RED FIRECRACKER, GREEN FIRECRACKER (China, 1994) ** 3/4.
For many centuries, the Cai family has ruled over a vast territory of Northern China, along the banks of the raging Yellow River. Their fame and fortune come from their lucrative fireworks business, " a far-reaching empire."
Left with just one child, daughter Chun Zhi (Ning Jing), they bring her up like a man, dress her as a man, and have her addressed as "Master." On her parents' demise she iherits everything but she is forbidden to marry, so that no stranger might take over the business. This condition is bizarre, since this gaurantees that the Cai line will vanish.
This makes senseperhaps as a Red Chinese metaphor for the self-destruction of capitalists, a hypothesis reinforced by the director mentioning that the town on one side of the river represents the commercial forces of progress, and the Cai estate on the opposite side the resistance to this by entrenched feudal traditions.
If much of this is not sensed immediately, the main story is clearer. At age19 Chin Zhi still wears men's clothes, so elegant that they cannot disguise the fact that she is one gorgeous female. (Watch out Gong Li. You may be the reigning beauty of Chinese cinema but Ning Jing will give you a run for your money).
She lives like a sad feudal princess in a gilded cage, leaving the managing of her affairs to an old retainer, and most other matters in the hands of her factotum Mr. Mann (Zhao Xiaorui). Then one day an itinerant painter, Nie Bao (Wu Gang) shows up and by a concatenation of events is hired by Chin Zhi as a decorator-restorer.
Nie Bao acts a bit like the Toshiro Mifune persona in Japanese samurai films. He is something of an adventurer who shows nothing of the subservience of all others in Chin Zhi's world. She looks at him with languid eyes, he looks back without lowering his glance, he (pardon the cliche) brings out the woman in her and awakens her sexuality, makes her laugh for the first time. She fights her desires and his insolence, but after a number of antagonistic incidents the two become lovers. Scenes of libido (Li Bi Do?) and sex are utterly discreet throughout.
Mr.Mann who is possessive about the lady, becomes the painter's nemesis and the film's heavy, but not a true villain, even though he puts his rival through some nasty tortures. Eventually the lovelorn girl, now in female clothing, like an abdicating monarch, states in public " I want to be a woman, not your master." Horrified, the elders, try to exorcise Chin Zhi with colorful ceremonies, rites much classier than voodoo. On-off relationships follow before the spectacular but somewhat muddled ending.
"RFGF" is interesting though not especially affecting as a love story. But it makes up for that with the excellence of its visuals. The exterior shots and especially the interior ones are superb. Chiaroscuros abound and all reproduce perfectly the lack, weakness or mixture of natural light sources. Most films, even "realistic" ones, remind you of lighting techniques. They often open up the shadows with lamps or reflectors. In many movies, a candle is lit and seems to produce 200 watts. Murkiness is an anathema.
Here the cinematographer has achieved burnished colors that give the rooms and hallways an amazing feeling of authenticity and period non-lighting. He uses the entire illumination scale from medium to the weakest. And you can almost breathe the dust that would float in the air in such buildings.
Yang Lun had previously worked on "the Old Well," "Red Sorghum," "Operation Cougar," and "Ju Dou." His contributions to this film, and those of the music by Zhao Jiping ("Red Sorghum," "Ju Dou," "Raise the Red Lantern," "Farewell My Concubine," "To Live") are remarkable.