So we definitely wanted to restore human feelings and relationships. In the same interview, Zhang details the effort it took to reconstruct the setting for the film. In the late 80s cash crops had already usurped sorghum in the Shandong region so the director paid peasants to regrow the crop. In addition, the peasants used a genetically modified version of the crop that the filmmaker deemed undesirable.
So Zhang and his team had to groom the crop themselves.
Even then, the mature red sorghum was regarded as unsightly for the film and so he chose to film the sorghum in an unripe, green state. Red Sorghum contains multiple folk archetypes that are venerated on screen. Gong Li plays the stoic woman who in her resignation overcomes circumstances to become a successful small business owner. She exercises poise and pragmatism in both personal and business affairs.
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Jiang Wen acts out the part of hotheaded romantic interest. His possessiveness is so brutish as to be comedic; literally, he swings his girl onto his shoulders. This possessive drive later evolves into the generalized possession of the country of China by its people. China's open door policy, launched in , suffered a devastating blow. But I wouldn't say that the Tiananmen protests form a dividing line — that there was more freedom in creative expression before than after. If anything, the Tiananmen protests inspired and motivated artists in China to further push their boundaries.
What happened after was that a lot of artistic activities moved underground.
Mo Yan and the Power of Movies | The New Yorker
Artists and filmmakers started to make their works independently, rather than through official channels. The result was an unprecedented bloom in creativity, as evident in the cutting-edge achievements made in visual and cinematic arts. The difference between those who were coming of age professionally before and those after lies in the difference in life experience.
Many were forced to leave school during that time. Some went to the countryside to live among peasants. Others worked in factories.
They saw the discrepancy between reality and ideology firsthand. When people like Zhang and Mo depict the lives of peasants and the working class, they project a perspective that's unique to their experiences. This is a seminal film for the "Fifth Generation" of Chinese directors; how did roles for female characters in this generation differ from previous time periods in Chinese film? Red Sorghum is about a young woman, Jiu'er Gong Li , who is being married off or sold to a leper, a much older man who owns a winery.
In its especially memorable opening sequence, Jiu'er is being carried on a sedan by a group of men to her new home. At the distillery, it is discovered that Li Datou has died of mysterious causes, leading many of the distillery's workers to suspect murder. Nothing is proven, however, and since Jiu'er's late husband was without heir, it is she who takes ownership of the distillery , which has recently fallen on hard times. She inspires the workers to take new pride in their wine.
Film Notes: Red Sorghum (紅高粱)
One day, Jiu'er's lover and the narrator's grandfather becomes drunk and loudly insists to the group of men accompanying him that he is going to share her bed. When he enters the bedroom, however, she, embarrassed, tosses him out. The other men on the scene carry him away, sticking him in a vat of liquor where he remains for the next three days. Meanwhile, a group of bandits kidnap Jiu'er, forcing the distillery workers to pay a ransom for her freedom. After emerging from the vat, the narrator's grandfather witnesses the worn down Jiu'er.
Mo Yan and the Power of Movies
The narrator's grandfather goes to confront the leader of the bandits, demanding to know whether the leader raped Jiu'er. The leader said he did not rape Jiu'er, because Jiu'er told the leader that she already slept with the disease-ridden old man Li Datou. The narrator's grandfather returns, but takes out his anger on the workers by urinating into four vats of liquor. To the clan's surprise, the urine somehow makes the liquor taste better than ever. Its product newly improved, the distillery begins to see financial success.
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The War begins and Imperial Japanese Army troops invade the area. The Japanese soldiers then torture and kill Jiu'er's friend Luohan, a respected distillery worker. Jiu'er incites the workers to avenge his death. In the early dawn, they hide themselves in the sorghum field, prepared to ambush the Japanese military vehicles the moment they pass by.
While waiting, however, the workers become distracted by hunger.