Still from 'In the Mood for Love'

Still from 'Red Sorghum'

A look at Zhang Yimou's 'Red Sorghum' and Wong Kar-Wai's 'In the Mood for Love'
Zhang Yimou’s debut feature 'Red Sorghum' is a red, blood-stained canvas depicting the rise and fall of a rural village community in eastern China during the Second-Sino Japanese war. It has commonly been marked as the final film of the Fifth Generation of cinema in China. It is narrated by the grandson of the female protagonist Jiu’er, telling an at times beautiful, at times tragic, but perpetually captivating story of her journey, beginning from her pre-arranged marriage with an old leper. Wong Kar-Wai's 'In the Mood for Love' presents us with a moody portrait of a neighbouring man and woman, both married whom develop feelings for each other. Their respective spouses are entangled in affairs with each other which raises ethical and societal concerns with their growing relationship. The picture is deliberately nebulous, ambiguous in the sense that the more intricate details of the neighbours’ affair are left up to interpretation due to a lack of explanation; instead, we are taken through the murky urban, emotional waters of 1960’s Hong Kong. These two pictures are in many ways polar opposites to each other; 'Red Sorghum' clearly presents socio-political issues and the horrors that took place during the Sino-Japanese war, and 'In the Mood for Love' raises more nuanced ethical and societal pressures, catalysed by an overtly confusing and urban Hong Kong climate. Despite their differences, there are still overlaps nonetheless; uprooting/questioning of traditional values, cinematographic presentation, and colour palette to convey deep emotion are among the many.
“Women have a tougher role in Chinese society, complex characters make good stories.”
Zhang Yimou
'Red Sorghum' is set during the Second Sino-Japanese war; In the Mood for Love takes place in 1962 British Hong Kong Kong. Both filmic works contain strong, determined female protagonists that carry forth feminist dialogue and transformative thematic spearheads. Catherine Collins covering Zhang's filmography comments that “because these films deal with women’s oppression, they inevitably rely on strong female characters, who question and subvert the system from the margins.”[1] The upheaval of long held traditional values is effectively achieved via these strong female protagonists. At the forefront of 'Red Sorghum', Zhang deals directly with the lingering oppressive societal methods of living that prospered in rural communities; the film opens with a slow fade up on the face of Jiu’er, sitting in a bridal palanquin as part of her pre-arranged wedding party. She peers out at the bearer of the bridal palanquin, a subtle but noticeable symbol of desire under the shackles of pre-arranged marriage. Lara Vanderstaay on her essay on the influence of directorial gender on the representation of women in contemporary Chinese cinema comments on this by suggesting that Zhang “focuses on using scopophilia to portray Jiu’er’s sexuality.”[2] Furthering this thought, Zhang’s female protagonists across all of his films often are clearheaded and determined, despite the various sexually oppressive climates that surround them: 'Raise the Red Lantern', 'The Road Home', 'The Story of Qiu Ju', 'To Live', 'Ju Dou' amongst others stand as examples.
The filmography of Wong Kar-Wai, on the other hand, is more ambiguous and pensive. Female sexual desire is expressed explicitly in In the Mood for Love through music, mood, and movement. Often moments of the film are teeming with sexual tension that arise from unspoken sexual desire. Despite an overwhelming sense of desire, the female protagonist (and her male counterpart) abstains from consummation. Such a decision elucidates the strong-willed nature of the character, that despite the heartache of an unfaithful partner, she refuses to stoop to their level. At one moment she exclaims: “We will never be like them!”
Using the everyday to expose particular political and societal problems.
What stands out in these directors’ respective works is their use of the mundane, or rather the everyday (day to day work, conversations in bars, gossip within the community etc.) to expose their respective central themes. In Red Sorghum the second act focuses on the community, the conversations, the laughter, the life, which acts as juxtaposition to the tragic final act where Japanese soldiers come and commit atrocities to the community we have just witnessed flourishing, where all aforementioned instances of communal life are sapped of their energy. The blood, and the red at this point fully takes over. The village butcher stands as a separate example of this idea that everyday tasks are used as a method of exposition; as the narrator’s grandfather travels to the nearby village to confront Sanpao, the butcher is a focus. We witness him hack away at the corpse of a cow, a regular activity as he prepares it for consumption. This is a direct parallel with the activity of which he has to partake in in the latter part of the picture (he is asked to skin Sanpao alive). Wong Kar-Wai on the other hand approaches this idea of exposition through the everyday with an air of subtlety and ambiguity rather than juxtaposition. When watching In the Mood for Love nothing is startlingly clear. Normal conversations are shrouded in colour, props, and external characters. Unexpressed desire, longing, a deep sadness in a sense manifest itself in the everyday form; this could be Maggie Cheung’s character Su Li-zhen, perpetually swirling a cup of tea, Tony Leung Chiu-wai’s character Chow Mo-Wan lighting and dragging on a cigarette. Such minute details stack on each other over the span of the film, leaving the viewer subconsciously lulled into a trance like state. Emotion, the moodiness of the film grows with every shot.
The consumption of food and drink at the heart of both pictures.
With Wong’s 'In the Mood for Love', the feelings of isolation, loneliness and longing are amplified when in conjunction with the consumption of food. Rey Chow in her essay “Sentimental Returns: On the Uses of the Everyday in the Recent Films of Zhang Yimou and Wong Kar-Wai” comments specifically on the use of food in Wong’s cinema: “the routine of meals, is rather a sign of ennui and forlornness.”[3] Despite this forlornness, culinary climate of 1960’s Hong Kong acts as an opportunity for the two lonely individuals to come in contact with each other more often, and bond. Although the consumption of food is isolating, it acts as the glue that holds the film’s plot together in one sense. Wong himself commented during an interview for IndieWire that “at first, we called the film ‘a story about food.’ [It’s about] two people, neighbours, who are buying noodles all the time”[4] Food acts as an intimacy that they dare not share physically for ethically and societally spurred reasons.
Food and more distinctly drink also harbour a great importance in 'Red Sorghum'. Zhang Yimou presents their consumption as a communal act. When the red sorghum wine is produced, the workers and Jiu’er all together drink and bond. The communal and shared aspect of consumption again is used to highlight the horror that has occurred as Jiu’er sits waiting for the workers who will never be returning; Jiu’er pours out wine into multiple bowls, lays chopsticks down, meat, bread, a whole feast, and gently sits behind the table, waiting; a last supper tragically deprived of guests (see figure 1 and 2). Prior to this the sorghum wine is consumed in an effort to conjure a morale, an anti-Japanese togetherness in the darkness and oppression they find themselves subjected to.

