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An Academic Analysis of Zhang Yimou’s Award Winning Debut Feature “Red Sorghum” Essay

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Updated: May 14th, 2019

Red sorghum is a 1988 film whose theme revolves around the life of woman. The woman lives a life full of misfortunes with liquor playing a major role in the whole film. In this film, the man’s son narrates the story of a man’s mother. The man is the protagonist, while the film illustrates the effect of circumstances and the presence of liquor on the life of the man’s mother (Chien & Chih 4).

Jiu’er, a young girl, is offered to a leper for marriage. The marriage is arranged as a traditional norm by the girl’s parents and the leper.

Consequently, the girl marries the man against her will, and therefore she is a victim of circumstances. The man that the girl is to be married to owns a distillery. The leper is apparently rich, but he is an old man. For these reasons, the girl is not willing to be married to the designated groom (Halvorson 2).

A wedding is planned and there is a sedan chair used for carrying the bride. Several people are bearing the sedan and there is a leader among them. The wedding party has to pass through a sorghum plantation when an armed person attacks them. In addition, the man is armed with a pistol.

The bearers of the sedan confront the man and successfully fend off the assailant. Evidently, Jiu’er and the attacker are attracted to each other. This is seen from the way in which the girl and the man look at each other. Three days after this incident, the attacker stalks Jiu’er, captures her, and identifies himself. A sexual engagement follows the capture of Jiu’er (Halvorson 3).

Due to unexplained circumstances, the leper who married Jiu’er dies after a short time into the marriage, and Jiu’er is left struggling with the distillery that previously belonged to the leper husband. She tries to motivate the employees to dedicate themselves to the success of the distillery, which is in a difficult situation.

Jiu’er is the kidnapped by some armed men because of her treatment of the man whom she encountered on the day of the wedding. However, they avoid assaulting her because she had previously been married to a leper. On the other hand, her loyal distillery workers free her from the kidnappers in exchange for some money (Halvorson 5).

A while later, Jiu’er bears a son with the man who attacked her on her way home. The son is the protagonist in the film. For some reason, when the distillery makes some beer, Jiu’er’s mate urinates in it, and surprisingly makes it taste better. This appears to be a disgusting tactic to the experienced liquor distillers.

Tables turn when a war breaks out and the Japanese army occupies the area. Furthermore, the occupying military authority forcibly conducts a clearance of the sorghum fields. Eventually the movie turns into a series of cruel acts instituted by the Japanese army.

An unwilling person coerced by the army kills the attacker of the wedding party at the beginning of the film. A distillery worker is also skinned on the orders of the army. As the narrator acknowledges, the Japanese army commits horrible crimes during the war.

The end of the film is melancholic since a war erupts between the Japanese troops and the distillers of liquor. Many people perish in the war and the including Jiu’er. Liquor is the main killer of people in this war. However, the narrator’s father and grandfather are seen to make it through the melee.

Liquor is a major feature of this film in all scenes. Beer made from sorghum is seen at the beginning when the leper is the owner of the distillery. The wedding party also passes through a field of sorghum, which is used to make liquor. Almost all characters in the movie are engaged in some activity related to liquor at all times. Jiu’er, her workers and the strange attacker strive to make better liquor throughout the film.

Moreover, liquor is used to fight at the end of the film. The results of use of liquor in all activities are catastrophic. The liquor destroys almost everyone. Furthermore, liquor is pictured as a substance capable of controlling a community, and leading some people to their eventual destruction. This illustration of liquor in the film is enhanced by the red colour of the concoction.

Moreover, the drink is christened “Red sorghum”. This indicates that the film his primarily focused on the effect of the liquor to the people around the narrator’s grandfather. Sorghum is a natural occurrence, so the film is a contest between man and the coercive forces of nature.

People fall victims to herbs such as sorghum. The interaction between man and nature is pictured as that which does not recognize the importance or the superiority of man.

Although t he film has a significant feature of reality, some of the scenes are fictional, and are meant to dramatize since a film is a work of art. For example, the act of urinating into liquor to be consumed by humans, which supposedly makes the liquor better than the one free of urine is not a scientifically acceptable procedure, but may enrich a work of art as seen in this film.

For a keen observer, sorghum, a naturally occurring and common plant, shapes the destiny of the people in the film. It appears in the beginning of the film when the bridal party is moving across a field. In that setting, the attacker appears and alters the expected sequence of events.

Dramatic comedy is a major feature of the film. However, the gravity of events in the film qualifies to be a total tragedy when viewed from a realistic perspective.

The video is filled with shifting events. At one moment, the bride is being escorted to her marriage against her will, in a quick turn of events, the bride is on the verge of salvation by an unknown savior, and finally the bride is back on the course of the predetermined path to marriage.

There is a considerable level of suspense in the beginning of the film due to anxiety over the fate of Jiu’er. In addition, the anonymity of the attacker of the bridal party adds to the suspense and mystery of nature.

A sense of helplessness in the face of destiny and nature is illustrated to a significant extent in this film. A lone attacker subdues the men carrying the sedan despite their muscular physique. The turn of events outwits their physical strength even in their numbers.

