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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
*** This comment may contain spoilers *** Songlian is a symbol of China
after the Cultural Revolution. Initially, Songlian revels in being able
to disregard traditions and customs. She walks to her new sanheyuan, a
Chinese courtyard house, instead of waiting for the customary wedding
procession to carry her there.
The moment she enters, she is confronted by a cultural revolution: a new family with its own customs, rites, and rituals, to which she is expected to adhere. The master burns her father's flute, which burns her connections to her father and her ancestors.
Songlian's entrance into the family signals the onset of a competition for power, similar to Chinese Elitists who were competing for capital gain and political power. Songlian becomes tyrannical; her servant Yan'er commits suicide, just like the peasants of the Cultural Revolution committed suicide. Later, the third wife Meishan is murdered in the power struggle.
The Sanheyuan is set up like the philosophy of Confucianism: the architectural and structural design of the Sanheyuan permits a specific set of social rules to exist, and when these rules are implemented properly, the family will be well-run, and a well-run family contributes to a well-run government.
Within these set of social rules, women are protected from outside hardships because they are cloistered within the walled boundaries of the sanheyuan, they are required to study Confucianism , and the family must be the prime focus.
Upon Songlian's arrival to the household, the constricting Confucian ideology is undermined, and a Revolt begins.
The ensuing Revolution obliterates Confucianism and the patriarchy, allowing female liberation and modernity to flow freely without restriction.
Unfortunately, the women do not get to taste that liberation.
We Americans are accustomed to our fast moving world and our equally fast
paced movies but the older countries of the world have something very
valuable to offer in cinema, if we can take some time, literally, to
consider it. This movie brings that mature stateliness of the old world
before our eyes in almost an indelible way.
Moving in a very slow and artfully calculated rhythm, one scene slides into another, each setting a perfect little painting that can almost distract the attention away from the action and the dialog. The story develops gradually, starting out as a situation that is completely unfamiliar to the viewer and progressing stepwise through increasingly familiar emotional territory until even the 21st century American knows exactly where things stand.
The story is absorbing and the comment on Chinese society is important in today's world, but the main interest for me is the mood of meditative quietude and the rather dreamlike atmosphere that is generated continually, until it saturates right through.
"Raise the Red Lantern," as the English title is called, still remains
in my memory. This is a wonderful film. It's no matter that it is
subtitled. You can follow the story through the emotions and acting
ability of its cast. There is no doubt that this is a "10" film!
The story, while not traditional to Western culture, works well to keep the viewer guessing at what will come next in the story. Clearly, Li Gong shines in her beauty, her acting ability, and her magnetic appeal on the silver screen. The cast is well assembled and each perform their character roles with perfection. The set and scenery is opulent in design and yet suggestive as to how a rich man of the 1920s might live during those times.
You should try to rent this film from a video store or purchase a copy of a VCR or DVD, if available.
Folks who like foreign films must make this outstanding film a viewing priority. If you are just wanting to experience a foreign film of Asian vintage than this is one to consider. It is not your standard martial arts fantasy film. "Raise the Red Lantern" has a real story and real acting to match.
I really like this film!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Think of this film as an old school Girls at the Playboy Mansion
I love this movie so hard. Songlian (played by Li Gong) is my heroine. Not the I- wanna-inject-you-and-listen-to-jazz heroin, but a sad and lonely victim of circumstance rebelling against her fate.
The opening scene is Songlian's face, worthy of any Miss China pageant, as a single tear rolls down her cheek she coldly states, "Become a concubine - isn't that a woman's fate?" Yeah, it's gonna be bleak.
Each night, the elusive Master will choose 1 of 4 mistresses to bunk with and a flourish of red lanterns are lit outside mistress numero uno's house - enough lanterns to be seen from orbit. Why? As this is tradition. The chosen concubine is served her favourite dish that night. As is tradition. The mistress will receive a strange foot massage. As is tradition. She will be bed by the master and lavished with his attention. As is tradition.
