Da hong deng long gao gao gua (1991)

reviewed by
Edwin Jahiel


RAISE THE RED LANTERN (DAHONG DENGLONG GAIGAO GUA) (1991) (China,Taiwan, Hong Kong) *** Directed by Zhang Yimou. Written by Ni Zhen from the 1989 novel by Su Tong ³Wives and Concubines.² Camera, Zhao Fei. Cast: Gong Li, Ma Jingwu, He Caifei, Qan Quifen, Jin Shuyan. An Orion Classics release. In Mandarin with subtitles. 125 minutes. Rated PG. Art Theater.

The first Chinese movie ever nominated for Best Foreign Film in last yearıs Oscars, ³Red Lantern² is the work of Zhang Yimou. He is a prize-winning cinematographer who, within ten years, also established himself, along with Chen Kaige, as the leading filmmaker of the Chinese New Wave called ³The Fifth Generation²of the mid-Eighties. Zhangıs ³Red Sorghum² received the Golden Bear at the Berlin Festival, his ³Ju Dou² the Golden Hugo, at the Chicago Festival, and ³Red Lantern² won five prizes in Venice, including the Silver Lion.

³Raise the Red Lantern² is set in North China during the 1920s. 19-year old Songlian (Gong Li, Zhangıs fetish actress), drops out of the University after one semester and her fatherıs death. Trapped by the lack of money and the impossibility for a woman to become something, she can either marry a poor man or become the fourth concubine of a wealthy one. She opts for the latter.

The man is always anonymously referred to as The Master and the fact that he is never photographed in close-up, underlines his psychological distance from the women. The non-family lives in a geometric compound where each of the concubines has her own house around an inner courtyard.

The filmıs title refers to the red lanterns that, like the light outside a studio where recording is in progress, are lit before the house in which the Master chooses to spend the night. The mistress elected is prepared for this by, among other ceremonies, a foot massage that presumably enhances her libido.

The womenıs numbers correspond to their age. The First Mistress is an older woman who is out of the sexual rivalry. The Second is relatively younger. The Third is a pert, capricious, ex-opera singer.

Number Four, Songlian, is immediately immersed in intrigue. The ³raison dıetre² of the mistresses is solely the competition for the Masterıs favors. In opaque, devious ways, the women, who call each other ³Sister,² compete for this distinction with manoeuvres, schemes, temporary alliances and realignments. Songlianıs sullen, disappointed young maid, who had hoped to become Number Four, adds to the tension.

There is a terrible emptiness in this household. Life is a void that, paradoxically, has an epicenter. This is nightly sex , alluded to but never seen graphically, but even so, sex without any hint of sensuality, feeling or pleasure. Everything revolves around rank, status, the pecking order. No one really does anything. We see no books. We get minimal music, a gramophone, some flutes, a game of mah-jong. The women do eat regularly, yet even the ordering of food is another weapon yet in this war of one-upmanship.

The claustrophobia is visually symbolized by the look of the place. The courtyard is rectilinear and its geometry is repeatedly photographed from a static, impassive point of view. The rooms have a strangely anonymous lavishness which leads to depressing sterility, similar to the non-person nature of the characters.

On the contrary, when the camera takes to the criss-crossing roofs of the compound, it follows their sinuous, bisecting lines, in a way that corresponds to the convoluted game that the ³sisters² plot and play, a game that leads to tragedy.

The movieıs deliberate pace and color coding oddly stress its implacable ³No Exit² theme. The feudal Masterıs mates are also his inmates, locked up in a stockade of gilded cages, and prisoners too of their own narrow, inescapable mentality.

In passing, the film shows the touching Chinese respect for education. Songlianıs single semester at the University gives her prestige. Says one mistress to guests: ³She was a University student, I was just an opera singer.² Another ³sister² asks Songlian : ³Please cut my hair.² ³But I have never done it.² ³You went to the University, youıll do it better.²

³Raise the Red Lantern² takes place well before China raised the Red flag. The Revolution, however, replaced one kind of tyranny with another. This explains why the movie, like Zhangıs earlier ³Ju Dou,² (also about the oppression of women), is a ³pictura non grata,² unreleased in China.

It was made with devious, face-saving financing from Taiwan (via Hong Kong), to a large degree thanks to Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Taiwanıs premier film director. He is listed in the credits as executive producer and may well have influenced the filmıs esthetics.

" Le mauvais gout mene au crime" (Stendhal)

Edwin Jahiel's movie reviews are at http://www.prairienet.org/ejahiel

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