are served plates of wooden fish, because real fish are not available to these people. During the feast Gu jots down a wedding song he hears sung by a village crooner.
 
We next see another 13-year-old girl from the same village, Cuiqiao (Wang Xueqi), carrying out her routine task of walking three miles with buckets to the Yellow River in order to fetch water for her poor family.  Along the way, she sings a plaintive song:
“Among human beings, a girl’s life is the most pitiable. 
  Pity the poor girls, the poor girls.”   
2.  With Cuiqiao’s Family
Gu Qing decides to remain in that village to collect songs, and he winds up staying with Cuiqiao’s small family, which includes her widowed father (played by Tan Tuo) and her shy, almost mute, younger brother, Hanhan (Liu Quiang).  Gu starts out helping the family members with their plowing and chores, and he gradually gets to know them better.  Their conversations exhibit the contrasts between the modernist Communist and traditional peasant ways.  On one occasion Gu tells the father that in the Communist south, girls are liberated and free to choose their marriage partners.  In the south, Gu tells him, girls are not for sale.  Then they have the following exchange that tellingly reflects their contrasting perspectives:
Gu Qing:     “The world must change.  The south has changed. 
                      North China must change, too.”

The Father:  “We fathers have our own rules”
On another occasion when Cuiqiao mentions to Gu that noone in their village is literate, he  tells her that in the Communist-held south, all boys and girls are being taught how to read and write.  These positive comments, along with Gu’s general upbeat demeanor, seem to inspire both Cuiqiao and Hanhan and make them more cheerful.  Gu even gets Hanhan to talk and sing, which leads to the boy singing a bizarre bed-wetting song.  Gu responds to this by teaching the boy to sing an optimistic Communist song.

3.  Upcoming Events
However, Cuiqiao, who was betrothed to an older man as a small child, learns that her future in-laws want the arranged marriage to take place soon, in April.  This is evidently alarming to her, and when she has a chance to speak with Gu alone, she asks him if his army needs any women who can sing.  (Gu answers in the affirmative.)  In fact all along, Cuiqiao has been shown singing beautiful songs when she is alone, often with lyrics that she has composed herself, and we know  that she is a good singer.  But the songs of these people tend to be sad songs, reflecting their generally fatalistic perspectives on life. 

Then Gu announces that it is time for him to leave the village and return to his army in the south.  When he departs, both Hanhan and Cuigiao separately sneak out to join him on the road and go with him.  Gu sends Hanhan back home, but when he meets Cuiqiao further on down the road, she tells him she wants to join his army (and thereby flee the grim servitude of a loveless marriage). Gu tells he is not allowed by his superiors to take her with him, but he will seek official permission from his unit and return for her later.  Cuiqiao asks him to promise to return by April, and then as he walks away, she sings an optimistic song for him.

4.  Departure
In April, Gu hasn’t arrived yet, and Cuiqiao is briefly shown being subjected to the traditional bride-demeaning wedding ceremony like that which we had seen at the beginning of the film.  Cuiqiao’s glum circumstances are contrasted with parallel scenes showing Gu back in Yan’an watching soldiers from the Eighth Route Army performing a vigorous coordinated dance celebrating their ferocity.  In the north it is all passivity, while in the south it is potency.
  
Shortly thereafter, Hanhan is seen carrying out the chore that used to be done by Cuiqiao, going to the Yellow River to fetch water.  At the river bank he sees Cuiqiao, who has sneaked over there with the intention of escaping by crossing the big river in a small boat and going to join the Eighth Route Army on her own.  Hanhan warns her that it is too dangerous to cross the big river on her own, but Cuiqiao can’t be deterred.  She gets into the boat and rows off into the river waters, singing an optimistic Communist song as she goes.  As she disappears into the evening dusk, Hanhan on the shore can still hear her singing, but her voice suddenly ceases in mid verse.  Hanhan calls out with alarm into the darkness

5.   Gu Qing Returns
In something of a coda to the film, Gu Qing is shown returning to the village and finding Cuiqiao’s home empty.  All the male peasants have gone out onto the loess hills to pray fervently to the Dragon Lord in the sky for rain.  The fanatical supplicants are all bare-chested and wearing ceremonial head wreaths of leaves.  Among the crowd is Hanhan, who turns his head and sees Gu Qing on a hill way in the back.  He tries to go back towards Gu, but he is unable to work his way through the swarming crowd that is sweeping everyone forward towards some unseen destination dictated by their superstitious ritual.  The final shot of the film shows the empty loess hills and Cuiqiao’s wistful voice in the background singing a verse of hope for a Communist future.


