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RED SORGHUM: GROWING UNITY

I’ll admit it: I’m not well-schooled in the intricacies of the propaganda film

(although, if we’re being honest, I’m hardly well-schooled in anything). I don’t just mean film

with a political message, because those are arguably a dime a dozen, or film that happens to

include awkwardly contained proclamations of propagandistic intent - films that are legally

obligated to stop every few moments, pause the narrative, and proclaim glory to whatever

political ideology the regime they are being made under holds I mean, rather, those films

whose primary, overarching messages are of upholding the current government, films with,

more or less, that one purpose and that one purpose only.

Any disinterest in this genre is, I hope, pretty understandable; a movie like that

seems to be a recipe for uninspired filmmaking, filled with copy-and-paste government

slogans, bland political imagery, and pedantic, moralizing anecdotes that resonate with

exactly no one. They’re both boring and naive, replacing the worship of artistic intent for

the worship of a cold, distant political ideology.


Imagine my surprise, then, when a film I thoroughly enjoyed, Zhang Yimou’s Red

Sorghum (1987), turned out to be such a carefully crafted, yet undeniably nationalistic tale.

Like others of its genre, it is, in places, pretty naive and overtly obvious, with its clear

championing of a workers’ communism and brutal depiction of the second Sino-Japanese

War. Its imagery is heavy-handed - we get it, red sorghum is red, guys - and its tale is

undoubtedly a creation myth of sorts for modern China, and yet... It’s also good. Like, so

good. It’s a genuinely a great piece of art, containing its own identity even outside of its

political story.

In fact, not only is the film good despite its political commentary, it’s one of those few,

rare works that actually seems to be bolstered by it. The clever trick lies, I think, in the way

that Zhang not so much makes the human political as he makes the political human. There’s

an incredibly fine line between the two, but whereas one results in an oddly cold, alienated

narrative, the other leads to a beautiful unity between the film’s artistic identity and the

political narrative it touts. ‘Unity,’ or even, more specifically, ‘growing unity,’ should be the

tagline of this film, in fact; from the aforementioned unity between the artistic and the



political, to the themes of the literal narrative itself, to the film’s treatment of its visual

techniques, this is a story, undoubtedly, of steadily rising, growing unification.

The unity of the literal narrative is the easiest to perceive, as the winery easily unifies

around Jiu’er, the film’s main character. A classic tale of love and communism, little else

happens within the community of Red Sorghum, as the main developments of the plot

concern themselves with the increasingly strong bonds that form within this group of

workers, and especially the familial bonds that form between Jiu’er, one of the workers, and

their son, who is born about halfway through the narrative. Any threats that do happen -

most notably, the Japanese army, which arrives in the second act - are purely external, not

arising from within the community itself. In fact, these threats only serve to strengthen the

community further, driving their unity even further.

The political undertones of these narrative events are inescapable; indeed, I

obviously couldn’t resist starting to throw around political labels in the paragraph above

myself. These undertones, however, are also gradual in nature, growing in intensity over the

duration of the film. When we first meet the characters, this is purely a human story,

tracking the complicated, arranged marriage between Jiu’er and the dying winery owner, her

meet-cute romance with one of the laborers, and the unclear fate of the winery when Jiu’er’s

husband ultimately dies.



The extent to which the laborers so easily and quickly rally around

Jiu’er upon their old supervisor’s death is, perhaps, a tad unrealistic, but it still presents a

smooth introduction of the political allegory of the story. Even after this moment, however,

the humanity of the narrative continues, primarily thanks to the excellent backgrounding

presented by the first act: Zhang has established, first and foremost, the humanity of this

group of people, and only then divulged their political lives. When the Japanese army comes,

it is not only descending on China as a whole, but also on this particular piece of idyllic

community that we have come to know so well.

All of this is, ahem, unified most powerfully through the use of the film’s sole visual

motif, the titular red color. Zhang has always been famous for his use of color, and his debut

feature is no different; there are no easily discernible visual motifs here, no repeated images

or lyrical symbols, and yet red truly becomes the main character of the screen, featuring in

almost every scene. Like all of the elements of the film, the introduction of this device is

subtle and wholly naturalistic at first, appearing in the vibrantly crimson wedding regalia


surrounding Jiu’er as she is set to be married. The interior of the tent she travels in may be

nearly monochrome with crimson, but it’s justified with realism, only mildly surreal if you

squint.

As the plot progresses, red grows in importance, reflecting in the red wine of the

town, the red of Jiu’er’s clothing, and the red of the firelight. In all of these instances,

however, it’s still a wholly naturalistic color, innately integrated into the ordinary setting.

And yet, as the plot begins to gain its political tone, so too do these crimson objects: the red

sorghum wine is, after all, a physical manifestation of communal labor (heightened further

by the Eisenstein-like montage of the laborers at work that depicts its creation). The

nationalistic associations of red can’t be ignored, either, evoking both images of the Chinese

flag and the traditional association with communism. Yet none of these are that obvious,

really, since there never was no brow-beating shot of the unfurled flag, or any imagery of the

hammer-and-sickle or the red star. Al of these things are just quietly implicit, for the color


red is still, primarily, a narrative convenience, an image of camaraderie and fulfilling life-

work.



So in-obvious are these things, in fact, that it’s only in retrospective that it can truly

hit you how significant that initial marriage scene was. Red, the color of communal spirit,

work, the sorghum of the earth, communism, and China as a whole, had flooded the screen,

shaping Jiu’er’s face. In that moment, in that introduction of her character, she had been

solidly identified with all of these nationalistic elements, as female characters often are. But

the audience couldn’t have known it yet, not really; it had all just looked so natural.


All of this is challenged, of course, when the war arrives. The Japanese soldiers

destroy the earth and its crops, they wreck the village, and, in a move of true perversion,

they try to force the villagers to skin each other alive. Doing so would expose what is most

sacred of all - the red of the inside of a human body, the literal lifeblood, that still evokes all

of these nationalistic elements discussed above. The body of the human being is constituted

of its nationalistic spirit, and the invasion of the then-fascist Japanese army is desperate to

uncover it. The heart of this tale is literally aligned with its political tones, in a move that

would usually be completely deafening in its blunt imagery. But because of Zhang’s careful



curation of imagery and build-up, it instead hits the audience without obstacle or hesitation,

with simple, pure understanding.

The very ending, when Zhang allows the screen to gradually fill with blinding red,

wordlessly brings the audience’s understanding even higher. It’s absolutely stunning in its

simplicity, bringing to mind all of the possible meanings of the color that the film had

touched on before and pushing them to an ultimate, poetic culmination. In that one, final

denouement, the film reaches its ultimate point of unification: earth, woman, China, work,

communism, lifeblood - all of these disparate elements are brought surging onto the screen.


A. DZH

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