Military Ingenuity …. how to grow red sorghum?

…or HOW DIRECTOR ZHANG YIMOU DODGED A BULLET

The film that “made” Zhang Yimou a household name (as would again the Olympics in 2008) was shot in 1987, named “Red Sorghum”, rewritten from a memoire about the insanities of the Japanese occupation, 1937-45, by a magically subtle writer self-named “Shut Up” (Mo Yan). Tais-toi because he achieved his first success as an on-demand “love our soldiers” writer for the Air Force wing of the People’s Liberation Army. Speaking out of turn has more or less the same consequences in any military. He took the name privately, so he would remember to hold his tongue.

Mo Yan’s novella bearing that name is actually an English-language condensation of a series called “The Red Sorghum Lineage” (红高粱家族), in five parts. Sadly only the one bearing the above name has been translated. The parts about meta-chaos – highlighted by the self-recruitment of even the dogs into rival militia, Green and Red – they are not in this particular segment.

No matter. The “where” was a problem from the start, without worrying about dog training. The setscape was meant to be surreal: if it does (and I think it does) that is because the Ningxia SiniCity – a lot carved out of a dilipidated chunk of the Great Wall, where most of the filming was done – incorporates a crumbled down fortress gate equivalent to a Chinese Stonehenge: a ruin whose original purpose is a mystery, whence its fascination.

So the fantasy-scape came in a box.

Ironically, the veriscape proved much tougher – an hurdle that again could not have been cleared without State and Soldier in support.

Mo Yan, the writer, tells us (elsewhere) that the events he re-narrates occurred -more or less – in a real and on-the-map location: Gaomi county in southeast Shandong. In the time of the tale (ca 1940), the county actually DID concentrate its crops on sorghum – something to do with the soil. But those days were long past. In fact there was no sorghum growing anywhere near by the time the film was conceived. Not just Red sorghum, but yellow or khaki or even green.

What to do? First came the seeding of Sears catalogue “anywhere” sorghum. A hefty sum was paid out to induce nearby peasant-farmers to plant them. But the money went out in vain: no crop appeared. Farmers are no fools, still less in China where cash income from cash crops is all that keeps them from being flung into the migrant labor huts of the labor hungry cities.

Anyway: learn by experiment sez Chairman Mao, so the PLA next shipped in truckfulls of potted sorghum stalks and simply levered them into the ground. Lots of water and fertilizer. Then once they had got high as an elephant’s eye, applying a thin layer of spray red dye to change the color here and there.

But there was still the problem of how to make sure the now firmly emplaced stalks blew or danced just so, showing a flow of cosmic wind that could not be “heard”, was spooky, anchored the story or rather fantasy.

The first solution was to dispatch a PLA helicopter (AF ties helped) to overfly the set when the rustling leafs were needed as backing. But of course the takes had to be retaken and retaken and… so the helicopter went back to base for keeps after several days of… well.

The next was a bit closer to the mark: an array of household-use conventional electric fans was laid out, to be switched on when blow-time came again. But then yet another problem: the power grid was a nightmare of unpredictability. The fans began to whir when the stalks were supposed to be still: when they needed to swoosh, the whirring always seemed to stop. Clearly the spooks who (as the novella narrates) inhabited these very weird groves didn’t want the film made.

Well: as Zhang Yimou is said to have remarked about his Olympics pageant, the one thing China has in plenty is people (soldiers in particular, with little else to do). So the fans stayed, but the power came from hand-cranked generators. Labor gratis.

Maybe in Spain or Morocco, but certainly not in our undersoldiered Republic, where soldiers seem always to have too much to do.

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