Zhang Yimou, Red Sorghum, 1987.
I watched 红高粱 Red Sorghum last night for like the 15th time since my parents took me to see its modest opening in a L.A. Chinatown theater in 1987. It was Zhang Yimou’s first film and still probably my favorite of all his dazzling works, based on the novel by this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature Mo Yan. It was also Gong Li’s screen debut, in a mesmerizing, utterly convincing performance as a radiant strong-willed peasant girl who is sold into marriage with an old leper and winds up taking over his sorghum distillery, in the midst of the brutal, bloody Japanese invasion of China. The story bounces with ease between folkloric drama, comedy, adventure, and of course tragedy, as Chinese stories often do, in the manner of Beijing opera. Zhang Yimou went on to produce a slew of stylized big-budget masterpieces, but in my opinion it doesn’t get any better than his small-budget debut.