Surely as Songlian is Master's newest object of affection he should favour her, yet there are petty forces working against her bitchier than your worst enemy from high school. Each mistress has manipulative ways in which they try to woo to the master. Because they love him? Not even. Akin to Stockholm Syndrome a phenomenon manifests and the isolation and loneliness drives them to jealously compete and be top dawg of the intimate hierarchy.
One scene that struck me was when Songlian encountered a Pavlov's Dog effect - her feet ache and itch craving a foot massage when Master chooses to stay with another.
Fate is a harsh mistress, more harsh than the ones who inhabit the four houses of this movie. Born a woman, our heroine has been dealt a bad Mahjong hand, but will try to play it best she can.
The film is one of contrast and ridicules archaic rituals and traditions yet depicts them with mesmerising aesthetic elegance. It's a masterful piece of work and will haunt you after the end credits have rolled.
Moral of the film: Trust no bitch.
I was dying to see this film after seeing many of Gong Li's works such
as Ju Dou, and recent films such as Curse of the Golden Flower and
I was thinking to myself, a movie about a guy who has four wives - how could this be interesting? Well quite simply, it's interesting due to the battle you see between the wives who are subtly plotting against one another to gain the upper hand in status and also self respect for a guy whom they don't love, but feel that he is the only one who can provide it for them.
There is a sense of claustrophobia in the film, as our main character, Songlian (Gong Li) at first starts to think this new life as a concubine is quite glamorous until she starts to see the reality of the concubines situation. The shots of the complex they live in almost gives a sense of isolation from the rest of the world and that they are confined in their homes to serve their one and only master, the husband they all share.
The title refers to the fact that lanterns are raised at one of the concubines' houses if the master chooses to spend the night with the one with whom he chooses. You see the four concubines waiting to hear the daily announcement before they sleep as to whom will have the pleasure of spending the night with the master.
Zhang Yimou's films often have a message which can be interpreted in different ways. Some see this film as a criticism of the Chinese Government in that it represents 'the master' 'loyal followers' and those who break the rules end up suffering for it. But if you see it differently, it is more about the repression of women in China and how their only way to gain self worth in these situations is through their husband who has full control. In a sense, the women in this film are treated like, as Songlian says, as a 'robe' that the Master can wear and take off anytime he likes. Songlian struggles to obey all the rules but also tries to play the political game in order to gain the master's attention.
With its simple yet very well told story, with a terrific performance by Gong Li and the rest of the cast, it definitely is worth the watch. Highly recommended.
The film powerfully portrays the life of Songlian (Gong Li) as she
becomes the "Fourth Wife" to Chen a wealthy landowner in 1920's China.
The main plot focuses on the complex "duties and privileges" of the
four wives in relation to each other and their master. Each wife lives
in her own house adjacent to each other. Each night they are obliged to
stand in front of their respective houses and wait for the arrival of
the red lantern. It is a signal from their master with whom he will
sleep that night. This scenario expectedly invites a constant and
intriguing development of plots, subplots and alliances among the wives
in their attempt to gain their masters favor. In the end this dynamic
escalates with the severest consequences for all.
In this film Zhang Yimou visually introduced me to Concubine life in the household of a 1920's wealthy landowner. There I observed interior struggles of "the Fourth Wife" in ways comparable with the character development captured in films by Merchant & Ivory. From the opening scene to the very last frame I was mesmerized by the strong acting of all the cast but most especially with Gong Li. I was impressed by her abilities in Memoirs of a Geisha, but Raise the Red Lantern offered her a bigger stage to present the wide range of her acting abilities.
There Gong Li presented a character who, at times, commanded presence and self-assuredness as she struggled to untangle the complexities of the "duties and customs" of a concubine in their master's household. Yet in the end, her fall from favor and her ultimate downfall was precipitated by her contrasting lack of self-control.
I am pleased to have spent the time viewing this film. I would like to encourage those who enjoy great acting and a powerful story to do the same.
Good movies sweep you away in exotic and convincing landscapes you've never
seen or conceived of before. The best movies create new rules to go with
this new universe and integrate the two with an internal logic which opens
doors to corridors of perception and possibility in your own mind. RAISE
THE RED LANTERN is one of the latter for me. It's one of the best foreign
films I think I'll probably ever see.
