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"Raise the Red Lantern," the story of a college-educated young woman who
becomes the fourth wife to a wealthy man in imperial China, made an
indelible impression on me when I first saw it in the theater. It gets off
to something of a slow start (the first 20 minutes or so), but then the
tension begins to build and the film becomes a gripping psychological drama.
One thing I found appealing about "Red Lantern" is that while the film
portrays a brutally patriarchal system in which women are clearly very
oppressed and dependent on their lord and master for everything, it does not
idealize the women or turn them into doe-eyed, sweet, saintly victims. The
wives and concubines are resourceful, smart, competitive, and very
determined to make the best of their situation... in any way they can. They
can even be cruel and downright evil. Forget the cliche that men are
interested in power and women are interested in love. These women are
definitely interested in power and status -- though, of course, the only way
they can obtain it is by winning the husband's favor. Yet their power
struggles are just as ruthless as anything that happens in the "male" world
of politics, business, or war, and just as fascinating to
The exquisitely lovely Gong Li is superb as the tragic heroine, Songlian. Excellent performances, too, by the other women. Visually, the film is strikingly beautiful; the camera lovingly caresses every detail of the interiors, while the severity of the outdoor in winter occasionally provides a stark contrast to the luxury of the indoors. Sometimes the visuals are almost too lush, yet the style does not detract from the substance.
A must-see, for anyone with a grown-up attention span.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I saw this only once when I was a young woman. I found it riveting and
I am not going to try to repeat what everyone else said, but I want to say something else.
When I reflected on the movie, I thought about the order of the marriages. The first wife was the master's same age. She must have been a beautiful local girl at them time of her wedding, but nothing "special". Now she is an old woman resigned to eternally live in the shadows. She tries to make the best of her situation. She has no illusions about how things are, unlike her replacement sisters who are still vying for "love" from the master. Wife #1 seems aloof, but she knows the rules and she bids her time, like a cat. When she gets her chance to strike, she does not hesitate to kill.
The second wife was younger, a cute, chubby face, and always laughing. She must have been a young, fun, exciting diversion from the first wife when he married her. But eventually, he got bored with her and moved on.
The next wife was a famous opera singer. The master must have grown rich by the time he married her; and she was glamorous, exotic, sought after and talented. Who wouldn't want to marry a star? He must have convinced her that since she was marrying a rich man, and she was so admired, that he would "love" her forever. Then he married her and put his new jewel in a box, only to be played with when he felt like it.
Now comes our protagonist: very young, very beautiful and educated. She is not in love, but only in it for the financial reasons room and board. Her stepmother took her dreams of an independent life and turned her into a whore. The master said something about an "educated woman being different". Apparently, with each wife, he was always looking for something new and different. But the bottom line is this: she is just another sex object for him. I remember first wife said, "How old are you? 19? Such sins". She knows her husband is just a selfish, sex-crazed, dirty old man.
And then there is the slave girl: why bother MARRYING her when . . . .
At the end of the movie: Wife #5: a child. Now I know why #1 said, "Such sins". How will this child survive in this deadly house? I recommended this movie.
Raise the Red Lantern is a film directed by Zhang Yimou which is an
adaptation of the novel Wives and Concubines by Su Tong. The film deals
with a number of issues and handles them with meticulous craftsmanship.
It is a masterpiece in every aspects ranging from storyline to
technical sophistry. This review will be focused on various necessary
aspects of the film but there will be no commentary over it as an
adaptation. The discussion will cover its plot, characters, technical
elements, sound and theme.
The setting of the film is 1920s China. Songlian (Gong Li) is an educated girl who had to marry a rich feudal patriarch because of her mother's will when her father dies. She therefore becomes the fourth mistress of the family that maintains traditions and its orthodoxy rigorously. She finds herself within a suffocating confinement. Her sole focus is narrowed down to get the attention of the master likewise the other "sisters". Interestingly; along with physical satisfaction, the wives' charm in the house seems to rest on getting the foot massage which is given to the particular wife with whom the master will be 'spending' his night. Songlian is a quick learner who starts tricking and fooling other "sisters" just like the way they do. She builds a good relationship with the second wife (Cao Cuifen) and does not quiet get along with the third one. With a number of twisting discoveries, Songlian keeps on gaming until she uncovers something grave in a state of drunkenness in her 20th birthday.
