Zhang Yimou's debut Red Sorghum, adapted from a Mo Yan novel, retains the simplicity and economy - not to mention the mystery - of a fable. Our narrator informs us this is the story of how his grandparents met: the beautiful peasant girl who was to be his grandmother (Gong Li, radiant in the days before she became one of world cinema's luxury items) is all set to be married off to a rich leper known as Big Head Li - not exactly a catch, then - when the wedding party carrying her to her destiny is attacked by bandits. The bullhead attendant identified as the narrator's grandfather (Jiang Wen) fends them off, but finds he has his ham-like hands full when everyone gets to the vineyard where Ol' Big Head lives, and the fight for his beloved's heart only increases in scale. So much of it is set out in the fields and tied up with notions of blood and soil that Red Sorghum is open to complex political and metaphorical readings (most obviously of the "reap what ye sow" variety), but Zhang is careful to cultivate the possibility it merely is what we're told it is: a love story of uncommon physicality (there's a lot of trampling down crops, whether to create bedding or battlegrounds), set out in increasingly fiery earthen tones.
The fascination with the workers' lusty songs and rituals (peeing in the wine to give it its tang) suggests something else, however: that this folktale was Yan and Zhang's attempt to do what Alan Lomax had done for those working in the American cotton fields, namely to record for all time a way of life experienced by many of their generation's grandparents, which was at risk of being forgotten as those elders died out. This mix of the personal and the historical won the film the Golden Bear at Berlin in 1988, sparking a renewed interest in the West for Chinese cinema - the ornate, gilded New Wave that would eventually give life to Zhang's Raise the Red Lantern and Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine - and later an epic 21st century TV series that reportedly filled in the evident gaps in the narrator's account. Yet it's precisely those lacunae - the fadeouts between the extraordinary images Zhang boils this narrative down to - which make this telling stay with you: the whole film really does feel like a memory, as vividly imprinted in some places as it is ragged in others.
Red Sorghum is available on DVD through Drakes Avenue Pictures.