Starring: Gong Li, Jiang Wen, Teng Rujun
Director: Zhang Yimou
Running Time: 88 mins
Red Sorghum is a Chinese film about a young woman, set to be married, who falls for a servant upon arriving at her destination, where she also finds herself unexpectedly taking the reins of a winery.
Zhang Yimou is probably the most internationally famous Chinese director of them all, bringing already classic stories like Raise The Red Lantern, To Live, The Road Home, Hero, House Of Flying Daggers and more to the world, so it’s always interesting to see where he started from.
In the case of Red Sorghum, Zhang’s directorial debut, it’s hardly the greatest piece of work that we’ve ever seen from the great director, but that doesn’t mean it’s by any means a bad film. Although not quite as emotionally powerful or dramatically impressive as his best, it’s still a film that combines striking visuals with a typically characterful depiction of Chinese culture, something that makes up for a story that never really managed to fully grab me.
Let’s start off on the bright side, with Zhang’s directing, arguably the best part of the whole film. Given the time it was made, and a clearly lower budget, the film doesn’t quite have the exquisite look of some of the director’s most visually exceptional productions, but Red Sorghum still manages to be an incredibly striking visual experience throughout.
Along with cinematographer Gu Changwei, the film is bathed in rich and intense colours throughout, with a clear emphasis on very deep tones of red that dominate the screen and really bring strong power to some of the film’s most emotionally passionate and intense moments. As well as all the red, the film does a great job of giving a vivid portrayal of the rural countryside, covering the vast expanses in a eye-catching yellow-gold colour (similar to parts of The Road Home), also proving an interesting and particularly striking contrast to the grey landscapes of Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth (a 1984 film where Zhang himself worked as cinematographer).
Another plus from the film comes from the central performance from Gong Li. A regular with director Zhang, Gong is right up there amongst the most famous Chinese actors of all time, and this performance, at a much younger age than some of her most renowned turns, is still very strong.
She may not yet have that hard-as-nails air of some of her most famous performances, but she portrays her young character’s combination of pure innocence and innate confidence that allows her to stand strong while surrounded by a group of men in a difficult situation, maturing dramatically throughout the film yet retaining her almost childlike innocence.
Despite all that, the biggest problem that I had with Red Sorghum was that it was lacking a consistently engrossing story from beginning to end. There are one or two flashpoints that are properly striking, and Gong Li’s character arc is interesting, but I felt that things moved a little too slowly over the course of a very short running time to really make for an engrossing watch.
Of course, the film doesn’t have to be a rapid-fire thriller, and some of Zhang’s best films are very patient, slow-moving dramas, but I felt that there just wasn’t the depth or tension to Red Sorghum of some of his bigger productions that earn that slower pace a little more, which meant I just wasn’t as enthralled throughout.
Overall, there are elements of Red Sorghum that are undoubtedly praiseworthy, from its thrilling visuals to strong directing and impressive acting. However, it’s just not on the level of the best films from Zhang, proving a frustratingly slow watch that doesn’t always have the depth to really enthrall you, and that’s why I’m giving it a 7.0.