“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.

  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).

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