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During China's Tang dynasty the emperor has taken the princess of a neighboring province as wife. She has borne him two sons and raised his eldest. Now his control over his dominion is complete, including the royal family itself.
China in the 1920's. After her father's death, nineteen year old Songlian is forced to marry Chen Zuoqian, the lord of a powerful family. Fifty year old Chen has already three wives, each of them living in separate houses within the great castle. The competition between the wives is tough, as their master's attention carries power, status and privilege. Each night Chen must decide with which wife to spend the night and a red lantern is lit in front of the house of his choice. And each wife schemes and plots to make sure it's hers. However, things get out of hand... Written by
Mattias Pettersson <email@example.com>
"The Master's" face is never seen. It is either obscured behind thin curtains or out of shot. See more »
Who are you?
Fourth mistress, please come inside.
[losing her cool]
So you're the fourth mistress!
[Yan'er rudely pulls the water bowl away from Songlian and puts clothes in it]
Yes! I am the fourth mistress. Bring my suitcase inside please.
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Gong Li is utterly perfect as Songlian, the youngest 4th wife of a great landowner in 1920's China. When she joins the household of the Master, with his 3 other wives and numerous servants, she is little prepared for the infinite under-currents and jealousies of the wives and the continuous baiting of the servants. She is put in a house of her own off the main courtyard of the rambling estate, a vast maze of connected buildings. But the wives are not quite out of earshot of each other, and what can be overheard feeds the hate among them. When the Master has chosen the wife he wishes to spend the night with, huge red lanterns are lit and hung around the outside and inside of the house of that wife and she is given a foot massage with small weighted silver hammers whose castanet-like sounds echo through the entire complex, and they serve as an overt display to the others that they were not good enough on that day to win his affections and must try harder the next day. As each jockeys for the Master's attention, Songlian is at first expertly played against the other women but eventually learns to scheme and conspire as well as they. She is never sure exactly which of the other wives is her enemy or her friend, and the situation seems to change daily. After she makes a grand power play that fails, in part because of a jealous young female servant, she is effectively in exile for a time. However, a terrible, centuries-old custom will unfold in one of the topmost, locked rooms of the complex during her exile, and Songlian eventually discovers the dreadful secret. This is a masterful film which only gets better on each viewing.
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