review for Yellow Earth on AllMovie

Yellow Earth (1984)
by Jonathan Crow review

Yellow Earth's debut at the 1985 Hong Kong Film Festival forced international audiences to look seriously at Chinese cinema in a manner comparable to the earlier world cinema breakthroughs of Rashomon (1950) and Pather Panchali (1955). Like Breathless (1959) and Cruel Story of Youth (1960), Yellow Earth signaled the rise of a new generation of filmmakers, in this case China's "Fifth Generation." Its director Chen Kaige and cinematographer Zhang Yimou both went on to make some of the most acclaimed Chinese films of the 1980s and 1990s, including Farewell My Concubine (1993) and Raise the Red Lantern (1991). In contrast to earlier Communist-era Chinese films, which were largely vehicles for state ideology, relying on stock characters and cliché situations, Yellow Earth was both fresh and remarkably sophisticated, displaying the traits that would later mark other films of the Fifth Generation. The film features little dialogue, and its narrative is minimal, without melodramatic flourishes or contrived plot points; the drama simply unfolds at a measured pace. Its discourse was clearly shaped by the ravages of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution. Instead of overt political propaganda, the commentary here is muted and ambivalent. Rather than focusing on the culture of the dominant Han Chinese, the film emphasizes vanishing traditions of remote, often ethnically different settlements. Stylistically, Yellow Earth features unexpected framings, carefully modulated colors, and long takes. Characters are frequently shot at a distance in the midst of the immense desolate landscape of northern China, in a manner that recalls Chinese landscape paintings. Unlike previous generations, who seemed to view film as an artform inferior to literature, Chen and Zhang clearly reveled in the medium, and they produced a masterpiece of world cinema that would prove highly influential for the increasingly important Chinese film industry.