Wine and Blood: Carnality and Brutality in Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum
by Shirley Pu
Red Sorghum (1987), famous Chinese director Zhang Yimou’s debut in that role, paints with a strong hand the landscape and people of 1920s rural China with its use of vibrant colors, sound, and imagery. The story is related through a frame narrative told by the narrator of his grandparents and their sorghum wine distillery. His grandmother, sold into marriage with an old rich leprous winemaker, first appears as an unwilling bride carried in a bright red sedan across the desert. When one of her carriers saves her from a bandit, however, she finds a way to subvert her fate and falls for him. This man, the eventual grandfather of the narrator, comes to help her run the distillery she inherits after the sudden death of the old winemaker. Their life making wine alongside the workers is portrayed as plain but joyful until the arrival of Japanese forces in the 1930s. The film then takes a turn for the gruesome, showing the atrocities of war through scenes of bloody carnage in the subjugation of the Chinese peasants and the eventual uprising of the distillery workers. The vitality of peasant life and the bloody violence of death are expressed with red sorghum and sorghum wine, whose brilliant reds and greens pervade the film. The conflation of these foodstuffs with the body emphasizes the unbreakable interlink between the agrarian peasants and the sorghum- as they live by it, so they die when it is destroyed.
The titular red sorghum delivers both life and death within the film. While it serves as the raw material for the sorghum wine made by the distillery, its fields grow along the edge of Qingshakou, or “Murderer’s Gulch” (Ng), and are rumored to be haunted. Indeed, the thick fields are ideal for concealment, whether of the bandits that attack Grandmother or the workers hiding for their ambush on the Japanese forces. The sorghum serves most literally as a life-giver through forming the bed where Douguan, the narrator’s father, is conceived. The sequence of Grandmother’s capture and rape within the sorghum field emphasizes the primal nature of the peasants. Grandfather’s pursuit of her is almost animalistic, his frenzy portrayed through the blur of body and field captured by the tracking camera. He utters no words throughout the scene, only grunts as he tramples down the tall stalks of sorghum into a rudimentary mat, where Grandmother lays down, her red outfit stark against the greenery- she, like the sorghum, has yielded to his fervor. The suona horn and drums that sound as Grandpa kneels before her lend the air of a mythical ritual to the joining of their bodies. A interchange of life takes place, between the crushed sorghum and the new sprouting seed of a child.
The trampling of the sorghum field again parallels submission through force in a dark scene near the end of the film. The Japanese soldiers drive the locals into the fields, the sound of the trampling of the stalks intermingling with the harsh barking of orders. The assertion by an officer that resistance is futile because they (the Japanese) have already destroyed the sorghum emphasizes how closely associated the people are to their crop- to destroy the sorghum is to break the people’s sprit. Later, a local butcher sits laughing in the field after being forced to skin a fellow peasant by the soldiers. The camera slowly pans from his blood-covered body to the vast amount of flattened sorghum as the narrator recites the sheer number of peasants forced into labor by the Japanese soldiers, the crushed stalks a visual metaphor for the broken bodies left by the occupation.
Wine lies at the heart of Red Sorghum as the literal lifeblood for its characters. In the case of Grandma, wine is encoded into her very self- her name, Jiu’er, which means “ninth child”, carries the same pronunciation as the word for wine, jiu. These homonyms carry over to the making of the wine, which takes place on the 9th day of the 9th month. Even the structure of the narrative follows this theme, as the invasion of the Japanese takes place nine years after the initial events of the story, when Douguan is nine. The relation between wine and the body is not just figurative but also explicitly physical. A drunken Grandfather, returning to the distillery, pees in the freshly made urns of wine. Surprisingly, this leads to the wine being the best it has ever been, supporting the association between the body and wine. The crude act, along with his subsequent shoveling of the sorghum after declaring he will “make wine” for Grandmother expresses the virility of Grandfather that transfixes Grandmother, who proceeds to carry her off into the bedroom (Ng).
Blood, wine, and the meat or flesh of the body are most closely associated in the last half of the film, especially in the final scene when the distillery workers lead a futile charge against the Japanese soldiers, ambushing their truck as it drives through the sorghum field. Earlier, during the first distillation after Grandmother has taken charge, the connection between body and wine is emphasized through the bareness of the workers, covered in ash and sweat from the heat of the process. Their extolling of the wine’s miraculous properties suggests the high regard in which they hold it, as they claim that it can cure over a hundred illnesses and, in a scene replete with red, scatter wine around the home to disinfect its leprosy. When the first batch of wine has been completed, the workers sing a song in praise of the wine god in return for granting them such a gift, proclaiming it can fortify a man to stand up to even the Emperor. This communal wine-drinking sees a solemn parallel the night before the assault on the Japanese, when the workers and the grandparents gather to honor the fallen foreman, who was skinned alive. In place of his body, they place a bowl of wine upon a table, and Grandmother tells Douguan to kneel before “uncle’s wine”. The wine he has made carries enough weight to represent him as a whole. Each worker then picks up a bowl of wine and sings again the song of wine, which this time acts as a dirge.
The next day, the peasants prepare their ambush on the forces in a collection of scenes abounding with wine. The plan itself holds wine as its center- they have buried urns underneath the soil of the road and plan to explode them when the Japanese trucks arrive. While the men lie in wait, Grandmother prepares a celebratory feast at the distillery. A long close-up montage of the wine being poured into bowls foreshadows the blood to be spilled. The wine’s brilliant red shade, created by the sunlight hitting the fluid, is a cinematographic touch repeated later with the spilling of the wine and blood on the battleground. Notable in the pouring montage is the splashing of the wine droplets onto the neighboring meat dishes, reinforcing the association of wine and blood (Figure 1). This omen of carnage is brought to life moments later, when Grandmother is shot down by soldiers on her way to deliver a lunch to the hungry men. The blood that blossoms on her shirt is the same color of the wine before, and a haunting close-up shows her limp body, the wine from a broken urn and her own blood mingling together and bubbling just like the poured wine (Figure 2). The men, enraged by her death, charge at the truck, lobbing urns full of flaming wine. This causes a huge explosion, the aftermath of which is panned over. Pools of red liquid lie on the ground, their nature purposely ambiguous. Meat, wine, and blood are intermingled in the carnage. The shot is framed on both sides by the green of the sorghum, witness to yet another scene of death. The lone survivors, Grandfather and Douguan, emerge against a red sky, the color of blood or wine, with Grandmother’s wine-soaked corpse lying at their feet. The wine has been spilled, the life-blood of the people has been lost, and there is nothing left now but charred and empty bodies.
The red grain of Red Sorghum interweaves itself into the story as deeply as it embeds itself in the lives of its characters. Zhang relentlessly drives in its significance by encoding as a symbol for the body and blood of the peasants through misé-en-scene details, color choices, and shot compilation. Whether they serve as the source for new life, a necessary for livelihood, or a harbinger of death, the fields of Red Sorghum carry heavy significance throughout the peasants’ lives. The wine they make acts like blood for them, even to the point of representing bodies, and when it is spilled, they have been defeated.
Ng, Yvonne. “Imagery and Sound in Red Sorghum.” Kinema. Accessed April 16th, 2017. http://www.kinema.uwaterloo.ca/article.php?id=354&feature