In 1938, a beautiful and imaginative aspiring writer, Shen Shao-Hua (Brigitte Lin) leaves home following the death of her father to start a new life, as Japanese soldiers march into town to reinforce the occupation of China. Having spent her early years of adulthood imprisoned by her embittered father in the attic, Shao-Hua created a fictional young peasant heroine named Jade Orchid, an orphaned, adolescent bond servant girl whose difficult passage to maturity and chronicled personal travails of everyday existence is an autobiographical projection of the author’s emotional struggle towards her own ambivalence and uncertain future. Striving to establish a career as a freelance writer for a modest periodical, her thoughtful and evocative articles capture the attention of Chang Neng-Tsai (Han Chin), a pensive and genial cultural attaché for the occupying provisional government who obtained his prominent job by currying favor through a Japanese relative. Through mutual acquaintances, Neng-Tsai contacts Shao-Hua’s editor and friend (Josephine Koo) in order to arrange a meeting with the promising writer. However, despite facilitating their introduction, the editor cautions Shao-Hua against becoming romantically involved with Neng-Tsai, reasoning that his privileged post is inevitably looked upon with resentment and disdain by the native Chinese who regard him as a traitor, a strongly harbored contempt that is manifested when Shao-Hua’s neighbor brazenly assaults Neng-Tsai in broad daylight within the gated courtyard of her apartment building as he stops by for a visit. Nevertheless, the relationship between Shao-Hua and Neng-Tsai perseveres until one day, in the days preceding the commencement of World War II, when Shao-Hua’s best friend, a idealistic resistance activist named Yueh-Feng (Maggie Cheung) pays an extended visit and learns of Neng-Tsai’s reprehensible and opportunistic employment.
Yim Ho creates an atmospherically exquisite and densely allusive, yet simple and elegant chronicle of love, sacrifice, and survival amidst national turmoil in Red Dust. Yim’s repeated imagery of the color red (and in particular, red dots) throughout the film creates a provocative correlation between the era of Japanese occupation and the establishment of communism in postwar mainland China: the blood on Shao-Hua’s cherished childhood toy after an attempted suicide during her parental captivity; the saturating, warm, red hued lighting associated with Shao-Hua’s apartment; the red shawl that Neng-Tsai presents to Shao-Hua as a radio broadcast comments on the escalating conflict between the Chinese and Japanese for the control of Manchkuo; the inferred massacre of students during the civil war between the nationalists and the communists. Note the transitional shot of Jade Orchid in an open area adorned with long and winding red dotted banners that is visually continued in the sight of occupation forces marching into town and waving Japanese flags, and is subsequently repeated in her brief moment of innocent, playful joy that precedes a chaotic bombing episode as she and Spring Hope momentarily take refuge in a tunnel. It is a distilled and symbolic juxtaposition that interweaves a fleeting sentiment of uninhibited freedom and rapture against a pervasive, enveloping environment of looming (and metaphoric) uncertainty – an indelible, transitory snapshot of the gradual erosion and insignificance of humanity and personal desire against the crushing weight of a formidable and inescapable national tide.
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