The character of Songlian is the most craftily characterized one in the film. While other characters, especially second and third wives are seen to be only fussily engaged in grabbing the master's attention, Songlian projects an amazing amount of sentimentality, sensibility, anger and calculability. Songlian's maid is also an important character who is characterized to a credible degree. Within a confinement of rules, traditions and orthodoxy; Songlian and her maid have expressions that are praiseworthy. The master and First wife's son Feipu plays a precise but significant role. Other characters serve up to their demand of the plot. This is one of the very few films where there are no unnecessary characters. Moreover, the acting is superb.
The film has brilliant editing and incredibly meticulous cinematography. Kudos must be given to the cinematographer Yang Lun and Zhao Fei. The cinematography is so amazingly mathematical that it turns out to be a work of art. The precision reminds of Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin and some of its legendary cinematography. Editing is very smooth and the superimposition in the last sequence are also uncannily perfect. The screenplay deserves a bow. It's literally hard to find any flaws in the technical sector of the film.
The film uses very little sound. The songs of the "Third Mistress" are enchanting. The introductory music which is repeated several times in the film is very purposive and upholds the stereotypical fact that it is a Chinese film.
The film deals with a number of themes. There is something graver than mere sentimentality because it must not be forgotten that this film was banned by the Chinese Government. The film has all the dramatic themes necessary to make a film attractive. But the main theme of the film serves as a critique of Confucianism that means it is a satire of the theory of a good family. Songlian's condition by the end of the film can be a critical psychoanalytical reading.
To be conclusive, the film is a must watch for both film critics and movie-goers. The film critics will surely find this to be a soothing experience. On the other hand, movie-goers will surely have a good time.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The film is a beautifully crafted and richly detailed feat of
consciousness-raising and serious drama with the verve of a good soap
opera. Against her family's wishes, a teenage girl (Gong Li) in 1920s
China becomes the fourth wife of a rich merchant, and finds herself
competing for her husband's good will against his other wives.
Raise The Red Lantern is an enthralling examination of a male-dominated society; director Zhang Yimou uses colour schemes, meticulously symmetrical compositions and stylised interiors to evoke an inflexible society. It is a film of ravishing formal beauty - to the extent that its look threatens to soften the ugly aspects of the society it depicts.
This is absolutely my favorite film. I have only seen it twice in my life, but I have never found a film so visually appealing, the cinematography is exquisite, the artistic use of color breathtaking. This is a heartbreaking yet inspiring film. I have and always will recommend Raise the Red Lantern to everyone. It has had that much of an effect on me. This was the first foreign language film I had ever seen, and it was one of those life changing experiences. I grew up a lot just watching it, and I came to understand and appreciate life just a bit more. I hope that many of you will take the time to watch this film; it is worth the time and effort of reading the subtitles.
