Red Sorghum (film)

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Red Sorghum
Red Sorghum movie poster.jpg
Chinese movie poster
Traditional 高粱
Simplified 高粱
Mandarin Hóng gāoliáng
Literally red sorghum
Directed by Zhang Yimou
Produced by Wu Tianming
Written by Chen Jianyu
Zhu Wei
Novel: Mo Yan
Starring Gong Li
Jiang Wen
Teng Rujun
Music by Zhao Jiping
Cinematography Gu Changwei
Xi'an Film Studio
Release dates
  • 1987 (1987)
Running time
95 minutes
Country China
Language Mandarin

Red Sorghum is a 1987 Chinese film about a young woman's life working on a distillery for sorghum liquor. It is based on the novel Red Sorghum Clan by Nobel laureate Mo Yan.

The film marked the directorial debut of internationally acclaimed filmmaker Zhang Yimou, and the acting debut of film star Gong Li. With its lush and lusty portrayal of peasant life, it immediately vaulted Zhang to the forefront of the Fifth Generation directors. The film won the Golden Bear Award at Berlin Film Festival.


The film takes place in a rural village in China's eastern province of Shandong during the Second Sino-Japanese War. It is narrated from the point of view of the protagonist’s grandson, who reminisces about his grandmother, Jiu'er (S: 九儿, T: 九兒, P: Jiǔ'ér). She was a poor girl who was sent by her parents into a pre-arranged marriage with an old man, Li Datou, who owns a distillery.

As Jiu'er's wedding party crosses a field of sorghum, they are attacked by a bandit; however, one of the men hired to carry Jiu'er's sedan chair manages to fight off the assailant. After Jiu'er safely reaches the distillery, her rescuer disappears, only to return on Jiu'er's trip back to her parents' village. He jumps out of the sorghum field, and after chasing down Jiu'er, carries her off into the sorghum stalks, where he rapes her.

At the distillery, it is discovered that Li Datou has died of mysterious causes, leading many of the distillery's workers to suspect murder. Nothing is proven, however, and since Jiu'er's late husband was without heir, it is she who takes ownership of the distillery, which has recently fallen on hard times. She inspires the workers to take new pride in their wine, and once again meets her rescuer. He arrives, drunk, and tries to claim her, loudly insisting to the group of men accompanying him that he is going to share her bed. When he enters the bedroom, however, she angrily tosses him out. The other men on the scene carry him away, sticking him in a vat of liquor where he remains for the next three days. Meanwhile, a group of bandits kidnap Jiu'er, forcing the distillery workers to pay a ransom for her freedom.

Jiu'er's rescuer finally emerges from his liquor vat and returns to the distillery, where the workers are making the first batch of liquor since Li Datou's sudden death. The man takes four vats of the liquor and urinates in them as a prank to take revenge against Jiu'er, but, to his surprise, the urine somehow makes the liquor taste better than ever. Its product newly improved, the distillery begins to see financial success.

The War begins and Imperial Japanese Army troops invade the area. The Japanese soldiers then torture and kill Jiu'er's friend Luohan, a respected distillery worker. Jiu'er incites the workers to avenge his death. In the early dawn, they hide themselves in the sorghum field, prepared to ambush the Japanese military vehicles the moment they pass by. While waiting, however, the workers become distracted by hunger. When Jiu'er is informed of this by her young child (the narrator's father), she brings out some lunch for the workers. Arriving just as the Japanese soldiers do, Jiu'er is shot and killed in the chaotic skirmish that ensues, and the explosive traps meant for the Japanese trucks end up killing almost everyone at the scene. Only Jiu'er's rescuer and the pair's young child manage to survive the encounter.



Like Zhang's later film, The Road Home (1999), Red Sorghum is narrated by the main characters' grandson, but Red Sorghum lacks the flashback framing device of The Road Home (the viewer never sees the narrator).

The cinematography by cinematographer Gu Changwei makes use of rich, intense colors. Zhang himself was a cinematographer prior to his directorial debut, and worked closely with Gu.


Upon its release, Red Sorghum garnered international acclaim, most notably winning the coveted Golden Bear at the 1988 Berlin International Film Festival.

Roger Ebert said, in his review and synopsis in Chicago Sun-Times, "There is a strength in the simplicity of this story, in the almost fairy-tale quality of its images and the shocking suddenness of its violence, that Hollywood in its sophistication has lost."[1]



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Further reading[edit]


  1. ^ Ebert, Roger (February 28, 1989). "Red Sorghum". Chicago Sun-Times. 
  2. ^ "Berlinale: 1988 Prize Winners". Retrieved 2011-03-06. 
  3. ^ "100 Best Chinese Mainland Films". Time Out. Retrieved 14 March 2016. 

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