Red Dust (1990)

Directed by: Yim Ho
Written by: Yim Ho & Echo Chen
Producer: Hsu Feng
Starring: Brigitte Lin, Chin Han, Maggie Cheung, Josephine Koo, Yim Ho & Richard Ng

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Nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards 1991:
Best Picture
Best Director (Yim Ho)
Best Screenplay (Yim Ho & Echo Chen)
Best Supporting Actress (Maggie Cheung)
Best Cinematography (Poon Hang-Sang)
Best Editing (John Chow)
Best Original Film Score (Shut Git-Wing)
Best Original Film Song Gwan Gwan Hung Chan (Roll Roll Red Dust)
Music & lyrics by: Law Tai-Yau
Performed by: Chan Suk-Wah

Awards at the Taiwan Golden Horse Awards 1990:
Best Picture
Best Director (Yim Ho)
Best Actress (Brigitte Lin)
Best Supporting Actress (Maggie Cheung)
Best Cinematography (Poon Hang-Sang)
Best Costume & Make-up Design (Edith Cheung)
Best Art Direction (Edith Cheung & Jessinta Liu)
Best Original Film Score (Shut Git-Wing)

Nomination at the Taiwan Golden Horse Awards 1990:
Best Screenplay (Yim Ho & Echo Chen)

Outspoken writer Shao Hua (Brigitte Lin) from an early age suffers the abrupt and downbeat nature to love. Forced to be reclusive, she continues that into the late 1930s during the Japanese occupation of China. It's during this time Japanese collaborator Chang Neng Tsai (Chin Han 1*) seeks her out as a fan of her writing and the two fall in love. She can mostly let go off of his double life but when best friend and resistance fighter Yuen Feng (Maggie Cheung) returns to Shao's life, conflicts begins manifesting themselves...

Multiple times of conflict, times of conflicting humanity and feelings. Yim Ho's deep down theme running through the award winning Red Dust is just that. Offering up a challenging cinematic atmosphere, the film is a fine example of much communicated with the utmost clarity to ALL walks of life, despite it being very much a strictly Chinese film at heart. Simple title cards throughout doesn't mean he and co-writer Echo Chen are simplifying things historically but ultimately the film is about people anyway so a detailed history homework is not needed. Any viewer will feel invited.

Red Dust offers up a kind of classical war time romance, only not set on the battlefield. It gives us portraits of people willing to go along with their emotions as long as the surrounding times of conflict will allow that. Starting point being the main story of Shao Hua and Chang. A fit yet not, she being an outspoken writer and he a Japanese collaborator trying to put heart into his work towards the fellow Chinese, there's a quote brought up in the film about following a tide which translates to so many different choices one can pursue. Shao and Chang switches between shutting off the world to realizing their duties in it and it's this constant flip-flop that makes Red Dust an effective and slightly haunting experience. You care about characters wanting to obtain love but Yim Ho can't offer up any pleasant solutions because neither eras examined are about true love, only for the prosperity of your country...for better or worse. Therefore these characters do operate on the outskirts of society, even being enemies of it due to laws inflicted upon China at the time.

While it is indeed clear that Yim Ho is going to flow with the tide that the history dictates, it's nonetheless thoroughly affecting to flow along with the film. He creates a fine combination of being suitably epic but in tune with the intimacy that the story requires. When these intimate bubbles burst, he finds a tuned balance between the war epic and melodrama. The best thing is that it constantly continues on being challenging, quite unexpected and offering up what seems like old but ultimately fresh ideas about humanity in a era upon era of violent conflict. Dreamy and epic cinematography by Poon Hang-Sang (Kung Fu Hustle, Fearless) works wonders for all this as well as the parallel fictional story by Shao Hua about Jade Orchid's destiny. Here it's sometimes in-camera solutions used, blurring the line between the reality we're in and taking on a welcome arthouse feel that is easy to grasp.

Supporting cast of Maggie Cheung, Richard Ng and Chin Han might as well go unmentioned because they do immersing work for Red Dust. However Brigitte Lin one can dedicate paragraphs to for her splendid work here. It's lovely to see her go through so many stages of being a woman, something not commonly associated with her since the career involved iconic performances in Swordsman II and The Bride With White Hair. In Red Dust we get a taste of the girlish nature, innocence, longing and her facing the choices of how to proceed from the next era to the next, all handled with grace, humanity and perfect emotional pitch by Lin.

Yim Ho hasn't always had it easy with critics or his personal visions (see King Of Chess) but Red Dust feels untouched and therefore highly well realized. Dealing with Chinese history, its heartfelt, conflicts reaches us and are telling in the most clear of ways. It's expected early that history as written won't be a backdrop for a perfect movie romance but it's still a fully realized portrayal of attempt upon attempt to try and shut out war and internal Chinese conflict in favour of intimacy. Did love have a place in the creation of New China? There's certainly belief in that but history is still written. Therefore the movie seems as well but every new corner holds emotional surprise.

The DVD:

Only available from Mainland label Zoke Culture, they "offer up" a cropped full frame presentation (two short instances in the film we see the print revert to roughly 1.66:1 letterbox and it even shifts slightly in print quality). Obviously Poon Hang-Sang's already tight compositions takes a beating and detail levels are anything but satisfactory. The print is clean however and watchable for a cheap price.

Not shot in synch sound but performed in Mandarin, Zoke only featuring that audio option doesn't harm the film therefore. The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono presentation also sounds fairly clear.

The imbedded Chinese/English subtitles suffer a little bit from the cropping and are displayed on white backgrounds at times. Largely however they are very well written and fully readable.

The Chinese language menu doesn't hold any extras of note. In fact, the "play movie" option appears twice.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson

(1) A frequent co-star with Brigitte Lin in 1970s Taiwanese cinema, including in her debut Outside The Window. They were also an item at one point.