Telemad

TV review: Not your grandmother's Red Sorghum

Divorce Lawyers stars Wu Xiubo (left) and Yao Chen (right), who fight and fall in love. -- PHOTO: YOUHUG MEDIA
Divorce Lawyers stars Wu Xiubo (left) and Yao Chen (right), who fight and fall in love. -- PHOTO: YOUHUG MEDIA
Zhu Yawen and Zhou Xun (above) start an illicit affair in the TV version of Red Sorghum. -- PHOTO: SINGTEL TV
Zhu Yawen and Zhou Xun (above) start an illicit affair in the TV version of Red Sorghum. -- PHOTO: SINGTEL TV
Zhu Yawen (above) and Zhou Xun start an illicit affair in the TV version of Red Sorghum. -- PHOTO: SINGTEL TV
Zhu Yawen (above) and Zhou Xun start an illicit affair in the TV version of Red Sorghum. -- PHOTO: SINGTEL TV

The new adaptation of Red Sorghum now has a feminist heroine on top of bandits

In Red Sorghum, a new widow, Dai Jiulian (Zhou Xun), has a roll in the hay - in a field of sorghum, actually - with a sedan bearer, Yu Zhan'ao (Zhu Yawen) and he soon speaks of her as his woman, his possession, who should be going home with him.

He's being nice about it, nicer than the bandits who kidnapped her before her wedding and the father who sold her to her late husband, a distiller's leprous son, for a bride price.

Still, she sets him right, saying: "I'm not your woman, I'm my own woman," before riding away on a mule.

In a nutshell, this isn't your grandmother's Red Sorghum.

This television show, like the 1987 movie of the same name, grew out of Chinese writer Mo Yan's 1980s Red Sorghum stories about Dai and Yu, two larger-than-life characters in Gaomi in pre- communist north-east China who start an illicit love affair, and a family, in a mythicised encounter in the aforesaid field.

The movie has some of the book's folksy fabulousness. Not only do director Zhang Yimou's dusty panoramas in rust, ochre and rose conjure up Mo's "most beautiful and most repulsive" Gaomi, the film is also incandescent with the lust between Dai (Gong Li, who is glorious as a peasant goddess) and Yu (Jiang Wen, who is pure charisma).

The TV show is quite a different creature.

Gaomi is lusher and greener here, with less dirt but also less earthy joy than in the book and the movie.

Dai is a true-blue feminist in the show, who has a mind of her own and whose indomitable spirit fascinates yet frustrates Yu, the would-be bandit and resistance leader.

And maybe it is more convenient for a 60- episode wartime drama that she doesn't surrender entirely to her desire for him, but holds him off in a slow, intermittent dance.

In the book, Dai, who rejects her husband but submits to more than one lover, is described as "a trailblazer for sexual liberation, a model of women's independence", though the source of her audacity is largely unexplained.

The show gives her an origin story, however, in the form of two lessons. Her mother, sold by her father to repay a loan, hangs herself. Her childhood sweetheart lets her down, failing to turn up for their planned elopement and save her from having to marry the leper.

So it is that Zhou's Dai is a steely woman who wants to take charge of her destiny.

With the deaths of her husband and father-in- law, Dai gains autonomy and control of their distillery, neither of which she is willing to give up for Zhu's Yu, a beefcake who adores her.

In contrast with her sister-in-law, a prim widow whose one indulgence is opium, Dai declares she wants to live a full life. But for her, it doesn't necessarily mean having a man at her side.

The book is a paean to the lust for life of the men and women of a bygone era. Almost three decades after the stories were distilled into an intoxicating film, the show comes as a cool, feminist antidote.

But if it leaves you a little cold, have a shot of Divorce Lawyers. Or have three.

The Chinese drama takes time to start, but once it does, it is a blast.

Beijing is a big city, but the lawyers of the title (actress Yao Chen and actor Wu Xiubo) are in a small world you know from a zillion romantic comedies.

Yao represented Wu's former wife and took him to the cleaners in the divorce lawsuit. Now Yao and Wu are neighbours and rivals, inching towards friendship - and love, of course - while tussling over their clients.

What's fun is how the show is modern yet folksy, urbane yet vital.

Close your eyes and you might think you are listening to a time-travel drama. The lawyers may belong in any contemporary romantic comedy, but their clients clearly haven't evolved that much from lawless heathens of yore (hey, Mo Yan, isn't it heartening?).

When two of the clients fight, it is as noisy as a village brawl. Wu has to step in, saying: "Knock it off. You both have lawyers. If you fight yourself, you aren't getting your money's worth."

He is speaking as a lawyer, a wise man and a survivor of divorce. The show, like the man, has a down-to-earth charm and really grows on you.

woeiwan@sph.com.sg