Yellow Earth is the most impressive film from mainland China unveiled so far in the West. Its simple story is told with considerable depth of feeling, allied to classical direction and impeccably composed images.
The year is 1939, and China is at war with Japan. However, in the remote north of Shaanxi Province, where peasant farmers live and work in grinding poverty, the war is unknown and far away. Though bordering the swiftly flowing Yellow River, the terrain is rocky, dusty and arid.
Gu Qing (Wang Xueqi), a Communist soldier, is sent from the Army h.q. at Yan’an (depicted as a place of cheerful celebration) to Shaanbei, partly to collect folk songs of the region, partly to influence the locals in favor of Communism. He stays with a poor family – a widower, his 12-year-old daughter, Cui Qiao (Xue Bai), and 10-year-old son, Hanhan (Liu Qiang). At first they are suspicious of the stranger, but gradually he wins them over.
For 32-year-old director Chen Kaige, working out of the small Guangxi Film Studio, this is a quite remarkable achievement. He tells the story (from an essay by Ke Lan) with great subtlety and delicacy, allowing silences, looks and gestures to convey the feelings of his characters. The compositions of cinematographer Zhang Yimou are outstanding.