Figure 1

Figure 2

Colour as a spearhead through their respective filmographies.
“In the Mood for Love is like a dance, a waltz between these two characters”
Wong Kar-Wai
The significance of colour in these respective filmographies is paramount. The significance in 'Red Sorghum' no doubt being startlingly obvious. Both films share a canvas soaked in a deep red; Red in 'Red Sorghum' takes multiple forms: the sorghum wine itself, the red dress Jiu’er wears on her wedding day that cuts into the green of the sorghum fields, the deep wash of red over Jiu’er in the opening shot as she sits inside her palanquin and the ominous red sun that looms over the tragedy. Red is life, death, oppression, and desire all in one. It marks a China lost and a China found. Critics toil over whether the final shot is an allusion to the Japanese rising sun. The red in 'In the Mood for Love' reinforces the unexpressed desire that builds throughout. Red is found all over: the seductive dresses of Su Li-zhen, the hallways, the draperies; the mise-en-scène is infested with desire. There are moments of green wash that accentuates moments of melancholy, but moments such as these are used sparingly.
Separated by region, by theme, by overall atmosphere and sentiment, the respective films of Zhang Yimou and Wong Kar-Wai feel startlingly similar in specific sections of their crafts. They share a presentation of China as a deeply nuanced and at times troubled place for society to thrive and truly be happy; from the Sino-Japanese war to the urban alleyways and backdoors of 1960’s Hong Kong, these directors question what it means to be Chinese in these climates, and that deep down, at the heart, amongst the isolation and fear, the horror and sorrow, there is hope.

[1] Catherine Collins and Patricia Varas.“Communication and culture: China and the world entering the 21st century.” Amsterdam: Rodopi. 1998, 266
[2] Vanderstaay, Lara. “A Case Study of the Influence of Directorial Gender on the Representation of Female Sexuality in Four Contemporary Chinese Films.” Asia Examined, 2011.
[3] Chow, Rey. “Sentimental Returns: On the Uses of the Everyday in the Recent Films of Zhang Yimou and Wong Kar-Wai.” New Literary History 33, no. 4 (2002): 10
[4] Kaufman, Anthony. “Decade: Wong Kar-wai on “In The Mood For Love” Indie Wire (2009).