“I will tell you the story of my grandpa and grandma. Some people believe it; some don’t.”
As opening lines go that’s right up there with the playful title card that welcomes viewers to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (“Not that it matters but most of it is true.“) Immediately we can relax and forgive embellishments as the narrator, not even alive at the time of the events depicted, tells us of his grandparent’s first meeting, their time together and the hardships they faced as they raised his father.
But though they are destined to be a couple the union of our narrator’s grandparents almost never happens. The film opens with his grandmother as a young bride-to-be on her way to be married off to the local vineyard owner. She has never seen her betrothed, let alone met him so her deep apprehension is further hardened when she discovers he is a leper and her father has seemingly arranged the marriage for the price of a single mule.
En route her convoy is halted by a bandit and in the course of the attack and rescue she and one of the palanquin bearers exchange a tender moment. He is immediately smitten while she continues the ride, an 1/8th of a smile breaking her previous mask of stoicism. Fate plays it’s hand once more as her husband dies the following day and as she rides back to her father’s house she is met by the same bearer who leads her into the supposedly haunted sorghum field where they make love.
It must be noted at this point that in Mo Yan’s original novel the narrator’s grandfather kills the vineyard owner and this first sexual encounter is rape. She falls in love with him later but the initial meeting is definitely forced. In the film however the union is consensual and the death of the original husband remains a mystery, despite the narrator hints that his grandfather may have had a hand in it.
She returns to the winery where she throws her lot in with the workers, admonishing them not to address her as ‘Mistress’, promising them a full share of the profits and insisting on helping with the physical labour. All-in-all your archetypal Communist, which is somewhat peculiar given the film’s release after Deng Xiao Ping’s channelling of Gordon Gecko some nine years earlier and China’s subsequent embrace of market economics.
The work is hard but they manage to maintain the vineyard, and even prosper when a batch of the wine is pissed in by the narrator’s grandfather. Local warlords and varying weather are overcome but the occupying Japanese Army (this is set throughout the 1930s) proves too much. The business is more or less abandoned and after a particularly brutal public torture the entire collective resolves to rise up against their occupiers.
This was Yimou‘s debut feature and he handles the task with a maturity that belies his inexperience. The pacing is perfect, Li Gong in the central role is spellbinding and what the director does with the colour palate has to be seen to be believed. The deep reds of the marriage procession are offset by the fabulous earthen tones of the vineyard and at one point Yimou even incorporates a solar eclipse that fits effortlessly into the film.
Shocking in places, absolutely riveting throughout. Don’t Miss.
Red Sorghum – directed by Yimou Zhang (1987)
A young woman struggles to adapt in rural 1930s China when her husband dies the day after their wedding.
Rocking chair scene here