One of cinema’s greatest aesthetes, Zhang Yimou’s first feature film showcases the director’s eye as fully-formed from the start. Red Sorghum begins as a sumptuously-shot fable, with Yimou’s muse and leading lady, Gong Li, being married off to a leprous winery-owner by her poverty-stricken parents in 1920s China. As she is carried along in her sedan, she falls in love with one of the carriers, played by Jiang Wen. Told by a narrator, the couple’s grandson, the film has a fable-like feel, as if part of a memory partially obscured by the dust of the Chinese countryside. The winery-owner mysteriously disappears (we never even see him onscreen), and Red Sorghum begins to focus on the tale of Gong Li, taking control of the winery, and her elemental, charged relationship with Jiang Wen, who fluctuates between alcoholic despondency and romantic fervour.
Unfortunately, Yimou’s skills as a painter of gorgeous cinematic images have always been limited by his rather conservative storytelling abilities. He would go on to make equally sumptuous and grandly ambitious wuxia films like Hero and House of Flying Daggers, again two gorgeously-shot films which suffer from a thematic conservatism. Here too, Red Sorghum begins to disintegrate towards the end, dovetailing into a war film where Japanese forces occupy and brutally oppress the area. The high-wire balance of gorgeous imagery and melodrama that Yimou achieves in the first two-thirds of the film is thrown away in favour of a simplistically manipulative third act set against the backdrop of war. It’s a shame, because although the sheer poetry of the film’s images are never less than breathtaking, the thematic conservatism and simplicity with which Red Sorghum finishes is wholly dissatisfying.