Zhang Yimou's film shows how a genius in one medium (film) can transform a work by a genius in another medium: Su Tong, whose story inspired the film. Su Tong's novella focuses on Lotus (Songlian in the movie) from her arrival as the unexpected Fourth Mistress to Master Chen to her ultimate madness. Su Tong's story, although told in third person, is nonetheless centered on its main character. We initially encounter her on her arrival at the Chen household, when she is mistaken for a poor relation. We know at once that this Fourth Mistress has not received the arrival honors her three predecessors enjoyed. (The film represents this by showing her journey on foot to Chen's compound.). Problems with the young servant girl who attends her are also featured in Zhang's film. The movie invents actions and episodes that clarify events in the source story. Songlian's feigned pregnancy, for example, has no parallel in Su Tong's tale, although the novella does hint that the Fourth Mistress' status in the troubled household depends either on keeping Chen's sexual interest (in the story, he wanes into impotence) or producing a male heir. The movie uses this invention to conflate plot points in the story, notably Songlian's revenge on Yan'er, the servant girl who loathes her. In the story, Swallow (the servant) is forced by Lotus to eat a tissue soiled with Songlian's menstrual blood, which the Fourth Mistress regards as a charm Swallow created to curse her. In the movie, it is Yan'er's revelation to the Second Mistress that precipitates her fate when Songlian punishes her by forcing her to kneel for days in the freezing courtyard. Also, the movie moves to its climax when Songlian, while drunk, reveals that the Third Mistress is sexually involved with a doctor who regularly visits her; Lotus, in the story, knows this, but does not reveal the adultery at all, even though she does get drunk at a key point in the story. Zhang's film brilliantly conflates the story and invents episodes that amplify and - for Western viewers - simplify what Su Tong presents mainly through his focus on the increasingly fragile mind of his main character as well as through images that don't lend themselves easily to film drama. Zhang also invented the ritual of the red lanterns, which serve as a structuring device in the film as well as a correlative of each woman's standing in the Chen household. The lanterns, plus the division of the film into seasons (Songlian's one year in the household), realize on film a pattern in Su Tong's story. That story remains worth reading, if only because by reading it one can truly appreciate the changes Zhang made and the reasons for these changes. Su Tong's story is brilliant; Zhang's film is even better.
Now, 20 years later, I finally throw in my two bits.
This is fine, fine, cinematic storytelling: As great as anything Fellini ever did even in his earlier, narrative-focused work.
This is a film about the greatest tragedy of sexism: That women get relegated to a role as a collective screen upon which men project an image, where that image serves to mask the fact that those men still largely don't know who they are.
And the "mistresses" of the film comprise a bestiary of responses to this particular type of subjugation, each a peculiar species of character perversion: Playing the prim and proper grand dame; fawning on the oppressor while engaging in subterfuge with adversaries; having her cake and eating it too. In the end, I figured it out: These women could be parts of a unitary woman, one who feels the sting of being subject to such a bald, witless systemic hypocrisy.
Apparently, the film got shelved by the Chinese state apparatus for a spell, 'til cooler, more open-minded heads prevailed. Sure: It's a film about abuse of power. So? Who's afraid of Virginia Wolff?
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
There is a master of the household. He has three wives, and is looking
for a fourth. We see his wealth not in his stature or his speech, but
in the architecture of the immense dwelling that can afford to house
all four of them, like separate families. His face is never truly
revealed, always turned away from the camera, in wide shot, behind a
veil, or entirely off-screen (I am reminded of a similar treatment to
the cheating spouses in In the Mood for Love), and this draws our focus
towards the demure Songlian, and seems to suggest that these marriages
are less emotional bonds between two people than means for furthering
the family lineage. Indeed, the sexual servitude is so accepted that it
is never necessary to portray it on-screen, and it has become a ritual
or sorts, a competition between the concubines. The first is elderly
and has already given the household its eldest son, and her dwelling
has probably not been lit by the red lanterns for years, but she still
commands respect. The second is waning, and seemingly welcomes Songlian
with warm smiles and embraces, but yearns once more for the lanterns.
And the third is still beautiful, but nearing middle age, and does not
hold the same attraction as the younger, newer bride. Her room is
adorned with large Peking opera masks, but what once entranced the
master now annoys him. She has become the rooster at daybreak, eager to
disrupt the consummation of the marriage.
There is an air of importance over the family tradition. Whenever the master has made his choice, it is loudly announced, and the wives stand at each respective pathway to their own house as they watch the lanterns be lit (the first is never seen in these stare-downs, because she knows she does not even offer the massages of the second). The lanterns become a currency to garner favour and control of the household; the ability to pick the menu, and the chance to be impregnated, which is slowly revealed to be a vicious battle. When the second is forced to give a massage to Songlian, the third has a venom behind the sweet prodding smile. It is even pervasive enough to spill into the lives of a servant girl, not ugly looking, and favoured by the master, but ultimately of plain birth and unworthy. Songlian is at first nervous and intimidated, but she too learns to accept her life, and becomes furious at the invasive way that Yan'er has corrupted the lantern ritual. But she too is guilty of sin. A seemingly mundane task is made sinister as her lanterns are extinguished (and her the sound effect of the air being blown into the pipe is heightened considerably for dramatic quality) and black covers placed over them, for a seasons long punishment.
