Brigitte Lin launched into great experimentation with her shift to Hong Kong cinema in the early 1980s, crossing genres and repeatedly remaking her image with landmark films. Made well into this period, Yim Ho’s Red Dust saw the actress handle intensely emotional material in a demanding work that spans years of turmoil in China.
Lin stars as writer Shen Shao-hua, whom audiences meet when she’s locked up at home by her father. Writing covers the walls, books are all around, and the young lady is driven to self-harm. Later, in 1938 amid the Japanese occupation, Shen is living on her own and getting by as a writer when a well-to-do admirer and married man, Chang Nang-tsai (Chin Han), gets in touch and strikes up a relationship. An editor (Josephine Koo) warns that Chang is collaborating with the Japanese, but Shen is unperturbed and love grows.
The relationship survives, too, when close friend Yueh-feng (Maggie Cheung) enters the scene and is spooked by Chang’s link with the Japanese. It’s only after Japan’s surrender and the outbreak of civil war that Shen and Chang are forced apart amid rising turmoil. But a new chance to live together appears later, in a final period of chaos before the communists take control.
Red Dust was conceived as a film loosely based on the life of Eileen Chang (1920-1995), a celebrated writer whose works included Love in a Fallen City and Lust, Caution. While sections indeed follow Chang’s life story, including her period locked away and parts of her relationship with a collaborator, other points deviate sharply.
Yim Ho directs with a nimble approach, swinging between artistic visuals, impressive China location work and otherworldly touches, like when two doomed characters fade from the screen. Intense drama is very much in play, but so too are light humour, intimate courtship scenes and large sequences depicting wartime tumult. And intercut with Shen’s tale is a second narrative based on a story she pens, its characters following her own ups and downs over the years.
Brigitte Lin’s performance saw her win Best Actress in Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards – one of eight trophies the film won on the night. The actress displays the breadth of her talents in a wide-ranging role that includes a return to romantic melodrama, and her pairing with Chin Han, an on-screen partner since Outside the Window (1973), shows strong chemistry. Previously difficult to find on home video but now newly restored for cinema screenings, Red Dust lets audiences see Lin in top form just before her image transformed again with iconic wuxia cinema roles.
Born in Hong Kong in 1952, Yim Ho made his film-directing debut with the early Hong Kong New Wave work The Extras (1978). His later Homecoming (1984) looked to rural life in China and won Best Picture and Best Director in the Hong Kong Film Awards. Red Dust (1990) picked up eight trophies in Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards and The Sun Has Ears (1995) won Best Director in the Berlin International Film Festival. Yim has also taken on acting roles, as well as hosting TV shows and writing books on health and medicine.