Yellow Earth was one of the most important films to appear in the 1980s, not just in China, but in the whole of global cinema. When it was released in the UK in 1986 it had an immediate impact and was recognised as one of the few films to be marked by a genuine attempt to create a ‘new’ kind of cinema. For the UK audience this was very much concerned with the cinematic qualities of the film – its use of colour, composition and framing and its use of sound to evoke an ‘unknown’ time and place. A similar response met Souleymane Cissé’s 1987 Malian film Yeelen which presented a different but related view of a sub-Saharan African culture. A further similarity between these two films is the background of their creative forces – filmmakers educated and trained in the context of European film culture, who then turn to their own traditional cultures to find stories to tell and an aesthetic through which to realise their vision.
All the Western scholars referenced here are agreed on the importance of the ‘auterist vision’ adopted by the trio of Beijing Film Academy graduates, director Chen Kaige, cinematographer Zhang Yimou and production designer He Qun. Where previous creative teams thought to realise Chinese films using a conventional mode of representation developed from the 1930s through the 1950s (Stage Sisters being a good example of such an approach), the Fifth Generation filmmakers on Yellow Earth looked to the traditions of Chinese painting and folksongs for a suitable aesthetic to convey a story that was also ‘different’ in its concerns. Although taken from a novel, the ideas contained in Yellow Earth were thoroughly re-worked for a film produced by the young filmmakers from their base in Guangxi, far from Beijing in Southern China. They travelled north to shoot on location and drew on a range of specifically local influences.
The ‘look’ of the film
Yellow Earth is set in Northern China on the Loess Plateau of Shanbei in Shaanxi province, where the soil is the result of a wind-blown fine silt carried to the region from the plains of Central Asia. The landscape is constantly being sculpted by wind and water erosion, producing deep gorges. Not only is the earth yellow, but the area is also traversed by the Yellow River – one of the major river systems of China. Zhang Yimou was born in the region and he went to great lengths to represent it on film – shooting at particular times of day to capture the range of yellows, ochres and browns in the soil. Traditional painting styles used bold colours and Yellow Earth also includes what have now become the almost trademark vivid reds of Zhang Yimou – all the more startling against the austere backdrops.
The framings frequently use the horizon line to comment on the importance to the characters of their environment. In a conventional landscape framing the horizon line might be place somewhere in the central third of the image, but Zhang pushes it further towards the top or bottom of the frame.
The compositions in Yellow Earth draw upon traditional modes of Chinese painting, especially those of the Shanbei region which see single human figures or trees, or small groups, set against the empty terrain. Sometimes the compositions can appear to mirror those of the ‘socialist realist’ tradition derived from Soviet Cinema (see the ‘heroic’ pose in the image above), but across the film they tend to present a very different visual style:
Yellow Earth rejected the aesthetics of social realism by critiquing them through traditional aesthetic codes. It contains a limited range of set images: earth, water, sky, mountains, a tree, a boat (all from the classical landscape painting tradition), and peasants, an ox, a cave home, a Party cadre and PLA soldiers (all Maoist images). (Berry and Farquhar, 1994:95)
Yellow Earth has a minimal story line. But, although little happens as such, there is narrative development through the lyrics of the songs. These are explored in some detail by Farquhar, who demonstrates that it is through the songs (and the singing) that the central discourse about bringing the ‘new’ (the Communist ideology) to the ‘old’ (the traditional life of the peasantry) is articulated. The re-writing of the lyrics of traditional songs was a major concern for the Party – ‘new wine in old bottles’, but, as Farquhar points out, the song collector misses the importance of the voice of the young woman.
Yin and yang
Farquhar’s 1992 analysis (also alluded to in her 1994 paper with Berry) explores what she calls the ‘hidden gender identity’ in the film. She suggests that the meaning of the film is hidden in its presentation of the people, the landscape and a minimal story. She uses the Taoist concepts of the yin and yang to foreground the story. The concepts do not relate directly to ‘men’ and ‘women’ but rather to gender principles which could be manifest in all things. Thus yin refers to the moon, the Earth, Autumn, Winter, darkness, water, femininity, death and stillness. Yang refers to sun, heaven, Spring, Summer, light, fire, masculinity, life, movement.
“The yang/yin structure of the film is not one of fixed gender confrontation, or simple patriarchy, but one of disharmonious relationships” (Farquhar 1992: 156)
Since the film begins with a memorable image of sky (yang) and earth (yin) and goes on to explore several other ‘elemental’ oppositions, it is clear that this approach to an analysis offers rich pickings.
The location of the film has a further symbolic power as it represents both the mythic birthplace of the Chinese people and the base from which the Communists went forward, after the Long March in the 1930s, to eventually wrestle control of the whole country from the Japanese and the Nationalists. Uniquely, it represents the birth of ‘old’ and ‘new’ China.
Farquhar recognises that the yin/yang approach offers only one reading of what is, as many audiences have discovered, a film which hides its meanings very carefully. But whatever approach we take to the film it is clear that it represented in 1984 a decisive break with the socialist realist tradition, not only in its aesthetics, but also in its lack of a clear central social message about the revolution. Indeed, it seems reasonably clear from the film that a central tenet of Maoist thought (and practice) is being challenged. Although the soldier and song-hunter Gu Qing is a sympathetic character with noble motives, he is too distanced by his own training to be able to understand the peasant world that he encounters and as a result he does not bring the promised transformation to the lives of Cuiqiao and her brother and father.
In their different ways, many Fifth Generation films would later question how the ‘modernisation’ offered by Maoism could engage with the traditional lives of people also being subjected to the external pressures of globalisation and consumerism. Like Yellow Earth, some films would look at the earlier decades of the twentieth century for a ‘way’ in to this question. In doing so, filmmakers like Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou would also have to withstand charges of ‘elitism’ from audiences, more used to ‘easy to understand’ narratives as well as attempts by the government to curtail activities that could be seen as critical of central policies – a tall order indeed.
Chris Berry and Mary Ann Farquhar (1994) ‘An Analysis of Yellow Earth and Black Cannon Incident’ in Herlich and Desser (eds) op cit.
Mary Ann Farquhar (1992) ‘The ‘hidden’ gender in Yellow Earth’ in Screen Vol 33 No 2.
Linda C. Herlich and David Desser (eds) (1994) Cinematic Landscapes, Austin: University of Texas Press
Tony Rayns (1986) ‘Review of Yellow Earth’ in Monthly Film Bulletin, Vol 53 No 633, October
Roy Stafford 3/5/07