Thus the ending of Yellow Earth yields a somewhat problematic verdict concerning the efficacy of the Communist message on the stubborn peasants’ way of life.  Cuiqiao appears to have died trying to escape her confining circumstance and find imagined liberation with the Eighth Route Army.  And Hanhan seems unable to reunite with Gu at the end.  In fact the way those final shots are composed suggests that the image of Gu at the end may be only a mirage.  So the path to salvation is elusive here. 

Even Chen Kaige, himself, seems to have been, in retrospect, of two minds about the film’s message [5].  He had started with Ke Lan’s uncomplicated novel Echo in the Deep Valley, but after spending a month in northern Shaanxi in early 1984 researching the local way of life there, he made considerable adaptations to Ke Lan’s story [4].  And he added to the story a moody tone, which is reflected in the film’s evocative folk-song motif, the atmospheric soundtrack music by Jiping Zhao, and Zhang Yimou’s context-grounded cinematography.  In particular, Zhang Yimou’s many long shots giving considerable screen space in the foreground to the hilly and dusty loess terrain maintain a context and feeling of desolation throughout the film.

So although a straightforward interpretation of Yellow Earth might see the film as just a stark confrontation between modern thinking and backwardness, when we watch the film we can see that it is not quite that simple.  In fact we might say that there are two main perspectives that are present in the film [4]:
  • Sympathy for the authentic integrity of the native people and their connection to the Chinese essence.
     
  • Categorical, reductionist judgement of the native peasants’ backwardness and need of reform.
And critics suggest that both perspectives are present here at the same time.  Commenting in this regard, W. K. Cheng has said [4]:
“‘Yellow Earth’, therefore, is courageous, not just in the sense that it shuns the comfort of certainty by shirking the socialist formula, but also because in doing so, it exposes itself to the nether world of ambiguities, incongruities, uncertainties and anguish that has accompanied the Chinese quest for modern nationhood in resalable memory.  What makes ‘Yellow Earth’ so intriguing and, for many, emotionally arresting is not that it restores certainty to the Chinese collective identity, quite the contrary to Chen Kaige’s apparent intent, but rather that the film’s symbolic intensity reenacts the internal tensions in the modern predicament of national reconstruction.”
Other critics have looked at the film, from a postmodernist perspective, as a piece of abstract text to be analysed [6,7].  In this connection Esther Yau has mulled over the curious fact that two of the most dramatic elements in the narrative – Cuiqiao’s grim marriage ceremony and Cuiqiao’s ultimate disappearance in the water – are glossed over and barely covered in the cinematic presentation [7].  Hence apparently to her, the hidden meaning of the film must be found elsewhere.

But I think perhaps the most fruitful critical path to follow lies in the Daoist direction.  Along this line of thinking, the modernist Communist and traditionalist peasant perspectives can be considered to be embodiments of the Daoist yin-yang polarity [8,9].  According to this formulation,
  • yin symbolically suggests the notions of femininity, dark, wetness, cold, passivity, disintegration, etc.
     
  • yang symbolically suggests the notions of masculinity, light, warmth, dryness, activity, etc.
According to this way of seeing things, the peasant, traditionalist perspective embodies the yin principle, and the Communist, modernist perspective embodies the yang principle.  But it is not as though one should choose one of these to the exclusion of the other.  Both yin and yang are needed and must be maintained in the proper balance.  In this connection Mary Ann Farquhar has remarked [9]:
“A Daoist reading of Yellow Earth gives a meaning that is seen and felt directly, a meaning beyond the images and words. The complexity and depth of the human lives are rendered in stark images against the vast backdrop of the natural world. Minimalized tone, colour and composition are reminiscent of the restraint of classical Chinese painting. Songs and silence overlay the imagery and evoke the lyricism and elusiveness of traditional Chinese poetry.“
Anyway, whatever take you want to adopt, Yellow Earth offers a fascinating view of the complex Chinese society undergoing dramatic change.
½

