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Artistic Color Usage in Zhang Yimou’s Films Essay

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Updated: May 6th, 2020

Introduction: Significance of Colors in Movies

Traditionally, action in a movie is what captures the audience’s attention. People need to relate to the characters and their emotions; as a result, it is what happens to the characters that takes most of people’s attention, whereas the elements that are used to create the atmosphere of the movie usually fade into the background. However, colors as one of the elements that help create a specific atmosphere in a movie and set the mood for the motion picture in question are not to be disregarded, either.

In a range of cases colors provide not only the background for the main action to occur in, but also additional information that reinforces the original message, making it more appealing and convincing for the viewer. Red Sorghum and Raise the Red Lantern by Zhang Yimou are prime examples of the use of color as a way of helping the viewer explore the emotional struggle of the main characters, as well as the overall theme of the movie in a more accurate manner and, therefore, understand the implications behind the characters’ actions better.

Although the red color in Red Sorghum and Raise the Red Lantern seems to be the representation of loyalty as it is viewed traditionally in the chine culture, the color also conveys a range of hidden innuendoes by using the symbolism borrowed from the western cultures, i.e., the idea of revolution, the feeling of confusion and even one’s sensual revival.

Zhang Yimou: Red Color through the Lens of the Chinese Culture

When it comes to denoting the role of the red color as a symbolic element in Red Sorghum and in Raise the Red Lantern, one must admit that the interpretation of the red color traditionally accepted in the Chinese culture deserves to be mentioned.

Since the movie is packed tightly with symbolism and references to the cultural specifics of China, the presence of the red color can be viewed from the perspective of the Chinese culture. According to the latter, red is typically viewed as the color of honor; red face is traditionally considered to be the manifestation of courage and determination, in contrast to a common idea of red face in western cultures as the expression of shame.

It should be noted, though, that Zhang Yimou’s movies are far too complex for their innuendoes to be unlocked with an explanation as simple as the one provided above. To be more exact, the red elements used in the movie, i.e., reddish backgrounds, red elements in the characters’ clothes, red objects, etc., are supposed to signify several ideas at the same time.

For instance, the political subtext of some of the elements in the movies by Zhang Yimou deserves to be mentioned: “Some commentators linked the red setting sun at the end of the Red Sorghum to a Japanese national flag” (Gateward 151). Indeed, the backgrounds of the movie, in which the action takes place, are saturated with the color red immensely.

However, the message that the movie director is trying to convey is never on-the-nose; quite on the contrary, a quick shift between the symbols used in the film keeps the audience guessing about the author’s actual intentions.

Color Use in Red Sorghum: Analysis

Apart from representing the revolutionary moods among the characters and the courage thereof in their desperate fight for justice, the red color in the movie in question also represents sexuality and, therefore, renders the corresponding experiences of the characters. However, much like the rest of the movie, the experience in question turns out to be bitter and leave Jiu’er in pain. Therefore, the red color is supposed to represent the peril, which the exposure to the new environment and, therefore, increased vulnerability presupposes.

For instance, the red color is very symbolic in the scene, where Jiu’er and a stranger have a sexual intercourse: “Do not look back or I will shoot” (Red Sorghum 00:10:57). The color also displays the pain and suffering, which the characters need to go through in order to gain their redemption: as the lead character’s father engages in a major bloodshed, he recalls that “everything was red in his eyes” (Red Sorghum 01:21:52).

Thus, the color red symbolizes the passion of the key characters. Jiu’er herself is dressed in red for the most part; the innocence and openness, which she embodies, therefore, allow suggesting that the red color is also used in order to put a stronger emphasis on her passion for life in general, portraying her as young and inexperienced, yet emotional and ready to experience what life has to offer: “As Zhang Yimou once said, ‘We Chinese have been too moderate, too reserved… the boundless red of sorghum fields arouses sensory excitement… it encourages unrestrained lust for life’” (Gateward 151).

Color Use in Raise the Red Lantern: Analysis

Much like the Red Sorghum, where the red color is obviously referred to as a symbol for sexual experiences and sensuality, Raise the Red Lantern also renders the subject matter by adding a tint of provocatively red color into the background and, therefore, creating a certain tension: “Some think the red lanterns in Raise the Red Lantern reveal the sexual dominance of the patriarchal despot” (Gateward 151).

Indeed, the issue of sexuality rendered in the movie is often accompanied by reddish backgrounds such as the scene, in which Songlian accepts her role as a wife of a rich man: “Let me be a concubine. Isn’t that the fate of a woman?” (Raise the Red Lantern 00:32:17).

The specified interpretation seems all the more engaging from the perspective of gender issues analysis with the fact that red lanterns also represent a sexuality related symbol in the Western culture. Particularly, the western interpretation of the term “a red lantern” traditionally means a brothel based on the “term red lights that brothels customarily burned in windows as a sign of their business” (Allen 178).

Despite the fact that the specified similarity between the Chinese and the English interpretation of the subject matter may be merely a coincidence, the irony of the latter makes the message of the movie all the more tragic. Although the link between the miserable state of the women, who work in brothels and the young Chinese woman, who is forced to marry an old man with no feelings for him whatsoever might seem a bit farfetched, the idea of viewing sexual relationships as a means to an end is still obvious in both situations.

Synthesis and Interpretations: Fifty Shades of Red

The red color, therefore, has no single meaning in either of Zhang Yimou’s movies; quite on the contrary, the meaning of the color, as well as the purpose of its use in the film, changes from one scene to another radically. While in some bits of the movies, the red color is identified as a positive symbol, i.e., the representation of honor, in other ones, it is labeled as negative (e.g., shame, dishonor, etc.). In other words, the use of the color seems to be not random, but, instead, situational.

Consequently, it can be assumed that the color is used to reflect the mood of the main characters and the movies in general. By choosing a specific shade of red, the director manages to get a variety of emotions of the lead characters; in other words, the primary role of the red color in the movies can be defined as creating an emotional link between the character and the viewer. As a result, the red color helps the audience relate to the characters portrayed in the motion pictures.

Conclusion: Red Color and Complex Symbolism

Despite the fact that the color red is traditionally interpreted in the Chinese culture as the symbol of honor, courage and the related virtues, in Zhang Yimou’s movies, namely, Raise the Red Lantern and Red Sorghum, red gains new shades of meaning, incorporating some of the traditional western culture related ideas, such as lust for life, passion and sensual experiences.

Making the overall movie experience all the more exciting, the addition of the specified innuendoes into the symbolism of the feature films serves as the link between the Chinese and the western cultures. The active use of the red color helps make the emotions of the lead characters more explicit and, therefore, help the audience relate to the people portrayed in both movies.

Works Cited

Allen, Lewis. The City in Slang: New York Life and Popular Speech. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, Incorporated, 1999. Print.

Gateward, Frances K. Zhang Yimou: Interviews. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2001. Print.

Raise the Red Lantern. Ex. Prod. Zhang Yimou. Beijing: Orion Classics, 1991. DVD.

Red Sorghum. Ex. Prod. Zhang Yimou. Beijing: Xi’an Film Studio, 1988. DVD.

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