Moreover, the bride seems helpless as she wishfully watches the progress of the confrontation between the attacker and the bridal procession. She cannot do anything to change the final course of events, but has to watch and be content with the results of the confrontation. Throughout the film, human beings are pictured as creatures that are subject to manipulation of the will of nature.

Disappointment is observed throughout the film. first, the bride is disappointed by the failure of the first attacker to save her from the bridal procession.

Furthermore, when the bride is attacked on her way from her parents house three days later, the attacker turns out to be the very person who led the bridal procession to her unhappy marriage.

The pair now engages in illegitimate sex in a depiction of a radical kind of social liberalism in a society where such an act on consensual terms is lowly regarded. This scene also happens in a sorghum field, enhancing its domination of events in the film (Wang 64).

At the love scene the sorghum field seems to sanctify the acts of the two lovers by hiding them from any interference from an intruder. This contrasts with the tradition of the community where both lovers come from.

The rigidity of the norms in the particular society, such as the ability of parents to arrange a forceful marriage of their daughter contrasts with the sexual engagement by the two lovers. Their sexual contact seems obviously illegitimate, but the veil provided by the sorghum is indifferent of the customs of the society (Wang 65).

Later, the lover from the field of sorghum reappears at Jiu’er’s premises as a sign of the separation caused by their abandonment of the veil of sorghum. The drunken man urinates in wine, an act intended to be a sexual gesture since the contaminated wine turns better than the wine free of urine.

This way, Jiu’er and her lover are back together, united by wine made from sorghum. Once again, sorghum plays a cardinal role in the relationship between Jiu’er and her lover. Furthermore, the sorghum consolidates a seemingly illegitimate affair and sets progress in the aftermath of death of the leper who is supposedly the legitimate husband to Jiu’er. A carnival mood is brought at all scenes by sorghum wine.

This is reinforced by urination into the wine. Moreover, these actions and effects of the wine illustrate the non-conformity adopted by the people close to Jiu’er. Sorghum and wine signify an extremely liberal society, given the role of wine in the scenes of the movie.

At the end of the film, death seems to dominate the scene. It begins with skinning of people, and the cruel acts of the Japanese military. Later, Jiu’er also dies in a scene dominated by use of sorghum liquor. Ultimately, sorghum liquor plays the principle role in the death of many people.

Death assumes supremacy after the fateful interaction between human beings, sorghum and the sorghum liquor. Since death is a fate common to all human beings and life on earth, the scene at the end of the film illustrates the indifference of nature to human being’s efforts and actions. Circumstances presented by nature make people kill each other until only a few are remaining.

The pattern that is exhibited by the used of labor during the bridal party’s procession through the sorghum field is an illustration of the labor issues in the region of setting of the film at the particular time it was produced. Distillery workers paint another picture of the working order that was used in that period. Near the end of the film, the actions of Japanese forces explicitly illustrate the labor issue.

People are forced to clear the sorghum fields (Liu & Tang 2006). Considering the independence of the events in the film, the influence of cultural and imperial practices on the order in provision of labor can be seen in the film. This aspect of the movie deviates from the primary picture painted by the movie were most of the scenes depict an abandonment of the tradition.

This unique aspect shows a significant level of conformity to the social and political order in the film. The time of the setting of the film is before the communist and the socialist labor systems. However, due to the influence of the communist rule and labor system, the writer of the script fails to realize this and illustrates use of collective labor. This practice is primarily consistent with communist ideologies (Liu & Tang 189).

On the other hand, many of the features of the film are a depiction of the deviation from reality. For a young woman in the setting of early twentieth century, it is unimaginable that a woman like the character Jiu’er could have such independent thinking. In the first place, she does not want to be married to the person who her parents have designated as her husband.

Secondly, the woman continues to engage in activities that are otherwise illicit in the Chinese society at the time. Furthermore, when people embrace the idea of taking wine in which someone has already urinated in, the ideal picture of hygiene twisted. It now seems normal to urinate into wine for the present society around the main character (Cooney 9).

Although the writer of the script presents an overly sad story, he succeeds in outlining the relationship between nature and the human being. This relationship is a strenuous one where the human being has no control over what nature presents. In addition, imagery is used where sorghum is meant to represent nature. Throughout the film, sorghum or sorghum liquor is a part of the scene.

Works Cited

Chien, Chieng, and Rey Chih. “Red Sorghum: image as a Mediator Between Humans and Nature.” Asian Journal of Management and Human Services 2. January (2007): 74-88. Print.

Cooney, Partrick. “Hong gao liang (Red Sorghum) (1988).” Vernon Johns. Version 1. Verno Johns, 1 Jan. 2003. Web. <>.

Halvorson, Sara. “Setting a Passion Free in a Restrained Society.” Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum 4. December (2005): 1-10. Print.

Liu, Kang, and Xiaobing Tang. Politics, ideology, and literary discourse in modern China: theorectical interventions and cultural critique. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993. Print.

Wang, Yeujin. “Mixing Memory and Desire: Red Sorghum.” East Asian Languages an CiviliZations 1. February (1992): 62-85. Print.

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