Notes:
  1. Walter Goodman, “China’s ‘Yellow Earth’", The New York Times,  (11 April 1986).   
  2. Yang Ping, “A Director Who is Trying to Change the Audience; A Chat with Young Director, Tian Zhuangzhuang”, in Perspectives on Chinese Cinema, (ed. and trans. by Chris Berry), British Film Institute”, (1991), p. 127.
  3. Dan Edwards, “Framing the Heavy Weight of History: Yellow Earth”, Senses of Cinema, (May 2015).       
  4. W. K. Cheng, “Imagining the People: ‘Yellow Earth’ and the Enigma of Nationalist Consciousness”, The China Review, vol. 2, no. 2, (Fall 2002), pp. 37-63.  
  5. Chen Kaige, “Quanli zou Shaanbei” (“Trekking Northern Shaanxi for a Thousand li”), Dianying Yishu, no. 4, (1985).
  6. Chris Berry, “Neither One Thing nor Another: Toward a Study of the Viewing Subject and Chinese Cinema in the 1980s”, New Chinese Cinemas, (ed. by Nick Browne, Paul G. Pickowicz, Vivian Sobchack, Esther Yau), Cambridge University Press, (1994), pp. 88-113.
  7. Esther C. M. Yau, “‘Yellow Earth’: Western Analysis and a Non-western Text”, in Perspectives on Chinese Cinema, (ed. by C. Berry), British Film Institute, (1991), pp. 22-33.
  8. Roy Stafford, “Yellow Earth (China 1984)”, The Case for Global Film, (3 May 2007).    
  9. Mary Ann Farquhar, “The ‘hidden’ gender in ‘Yellow Earth’”, Screen, volume 33, issue 2, (1 July 1992).

Chen Kaige

Films of Chen Kaige:

“Badla” - Sujoy Ghosh (2019)

Badla (“Revenge”, 2019) is a whodunit crime drama directed by Indian filmmaker Sujoy Ghosh.  This film, which has been well received [1], is a remake of the popular Spanish film The Invisible Guest (Contratiempo, 2016) that was written and directed by Oriol Paulo.  But Ghosh, already known for an earlier crime thriller, Kahaani (“Story”, 2012), made some small but perhaps significant changes to Oriol Paulo’s original script when he made Badla.  For one thing, he reversed the genders of two of the main characters, and this seems to me to have been a dramatically effective decision.  In addition, even though Badla has a virtually all-Indian cast, Ghosh set and shot this film in Scotland, a locale that for Indian audiences probably lends a slightly exotic external atmosphere to the film.

The key thing about all whodunit mysteries is that a crime has been committed, and most of the plot is devoted to unravelling just who is the guilty party.  The reader/viewer is presented with all the evidence along the way and is invited to solve the crime him- or herself.  But Badla is not just an ordinary whodunit – it belongs to the popular and tantalizing subgenre known as the “locked-room mystery” [2].  In these kinds of stories, a crime (usually a murder) has been committed inside a room that is known to have been locked from the inside, and the circumstantial evidence either points to a single culprit who was inside the room at the time (often it is the story’s protagonist, who ultimately turns out to be innocent) or leaves everyone in the dark as to how the crime could possibly have been committed.  Early elements of the locked-room mystery can be traced back to Edgar Allan Poe's story "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841), but the idea of a specific genre along these lines reached its heyday a century later with the works of John Dickson Carr [3].
   
Badla is indeed an exemplar of a locked-room mystery, and a particularly complex one at that.  In this story a young woman awakens from having been knocked unconscious and finds herself in a locked hotel room with a dead body.  She is immediately accused by the police of having murdered this person.  The film’s narrative concerns the woman’s efforts to prove her innocence.
  
