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Red Sorghum flawed despite striking imagery and cinematography

Tearsheets: John Rich, Coolidge Corner Moviehouse, 290 Harvard St., Brookline, MA

Suggested headline:

HONG GAO LIANG

(RED SORGHUM)

Directed by Zhang Yimou.

Written by Chen Jianyu,

Zhu Wei, and Mo Yan.

Based on an original story by Mo Yan.

Starring Gong Li, Jian Wen,

Liu Ji, and Teng Ru-Jan.

Now playing at the Coolidge Corner.

By MANAVENDRA K. THAKUR

WHILE MANY OF THE CHINESE films shown in the United States have demonstrated much promise, most of them have been plagued by structural, acting, or narrative flaws. So when the 1988 New York Film Festival premieres Hong Gao Liang ("Red Sorghum") on its prestigious closing night and Donald Ritchie compares it to Kurosawa's Rashomon, one cannot help but assume that the seminal Chinese film has finally arrived. Hong Gao Liang is not that film, however. Its breathtaking color cinematography cannot mask the reality that this film is as plagued by structural shortcomings as its cinematic brethren.

The film begins with a young woman nicknamed Nine (Gong Li) being carried in a sedan chair through some sorghum fields. She is about to be married to a winery-owning old leper in exchange for a mule. Abruptly, a masked bandit drags Nine out of the sedan chair and is about to rape her when one of her bald-headed porters (Jiang Wen) attacks and kills the bandit. When Nine returns to her parents' home after being married, she passes the same sorghum fields, and this time it is the bald-headed man who masks his head and abducts her. She does not resist, and he rapes her after flattening a small clearing in the sorghum.

Mysteriously, the old leper has died when Nine returns to the winery. No one knows whether someone killed the leper, but the bald-headed man (who is referred to as "Grandfather" by the unseen male narrator) returns, drunkenly boasts of his sexual exploits with Nine, and otherwise makes a nuisance of himself. Amusingly, when he urinates into a vat of luscious red wine (made from the sorghum, a green-colored plant that resembles corn), the kind-hearted foreman Luohan (Teng Ru-Jun) discovers that the wine tastes the best it ever has.

The film is at its best in these moments. Not only do the narrative and actors stay close to the earth, but the wine -- and much of the other imagery -- has a rich, reddish color that immediately gives the film a life-blood vitality. These images are bold, rich, and striking, and one virtually can get intoxicated from them, feeling a closeness to the winery servants as well as the earth itself as the men at the winery go about their tasks and sing prayers in praise of their wine.

Unfortunately, the film jumps ahead nine years and swiftly degenerates into propaganda. It turns out that the whole film has been taking place in the 1920s and 1930s, and the Japanese are about to invade. There is an utterly predictable Chinese uprising, and the ensuing conflict provides plenty of savagery. Blood flows as freely as the red wine once did as the film winds to its violent conclusion, which does little to raise the film out of the hole it has dug for itself.

Thirty-seven-year-old Zhang Yimou, who makes his directorial debut with this film, belongs to the Fifth Generation of filmmakers, members of the first class to graduate from Chinese film schools after the Cultural Revolution. He originally studied as a cinematographer, and he shot several recent Chinese feature films, most notably Yellow Earth and The Big Parade.

His experience as a cinematographer is abundantly apparent in Hong Gao Liang, especially when the film links the wine to blood-red imagery and vice versa. No one has captured the color red and all its denotations this strikingly since Ingmar Bergman and Sven Nykvist shot Cries and Whispers in 1972. Undeniably, Yimou and his cinematographer, Gu Changwei, have created a color scheme to match Bergman's and Nykvist's classic.

But Yimou's film is unable to resolve nagging doubts about the artistic freedom available to filmmakers in China. Approval and oversight by government officials is still a fact of life in China, and one wonders if the Fifth Generation will have to pass the torch to a younger Sixth Generation -- now making its way through film schools and taking cues from Hitchcock and Spielberg rather than the classical masters -- before the seminal Chinese film can be made. One can only wait, and hope.