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*** 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 ***
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.
This movie was amazing. I can't even remember the first time I saw it, but I was about seven or eight. I scarcely understood the deeper complications of the story, but it moved me, even then, and even though it was in a language completely foreign to me. The tension between the wives is always intriguing, and I enjoy watching it every time. Seriously, if a seven-year-old remembered the name of a foreign, subtitled film for more than a decade, and STILL enjoyed it when she saw it later, I think most people would get at least a smidgen of enjoyment from this movie. (note: this movie is not necessarily appropriate for seven-year-old's. watch it, then use your best judgment.)
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Set in 1920s China, Raise the Red Lantern begins with a close-up of
Songlian's face. Harassed by her stepmother to get married for over
three days, Songlian finally consents. When asked whom will she marry,
Songlian answers that she will marry a rich man. The stepmother then
intones that if she marries a rich man then she will be nothing more
than a concubine. Songlian answers that it matters little.
Dressed in her university clothes, Songlian makes her way to the family compound of the Chen family where she is installed as the Fourth Mistress. Only nineteen-years-old, Songlian looks to be several years, by two, three, or four decades, younger than the first mistress. Who Songlian states must be one hundred years old. The Third Mistress, a former opera singer, is quite aloof and avoids making contact with Songlian. The only mistress Songlian seems to be able to get along with is the Second Mistress, a pleasant faced older woman.
Within the environs of the family compound there are a number of rules. Besides small things like the specific table where the family sits for meals and pregnancy rituals, several red lanterns illuminate the Mistress's rooms where the Master will sleep the night and the Mistress of said rooms will receive a foot massage given by the skillful Auntie Cao. While the lanterns and foots massages seem inconsequential, one of the mistresses informs Songlian that if one goes without a foot massages for three day, i.e. the Master does not pay her a visit, the servants begin treating her differently. Also, the owner of the room where the lanterns were illuminated the night before can also chose specified meals.
It is within this environment that Songlian has come to live. Seemingly hated by the Third Mistress and even her own maidservant Yan'er, Songlian, who was attending a University until her father died, finds herself tangled in a system of tradition where backstabbing is the rule of the game. However, Songlian is not scared to attack back even at the risk of the safety of others.
Played by the stunning Gong Li, Songlian comes off as a strong, intelligent young woman who is unfortunately ensnared in a less than ideal situation. While living in luxury, one can sense the boredom she must feel. Seemingly imprisoned in her rooms, Songlian is not even able to keep a flute, an heirloom of her father's, because Master Chen is worried that it was a gift from a boy at Songlian's university.
Like other Zhang Yimou films, Raise the Red Lantern is a visual delight. Set entirely within the environs of the Chen compound, one can see a cinematic glimpse into the lives of the Chinese privileged during the 1920s. While quite different than the Su Tong novella on which it was based, there were no red lanterns and the First Mistress's son had a special friend, Raise the Red Lantern is quite an experience that was filmed during the height of the Zhang Yimou/Gong Li collaboration.
This is a fascinating movie that you deserve to see mindfully. Zhang
truly does it, in that he both gives us a clear picture whereby we can
see ourselves with clarity and allows our gaze to wonder outside the
walls of that picture. A fascinating interplay between these two
notions of concentrating the gaze and letting float just so happens to
power Chinese spiritual life, more on this in a bit.
But now quickly to see what is it about, what clear picture emerges? A young girl has to enter a household as concubine, becoming one of four wives of a rich merchant who live inside a walled compound. So immediately the outside world of myriad possibilities and stories closes down behind her and us and life acquires a palpable order.
Various rituals take place that together comprise a larger harmony. Magnificent red lanterns are lit outside the home of whichever wife the husband has chosen to spend the night with; the rest have to return disappointed to dark houses. A foot massage is given to the chosen wife that night, punctuated with a repetitive sound that echoes like temple chimes signaling the time for prayer. Other rituals: the camera itself doesn't roam freely but specific views are established. Looking down from the tiled roof, another facing the bed. The husband is never seen from up close, as if he exists outside this order.