Badla begins with the accused woman, Naina Sethi (played by Taapsee Pannu), having been released on bail, meeting with a famous senior lawyer, Badal Gupta (Amitabh Bachchan), who has reputedly never lost a case and who has been recruited by Naina’s personal attorney, Jimmy Punjabi (Manav Kaul), to prepare her legal defence.  Time is critical – they may have only three hours to prepare Naina for an expected police examination – and before Gupta is willing to take on the case, he wants Naina to tell him everything she knows so that he can get her ready for her upcoming testimony.  The film is then structured around their ensuing conversation of several hours, which features a number of dramatized flashbacks and descriptive accounts which may or may not represent the truth.

In fact truth and lying are central themes of this film, and the viewer must struggle with conflicting and contradictory accounts, all dramatized, of what actually happened over the preceding few days.

We quickly learn that Naina Sethi is a very successful young Glasgow businesswoman and is a supposedly happily married mother of a young child.  But she tells Gupta that she had been having an extramarital love affair with commercial photographer Arjun Joseph (Tony Luke).  Recently, she goes on, she and Arjun had been faced with a blackmail demand from an unknown accuser who threatened to reveal their affair unless he or she was paid a substantial amount of money.  They were instructed to bring the money to a remote hotel room in order to keep their secrets hidden.  But after travelling there and checking into the room, they were both ambushed from behind and knocked out.  When Naina woke up, she discovered Arjun’s dead body on the floor.  When the police came, they found that the hotel room was locked from the inside and no evidence of anyone breaking in.

Naina tells Gupta that what she has just told him is the whole story, but Gupta isn’t buying it.  He thinks she is holding some things back, and we soon see that he is right.  It turns out that Naina and Arjun had also been involved in an auto accident that had resulted in the death of the other driver, and since there had been no witnesses, they had chosen to cover up the evidence.  Over the course of this story, we see various conflicting, dramatized versions of what happened on that occasion.  In addition, we learn that Arjun had by chance happened on to the deceased driver’s parents, Rani Kaur (Amrita Singh) and her husband Nimbi (Tanveer Ghani).  These two elderly characters are also hypothesized to have been involved in various malicious scenarios to avenge their son’s death.

As the viewer watches the conflicting dramatizations of these various accounts told by Naina or suggested by Gupta, it becomes clear that both Naina and Badal Gupta are lying on multiple occasions.  Some of the viewers may struggle to come to a coherent understanding of what actually did happen – and that, after all, is presumably the fun of watching a whodunit.  At the close, there is a surprise ending to the whole thing, and the astute viewer may have picked up enough clues along the way to have accurately predicted the ironic outcome.  You can try your luck.

So the whole of Badla can be considered to have been something of a game between Naina and Gupta, but with deadly stakes.  Naina wants to avoid being convicted of murder and is willing to lie to save herself.  Badal Gupta wants to preserve his loss-free legal case record, and he, too, is apparently willing to lie in order to do it.  But as the viewer will eventually find out, there is something more that is going on here.
  
Certainly the enjoyment of watching a tale like Badla comes from the telling of it, and I must admit that the telling on this occasion is not always perfect.  Some of the characterizations are a bit weak, and some of the situations are not narratively motivated to a believable degree.  In addition, there are many unmotivated editing cuts, particularly during conversations.  These pointless changes in point of view only distract the viewer from following the narrative flow.
 
But, on the other hand, I must say that Taapsee Pannu’s performance as Naina Sethi is outstanding.  She realistically delivers a range of subtly expressed emotive responses across the variety of situations in which she is dramatically involved, sometimes as innocent victim and sometimes as willful manipulator.  And it is her emotionally nuanced performance throughout that holds Badla together as a reasonably compelling narrative.
★★★

Notes:
  1. Murtaza Ali Khan, ‘'Badla' Movie Review: Amitabh Bachchan shines in Sujoy Ghosh's engaging whodunit”, A Potpourri of Vestiges, (8 March 2019).   
  2. “Locked-room mystery”, Wikipedia, (23 July 2019).    
  3. “John Dickson Carr”, Wikipedia, (21 July 2019).   

Sujoy Ghosh

Films of Sujoy Ghosh:
  • Badla - Sujoy Ghosh (2019)