As an American with very little background in 1920s China, I was immediately immersed in the totally new setting. The devious characters and surprisingly slippery plot soon similarly captured my imagination. Almost entirely a one-set production, RAISE THE RED LANTERN's claustrophobia is appropriate to the similarly stifled life of the protagonist. The characterizations of the four mistress rivals are all fascinating and disarming; none of these women are quite what they appear to be, but they are all consistent. Fascinating to watch, the strange camraderie between the four rivals for their master's affections is a testament to their isolation and loneliness, which their master seems to rely on. Obviously the social politics of marriage and the sexes aren't very different anywhere in the world, though some of the Chinese customs might appear to be.
I don't want to spoil any of the surprises so I'll close by saying that this film is accessible for anyone. Although it does have the seeming liabilities of being a costumed period piece, subtitled and ostensibly a chick flick given it's clearly female-skewed POV, this is still surprisingly mainstream, especially if you have any interest in a culture outside your own. Even if you're not interested in broadening your horizons, I suspect it will be of value for the light it sheds on the way women think. Deeply moving and thought-provoking, RAISE THE RED LANTERN is an eye-opener. It doesn't always make you feel warm inside, but you will feel something, and it will be real. 10 / 10.
I will be thinking about this movie for a long time. It is one of the
visually most beautiful movies I have ever seen. The acting and plot
and dialogue are all top notch. I'm talking myself into giving it
The protagonist genuinely develops as the film progresses and your views on each of the main characters continually shifts. One of the most powerful elements is that you do feel pity for the protagonist even after her petulant and vindictive behavior.
The title of the movie appeared very odd to me. Probably the most apt title of any film as the weary rituals of the ancient household form more and more meaning. The symbolism of raising the red lantern is the soul of the picture. It represents the total power of the polygamist over his harem.
Spoiler: One of the most interesting displays of this dichotomy between the power of the men and women that the man is having an affair. But when discovered nothing happens. He is already legitimately sleeping with 4 women. When wife number three is caught the penalty is death. I also loved the little power the women enjoyed: whomever has the lantern may set the menu. Our protagonist decides that what is happening is beneath humanity and would rather die than be part of it.
The film feels slow burning but the intensity builds and builds as layers are added to the plot and each character. For a fan of foreign cinema: unmissable.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Raise the Red Lantern is the third film by acclaimed Chinese film
director Yimou Zhang, who's films tend to revolve around the idea of
the older rich man with the beautiful young wife.
After her father's death, Songlian's (Gong Li) stepmother cannot afford to continue to pay for her education at the university. As a result, Songlian reluctantly accepts an offer to become a concubine of a rich older man who already has three mistresses. When Songlian arrives as the 'Fourth Mistress' she is greeted differently by each of the mistresses. The First Mistress (Shuyuan Jin) is the old maid who is set in the ways and customs of the house. The Second Mistress (Cuifen Cao) is initially more friendly and accepting of Songlian than the others. The Third Mistress (Caifei He) is a youthful opera singer who, as a result of her jealousy, tries to make things difficult for Songlian.
The older rich man is simply known as Master, and we never get a good look at him. Despite this, his presence is always felt throughout the house and in the lives of the mistresses, who's lives consist of nothing beyond the walls of the house. Each night the Master visits one of the mistresses. Each day when the master returns from his journeys, the women are expected to wait outside of their houses to see who the Master has chosen to stay with that night. The chosen mistress gets a red lantern placed in front of her, and then red lanterns are hung and lit around the entry way to her house and inside her house.
Although the women are all taken care of, they are slaves in their homes. Forced to live by strict rules with nothing to do except bicker among themselves in an effort to get the Master to stay with them, to increase there chances of providing him with a male child. On the roof Songlian discovers a room that is locked, we learn that it was used to hang a couple of women who did not adjust well to the lifestyle, but we are told this happened many years ago.