Taken together all these modes insinuate a world that is meticulously groomed and controlled, given structure and color that ritualize appearances. Very Chinese. Each time the lanterns are lit we know one woman has been chosen to be the center of this world for a fleeting night, life given a ceremonial glow.
But is this harmony that we see? The obvious point is a critique of traditional mores left over from the old days and accepted unthinkingly, lives stifled by the walls imposed on them and how the four women scheme and vie for primacy in the order of things. It doubletimes just as well as a veiled critique of communist walls. Party censors thought as much and the work was banned in China.
All of this will be readily available to the Western viewer from our own traditions of painterly beauty and institutionalized oppression. We can rest there and speak the usual platitudes about "the human condition", walk away thinking the film is all about how bad life was for women in China. Or we can - as with Mizoguchi before - attempt to cross into the world that gives rise to these images and reflects a more encompassing view.
Zhang's meticulous abstraction (color - sound - camera - all of it bound by the cyclical turn of weathers outside) comes from a worldview where the same energy is felt to move through man and nature alike, not Western in the least. He's working in a long Chinese line of practiced abstraction with roots in the tea ceremony and the calligrapher's scroll where the effort is not decorative beauty for its sake. It's cultivated awareness that guides the spiritual realization that we are what we bring to life. The calligrapher controls his hand like someone who meditates concentrates his attention - so that it will begin to radiate effortlessly with what rises up from a unfettered, mindful heart.
So if you don't just pass by like a visitor who looks pitifully at the cruelty of some faraway time and its victim? If you use the film to center within the walls of your own life that happened to you? In that case the film has wisdom in store, another view of seeing self and world.
This is the notion that you have been born into this life and have now come to this house, circumstances made it so. Life could have been better, it could have been worse. We see a housemaid who'd love nothing more than to be a wife while the third wife manages to live a life without despair and regret that lets her sing freely. Will you add to the unhappiness, cause unhappiness to others, go mad?
The title of this post refers to a mandala - a sacred space for the concentration of the gaze in Buddhism - frequently seen in Chinese temples; it depicts the universe as wheel and at the center lie craving and ego. See this like a mandala, see yourself in a life that you set in motion around the one ordained from above.
Something to meditate upon
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Zhang Yimou's Raise the Red Lantern, based on Su Tong's 1990 novel
Wives and Concubines, is simply a sublime film which explores the
social climate of China's past and present through the story of a young
woman becoming a wealthy man's fourth wife in the 1920s. The film has
sometimes been read as a comment on communism or feminism, but in its
heart it seems to me like a comment on the human condition in general,
and remains one of the best Asian films I've seen. The film's now
famous distribution issues started in China actually, where the film
was supposedly banned for a short time even though the script was
approved by the censors. The controversy was apparently raised because
the movie can be read as a criticism of traditional Confucian ideals.
It was later adapted into a homonymous ballet by the National Ballet of
China, also directed by Yimou Zhang.
The movie is set in a single family compound and practically every scene happens inside its walls. This location also serves as a microcosm in encapsulating the past (or the current even) Chinese society in a nutshell. It's a story of several women trying to get recognition or control the situation in which they're practically powerless, bound to a master whose face is constantly obscured or out of camera's reach. The final shot of the Fourth Wife walking in circles outside her ex-room is particularly striking as it shows that fighting for progress and standing up for yourself is basically pointless and will get you nowhere as the system will run you over.
The story takes place throughout the four seasons, and many of the outdoor shots repeat with a different weather mechanic or differently arranged lanterns decorating it, to portray the never-ending cycle of cruel tradition which lives on and on, regardless of the time period. The weather may change, but the lanterns stay. But really, you just have to love the visual design of this movie. Static camera and very formal framing, the beautiful usage of shades of red, the huge traditional housing location whose magnitude completely swallows the characters... I also love how the four mistresses' respective rooms are all designed differently, my personal favorite being the Third Mistress' room, full of colorful theatrical masks. It's just a beautiful movie in every sense of word.
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