"The Red Awn": Red Harvest: Son Reaps What Father Sows By Harri Römpötti

in 12nd Pusan sieh Busan - der frühere Name ist Pusan

by Harri Römpötti

Do you know what an awn is? Few English speakers seem to know. But it is a “slender bristle like organ usually at the apex of a plant structure”. The rather baffling English title was the only weak point of Cai Shangjun’s The Red Awn (Hongse Kangbeiyin). The original Chinese title refers to the red combine harvester that plays a central role in the story. It is a kind of a road movie about a father and son who travel around for hire to harvest wheat with a friend’s harvester.

The father, middle-aged Song Hai (Yao Anlian), returns to his small home town to find his wife has passed away and his son, Yongtao (Lu Yukai), blaming him for abandoning the family for five years. Yongtao is angry enough to have proclaimed his father officially dead. With a delicate truce rather than reconciliation they take to the road. An almost painfully moving generational relationship is told with a sharp sense, without falling into the traps of sentimentality or melodrama. Instead of a Hollywood ending, The Red Awn gives a rather pessimistic view of sons following in their fathers’ footsteps repeating the same mistakes. They start blaming their elders — even though the pair does reach some new mutual understanding.

The movie offers a fine insight into both the main characters’ inner motivations. Their personal tragedies become easy to understand although that doesn’t necessarily make these people much easier to forgive. That is quite a rare achievement in portraying characters in any medium. Even just portraying the relationship between father and son would have made The Red Awn a strong film. But it is rooted in a social context. Many Chinese films deal with the social changes the gigantic country is going through, and do it well. But The Red Awn keeps it up its sleeve, as a subtle undercurrent.

The father originally left to find his fortune in the city. That’s of course what uncountable numbers of Chinese do nowadays. And like Song Hai, many of them get disappointed, even crushed. The Red Awn shows some of the consequences of that disillusionment instead of the processes of social change. It could perhaps be called the sequel to the sort to urban dramas and tragedies of today’s China.

Cai Shangjuan is a first time director but not a newcomer in cinema. He has written scripts for Zhang Yang’s Shower (Xizao) and Sunflower (Xiang ri kui). His directorial debut is also technically superb. The impressive cinematography captures the red harvester against endless yellow fields. The Red Awn alsogives one of the cinema’s finest descriptions of work, the heavy labor of traditional toilers of the earth. Images and scenes of wandering in search of employment bring to mind John Ford’s classic The Grapes of Wrath.

In Chinese cinema The Red Awn belongs to the tradition of Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth (Huang tu di, 1984)) or Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum (Hong gao liang, 1987). But the changes in Chinese cinema reflect the changes in the country. For example, the opening film of the Pusan festival, Feng Xiaogang’s militaristic blockbuster Assembly, showed that a commercial film industry exists in China too. China has the biggest population but is only the third biggest film market in Asia. It has 50 times fewer screens per capita compared to United States, according to a “Variety” report. However the Chinese film market is growing by 30 percent per year.

Lately, despite censorship restrictions, China seems to have produced also the most interesting films in Asia, since the quality of South Korean cinema seems to be on the decline — apart from noteworthy exceptions such as Kim Ki-duk. If commercialism is the way of the future for Chinese cinema, films like The Red Awn may become rare. It could be that capitalism is more dangerous to the art of cinema than communism which, at least, offered many of its filmmakers something worthy to say.