As the film unfolds we see just how empty and lonely the mistresses lives must be. Not only do they not get along with each other, but Songlian even has trouble with her servant, who seems out to get her from the beginning. The lack of music in most scenes in the film echoes this idea of solitude, as do the dull gray walls of the house. Most of the color we see, other than the lanterns, is inside the houses of the mistresses. Meishan's (Third Mistress) is the most decorative with over-sized kabuki masks adorning the walls. Although the story takes place in one location, there are a lot of great shots in the film. There are also several shots where, instead of seeing the action, we are shown a doorway and we hear what is going on inside, we then see a reaction shot from someone outside, or someone coming out of the doorway. These scenes allow the sounds and reactions to show us what the camera will not. It is a technique that works well in this film.
Raise the Red Lantern speaks volumes about the injustices done to women in China, and how it is actually slavery for the mistresses, no matter how well the Master provides and cares for them.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Can inevitable and hopeless sadness ever be adequately described?
Maybe, but not, I think, by amateur film enthusiasts or any but a few
professional critics, and only then if they can tame their professional
enthusiasms, can write well and know when to stop. That leaves out,
among us amateurs, nearly all of us. As for the professionals, I've
read only two or three commentaries by professional film critics that I
think do justice to Raise the Red Lantern. Partly, this is due to the
utterly foreign, cloistered culture we're observing. Partly, it's due
to the intense but withheld emotions and motivations we gradually
become aware of. Mainly, I think, it's due to the fact that deep
sadness simply can't be adequately described, and the more we try, the
less we convey.
Songlian (Gong Li), a 19-year-old student in 1920 China, must leave college when her father dies. Her stepmother arranges for her to marry a rich man as a fourth "wife." From then, Songlian's life, everything, depends on the attention she will receive from this man we scarcely see. The first mistress is middle-aged, serene and cool. The second is attractive and appears sympathetic and friendly. The third is young, beautiful and intensely jealous that Songlian may replace her as the most favored by Master Chen. Each has a maid. The servants reflect the attitudes of those they serve, but above all else, they reflect their roles in the Master's house. Again and again we return to an overhead shot that shows us where the universe begins and ends for Songlian...a stone courtyard with stone buildings on either side and the entrance at the end of the courtyard leading up low stairs to where Songlian now will live. When the Master intends to visit one of the wives for the night, it is the custom that the servants ceremoniously raise red lanterns outside the apartment of the favored wife.
And this is all that their lives...and now, Songlian's life...consists of. There is no outside world, only their duty to serve the Master and to follow the customs of the Chen family, which goes back generations. If the red lantern is raised frequently outside Songlian's doorway, a servant tells her, she will soon be running the establishment. The other wives know this. Songlian is educated, sullen and resentful. She may realize that she must establish herself in the favor of the Master and find her place in the world of the wives, but we realize she may not have the guile needed. The intensity of establishing and maintaining "place" means resentments and betrayals. There can be no friendships. Songlian does not play this game well. Songlian's life eventually becomes as desolate as the cold snow that drifts down into the courtyard.
Raise the Red Lantern is a gorgeous movie, as are most of Yimou Zhang's films. The seasons change from spring to summer to fall and to winter. We keep returning to Songlian and to the view of the courtyard, but we also see out over what seems the endless tile roofs of the Master's mansion. High on the roof is a small stone shed that is kept locked and which, it is whispered, had something to do with a former wife.
At first the stone exteriors seem small and the interiors seem to go on and on. We see Songlian dressed lavishly to await the Master's visits. We see ornate furniture, wall scrolls, braziers against the chill and the red lanterns. We seldom see tears. Raise the Red Lantern is no tragedy, but it is a kind of slow-playing, hopeless melodrama. It is a reserved world where for these four women and their servants, everything depends on the Master. For Songlian, everything depends on her willingness to bend completely to this life from which she cannot leave, and to accept that there can be no relief from the need to scheme and plot to maintain a position against the other wives. To befriend can lead to betrayal. To sympathize can lead to rejection. To let slip a secret can lead to death. The customs of the ancient Chen family must be honored and followed, and can be cruel. To serve the Master whenever he wishes, with skill and charm, and to bear him a son, is what life has become, and there is no escape. The Master's life goes on. Our last view of Songlian is in the courtyard, in winter, wandering.
Anyone who reads this should shake their head and wonder what all the fuss is about. Get the movie and watch it, then you try to describe it. You'll feel inadequate.
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