Da hong deng long gao gao gua (1991)

reviewed by
David Dalgleish

        4 out of ****
        Starring Gong Li, Cao Cuifen, Kong Lin, He Caifei;
        Directed by Zhang Yimou;
        Written by Ni Zhen, from a novella by Su Tong;
        Cinematography by Yang Lun and Zhao Fei

Two shots recur with the insistence of ritual--or nightmare--in RAISE THE RED LANTERN. The first is a close-up of the face of Gong Li, playing a young woman who is sold to a rich man and becomes his concubine, his Fourth Mistress. The second is an overhead shot of the central courtyard in the rich man's house, a small open space hemmed in by grey walls, overhung by jutting roofs. Director Zhang Yimou never quite superimposes these two shots, but he doesn't need to: the movie is all about the way the young woman becomes trapped--physically and psychically--in the rich man's space, until she is merely another feature of its stark geographies.

It doesn't seem so bad, when she first arrives. Servants fetch her bags in, light lanterns in her honour, lave her feet. But the privileges of a new wife are temporary: later, they must be earned. Fourth Mistress soon becomes involved in a power struggle with the other three mistresses.

First Mistress is older, post-menopausal, and so of little sexual interest to the master: she is not as attractive as the others, and she can no longer bear children. She seems to have acceded to her fate with quiet acceptance, more observer than participant. Second Mistress, who has only borne the master a "useless" daughter, seems resigned, even good-natured, about her fading position in the household; she dissembles well. Third Mistress is Fourth Mistress's principal rival. She is a former opera singer, still young, coquettish, jealous. As soon as the new woman arrives, she tries to wrest the master's affection from her.

Each evening, red lanterns are lit outside the rooms of the mistress with whom the master is sleeping that night. She is the mistress he holds in the highest esteem, at least for an evening. The four women are asked to stand in the courtyard while the majordomo ritualistically announces where the lanterns are to be raised. This daily observance has more than a touch of sadism about it: its purpose is as much the humiliation of the neglected mistresses as it is the announcement of the favoured one.

Much of the film is concerned with similar rituals of power and humiliation. Fourth Mistress weeps on her first night in the house, but soon resolves, steelily, to play the game with the rest of the mistresses. She is cunning, and tough, but inexperienced; she makes mistakes which cannot be unmade. In a tense sequence, Second Mistress, who has been conniving with Fourth Mistress's sullen maid, invites Fourth Mistress to her house, and asks that she cut her hair. The point for Second Mistress, currently favoured by the master, is to demonstrate her power: she can ask this of Fourth Mistress, who cannot refuse. But Fourth Mistress then "accidentally" wounds Second Mistress with the scissors, a petty act of vengeance which leads to tragic consequences. Hell hath no fury ...

The women's lives are explored with perspicacity and empathy. They should, in theory, be united against a common foe, the master, who robs them all of their dignity and freedom. But there is nothing they can do to him that will not lead to dire consequences. The only dignity to be had is by currying favour so as to be held in higher regard than the other mistresses. And because it is only human to seek dignity, the women constantly, subtly, vie for power over one another. They are rigidly circumscribed in what they can do or say, so their actions take on an added fascination, as we see them walk the line between the acceptable and the unacceptable in their attempts to gain the upper hand.

The master himself is never properly seen: he is vaguely shown in long-shots, or an arm or leg is seen in close-up, but we never look upon his face. The movie depersonalizes him. This is an intriguing change from the source material, a novella by Su Tong in which Fourth Mistress is much more complicit in her own fate and the master is a more vivid, human character. The obvious reading of Zhang's approach is to see the master as a symbol of patriarchy, which he is, but it's a bit more complicated than that.

To render the master symbolically would, you'd expect, make him seem more powerful, more forbidding. But the effect is precisely the opposite: he is diminished. Insofar as he can be excised from a story in which he wields all the power, he is. Zhang frequently and effectively uses close-ups to reflect the complex emotions of the mistresses and the servants, which gives them a vividness, a presence, which the master does not have. This is their story, not his. They are photographed with the exquisite, formally beautiful camerawork Zhang has elsewhere devoted to rural Chinese landscapes, which accords them a significance they are unable to find in the master's house. It gives them as much dignity as is possible for people whose lives are doomed to end in premature death, despair, or madness.

Subjective Camera (subjective.freeservers.com): Movie Reviews by David Dalgleish (daviddalgleish@yahoo.com)

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