Zhang Yimou imbues the film with an awareness of tradition. The first of these is the culture of gossip and scrutiny of others. Again and again we return to the same overhead shot of the central courtyard area, and servants mill around at sounds and cries of disturbance, and take it upon themselves to chastise their fellows who step out of line, and punish with severe consequence, all in the name of tradition. Another is the expectation of childbirth and sustenance of the family line, and the preference of male children over female, and how this sparks fire between the wives, and subdues the first, who is much past childbearing age.
There is also much consideration to the visuals and the composition. Yimou does not seem to map out any distinct boundaries of the household, but there is no need, because the wives feel bound to their expected service over time. At first, Songlian seems to wander, curious of her new life, but only seems to bump into newer horrors. Later, she barely leaves her room, and orders food to be delivered to her. When the lanterns are lit, the colour red is intoxicating, and bathes the entire frame in a ominous glow. The first consummation, shot through a red veil, obscures the sexual act itself, and portrays it as a task that has been completed, rather than something born of passion and attraction. As the third wife sings alone on the worn grey rooftops, she is dressed in a red robe, and there is pain and longing in every syllable, but she does not wish to reveal this to Songlian, and quickly stuffs the robe away and ceases her tune, leaving the scene quiet and dull, and suffocating.
Seasons pass, and one year, and a birthday, creeps up on Songlian. A maid, having being confronted with the harsh unfairness of the common class, is forced by her pride to her death. This is perhaps what keeps Songlian from complete submission into this life; she feels guilt for Yan'er's decision, and the demise of the third wife, who has committed an even bigger sin that cannot be remedied with merely covering the lanterns. As she approaches the forbidden highest room, the music grows tense, and the camera is shaky, nervous, before a cut places us far away from the discovery, framed much like the first sighting of this room. The air is silent, save for her hysterical cries of accusation, which do little in the face of tradition. The cycle continues, and a fifth wife is brought in. Servants once again whisper tales of a woman gone insane, who dared try to struggle against her fate.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The story itself is a common clichés found in the 80s and 90s Hong Kong made serial TV dramas but which usually tells about royal families instead. Zhang Yimou and the movie's creators nicely simplify those settings into the mid-level social class of a wealthy man .But despite this simplification, the intrigue gets even more focused and emphasized. The feel of the artsy movie with lots of long shot zooms and still moments instead supports the drama and made the movie's pace really enjoyable. I felt that the two-hour duration was nicely bearable since the movie piece in its puzzle pieces nicely and still keeps the ending quite unpredictable despite the story contains a lot of clichés about harem and the intrigue inherent in it. The acting overall is a little bit above standard. Gong Li did okay in her performance here although she really had to work more on her expressions.
Songlian (Gong Li) is 19 year old having spent 6 months in university.
After her father's death, she's berated by her stepmother into finding
a rich man to marry. She is relegated to be the fourth wive to the
powerful Chen Zuoqian. Each wive lives in her own identical separate
house within the large compound. The wives scheme to keep the attention
of the master. Each night, a red lit lantern is placed in front of the
house of the wive that Chen intends to spend the night with. Songlian
is given Yan'er as her maid who hates her and is having relations with
the master. The first wive is ancient and resigned. The second wife
seems friendly on the surface. The third wife is an opera singer.
The cinematography is beautiful as well as the exotic setting. Li Gong is one of the most expressive actresses ever to come out of China. She creates a character that is not a simple damsel in distress. She is caught in a machine of institutionalized desperation. This is one of great movies that ushers in a new era of Chinese filmmaking.
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