Da hong deng long gao gao gua (1991)

reviewed by
Pedro Sena


FILM TITLE:               RAISE THE RED LANTERN
DIRECTOR:               ZHANG YIMOU
COUNTRY:                CHINA 1991
CINEMATOGRAPHY:         ZHAO FEI
CAST:                        GONG LI
WRITTEN BY :           N'ZHEN
SUPER FEATURES:     Beautifully done film.
      !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Aside from Japan's Akira Kurosawa, I had not really seen too many Chinese film makers up until the time I wrote this review. And, as I sat and watched this film, I really wondered what I was going to find.

Outstanding acting.

Very powerful story, and way to tell it.

A scathing political film denouncing the feudal lord system, who takes the law into his own hands.

A style of cinematography, which is not boring, but is really quite symmetrical. All the shots are perfectly framed, reminding us of a David Lean film. And the director allows us to feel the space, before he enters it, much like David Lean did. No surprises necessary, except for the unsuspecting actors..... we are on the outside of the 'box' as it is called in theatre. In many ways, the style of cinematography is out-dated, which could have been intentional, since the life of the Master, is also fading.

A nice mix of art and life, which is rarely portrayed as a unity, but as an entity which interferes with life.

RAISE THE RED LANTERN is an excellent film, and although a bit slow for American standards and tastes for most film, it replaces the slowness with a theme, which fits the film.

The story is about a young woman who finally gives in to her mother's wishes, and becomes another concubine for a rich man. By doing so, she has to give up her life, as a student, to become a slave to a past ( literally ) which she despises, but she has little choice. The mother can not work enough to afford the education of the daughter, and the father has recently died. And by trading in her vows as a concubine, she is helping the mother with a dowry, which would keep her taken care of for life. And so she becomes the fourth mistress of a rich lord. And no soon does she enter into the marriage, she discovers that the house is laden with petty jealousies, and evening politics, to try to entice the master to one of his wives' beds. And the competition, as she finds out is as brutal, as it is vicious. And the girls will not stand for second if they can help it, and will go to many lengths to get their desire taken care of. The ultimate goal is to bear the master as many boys as the wife can. And between them all, they are not doing very well. The last two have only produced one child each, and one of them is a girl.

It is nevertheless, very soon that the fourth mistress discovers how to deal with the others. The third mistress was a professional opera singer, and is truly beautiful, but does not have a disposition to deal with competitors ( they say she is spoiled ) and in the middle of the night feigns sickness and stubborn behavior, until the master leaves whom ever he is with to go to her. And the fourth mistress one day says that if he leaves, don't ever return to her bed. This time she wins.

The indiscretion of any one of the wives ( the third ) begins to show the cruel fate of those caught in the act. The young fourth mistress being educated, has a knack for curiosity, and walks the immense grounds, and checks out all she can find. And one day she finds in one corner a small place which has been used as an execution room for those who get involved in bad acting, and get caught. On one fateful day, when the master is out, the third wife goes out to have her affair with the house doctor, and the disappointed fourth mistress, who has been drinking to celebrate her birthday, accidentally mentions the indiscretion of the third wife. In the next few days, she is hung in that small room, on the far end of the castle. The fourth mistress goes to check out the room, where she saw them take the third mistress, and when she comes out screaming, she is changed. She is now 'mad'. And soon, the master has a new mistress, a fifth one, younger still.

The red lanterns, the central focal point of the story, refer to the lanterns used to light up the street where the mistress lives, leading up to her house. The master likes the lights on, so he can see. It is also a custom which goes back many years, used to make sure no enemies of the master walk in unawares. Now it has decayed into a symbol of decadence and attention which the master uses to get the other wives interested in his company. It doesn't work for the first mistress, she has become the wise old lady, has borne him a son, now full grown. Despite her wiseness, she can not seem to control the young ladies and their fierce competitive spirit, which is so detrimental to them all. And every evening, in front of all the mistresses, he announces publicly, in whose house he will spend the night, whereupon the red lanterns will be immediately lit, much to the chagrin of the competing losers.

The film's outcome is as brutal as the competitive nature of the three mistresses, culminating in the loss of two in the end, one to death, and the other to 'mad'-ness. In between, is an array of images set up very neatly it is the tradition!!! ) which keeps the house alive, and its servants busy, from the aspiring maid who would like to be one of the mistresses the master does visit her once in a while ) in contrast to the fourth mistress who does not. She is also accused of an indiscretion and punished by the matriarch of the family when the master is away. Her indiscretion was a desire to be one of the mistresses, and her fate is that she has to serve as mistress to the one wife she does not like, the one who is the exact opposite of her own desire.

The film spends a lot of time, walking out of plot traps, with its favorite line.... it's the tradition -- and it seems they even try to create new ones... but it only shows the length to which many feudal lords will go to keep their families in control, and profit from their own needs and desires.

BEAUTIFUL FILM
OUTSTANDING ACTING WORK
5 GIBLOONS
Copyright (c) Pedro Sena 1994

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