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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 ***
This is a very brief review of "Red Sorghum" (1987), "Ju Dou" (1990),
"Raise the Red Lantern" (1991), "The Story of Qiu Ju" (1992) and "To
Live" (1994), five films by Zhang Yimou. Each film stars actress Gong
Li, each works as a companion-piece to the other, and each deals almost
exclusively with the oppression of women within early 20th century
Zhang's debut, "Red Sorghum" stars Gong Li as Young Nine, a peasant who is sold to a wealthy leper. Things only get worse for Nine, who must fend off a series of rapists, mean men and the Japanese Army itself, all the while running a successful winery. Throughout the film, Zhang uses boxes, deep reds and tight squares to amplify Nine's sexist surroundings. Indeed, the film opens with Nine literally forced into a box, a social reality which she spends the film attempting to break free of or even transform. For Zhang, China wasn't "disrupted" by the Japanese invasion, it was hell long before. Like most of Zhang's films during this period, "Sorghum" sketches the cultural and socioeconomic conditions which spurred China, with hopeful arms, toward Maoism.
Zhang's next film, "Ju Dou", covers similar material. Here Gong Li plays Ju Dou, a woman sold to a violent oaf ("When I buy an animal I treat it as I wish!") who owns a fabric dying establishment. After her husband is crippled, Ju Dou forges a relationship with Yang Jinshan, a relative. When Ju Dou and Jinshan have a child together, the kid grows up into a mean brute. Like "Sorghum", "Ju Duo" is a tragedy obsessed with rich reds, boxes and patriarchal violence. Whilst its plot superficially echoes Zhang's own adulterous, then-scandalous affair with Gong Li, Zhang seems more interested in the way Ju Dou and Jinshan hide their illicit affair from other villagers. For Zhang, the duo's tacit submission to social mores merely validates the notion that their love is scandalous and so merely validates the symbolic power of the crippled patriarch, a power which Ju Dou's son must as per his mother's very own actions thereby respect and avenge.
The arbitrary nature of power, and how this power is always "symbolic" and always unconsciously maintained (via ritual, personal belief and shared delusions), is itself the obsession of Zhang's "Raise the Red Lantern". Here Gong Li again plays a woman sold to a wealthy man. This man has several other wives, all of whom begin to violently fight one another in an attempt to win the patriarch's adoration. "Is it the fate of women to become concubines?" a character asks, pointing to the film's deft critique of feudal relations. Zhang's first masterpiece, "Lantern" is again obsessed with reds, boxes and sequestered women, though here Zhang replaces the voluptuous colours, camera work and widescreen Cinemascopes of his previous films with something more restrained. Because of this, Zhang's conveying of claustrophobia and oppression, of mind and spirit pushed to madness, feels all the more powerful.
Next came Zhang's "The Story of Qiu Ju". A near masterpiece, it stars Gong Li as Qui Ju, a peasant farmer who embarks on a quest to avenge her husband, who's had his crotch kicked in by a village leader. More emasculated by this attack than her own husband, Qui Ju's quest takes her all across China, dealing with a Chinese bureaucracy which seems quite helpful, polite and even rational. And yet still this bureaucracy does not please Qiu Ju. It thinks in terms of commodities, monetary recompense and punishment, whilst Qiu Ju (like Zhang Yimou himself, whose previous films were banned, without explanation, by Chinese authorities) seems more interested in acquiring a "shuafa", a simple explanation and apology. By the film's end, both the "primitive justice" of rural China and the "civilized justice" of modern China are simultaneously mocked, praised and shown to be thoroughly incompatible. Zhang's first "neo-realist" film, "Qiu Ju" was shot with hidden cameras, amateur actors, and so is filled with subtle observations, cruel ironies and beautiful sketches of peasant life.
One of Zhang's finest films, "To Live" followed. It stars Gong Li as Jiazhen, the wife of a wealthy man (Ge You) who is addicted to gambling. When this gambling results in the family losing its mansions, riches and status, Jiazhen and her husband are forced onto the streets. Ironically, this set-back saves the family; the Cultural Revolution arrives, and with China's shift to nascent communism, all wealthy land owners are demonised, attacked and killed.
Unlike most films which tackle life under Mao's Great Leap Forward, "To Live" carefully juggles the good and bad of what was essentially a nation shirking off feudalism, monarchs, uniting and then trying, clumsily, to cook up some form of egalitarian society. This quest results in all manners of contradictions and socio-political paradoxes: community, solidarity and a simple life save our heroes, but their world is one of paranoia, danger, and in which everyone and everything is accused of being "reactionary". The film ends with Jiazhen's daughter dying, a death which is the result of both unchecked consumption (a doctor dies gobbling food) and communist "reorganisation" (all competent doctors have been killed/jailed for being counter-revolutionary). This jab at communism got the film banned in China (further highlighting the insecurity of the regime). Ironically, Maoism saw massive positive health care reformations, and saw an improvement in mortality rates which at times surpassed even then contemporary Britain and parts of America (life expectancy doubled from 32 years in the 1940s to 65 years in the 1970s). But such things don't concern Zhang. Spanning decades, "To Live" is mostly a broad account of life, love, loss and growth (the personal and political), all unfolding upon a canvas that is devastatingly cruel. Significantly, the film's title is both adjectival and a command; this is "what life is", but one must nevertheless "always push on". Gong Li and Ge You in particular are excellent.
8.5/10 - See "Black Narcissus".
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Zonglian is a woman forced to drop out of college and marry a wealthy
older lord when her father dies. But she is merely a fourth wife who
must live in a house, as does her three "sisters". The man chooses one
of four wives each night, and red lanterns are lit above the respective
wife's house. This causes the wives to resent each other and compete
for his attentions, and even Zonglian's maidservant plots against her.
After Zonglian gets herself disgraced by making the false claim that she had been impregnated by the lord, she forms a sort of friendship with the formerly jealous third wife, who admits having an affair with the family doctor. But things get even worse when Zonglian is tricked into admitting the secret.
China was never a happy place under Communism, but it certainly wasn't much better before it either.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Raise the Red Lantern is directed by the well known Chinese director Zhang Yimou. Zhang has created a piece of work that is rich with symbolism. His use of colour and differing camera angles capture the unspoken emotions and atmosphere constantly surrounding the narrative. Raise the Red Lantern reflects on Confucian attitudes and the welfare of women under this regime. Zhang uses cultural tradition to critique the past. While this tradition serves its purpose in the film it must be recognised as a conscious attempt by Zhang to self-orientalise. His use of hyper-real traditions further demonstrates his need to emphasise the exotic and make the film appealing to an international audience. Colour is used throughout the film to create atmosphere, depict emotions and symbolise power. Zhang has a history of using the colour red in his films. In Raise the Red Lantern I believe the colour red is used to symbolise power and also the lack of power. Each evening all the mistresses must line up outside their houses to await the master's choice of who he will spend the night with. The mistress who is chosen is presented with a glowing red lantern at her doorway and the approach to her house is lit by red lanterns. This display of red gives power to one over the many. With the honour associated with being chosen to lie with the master comes power of choice over the other mistresses and servants. The chosen mistress may choose what food is prepared for all, where she will eat it and can demand usually unobtainable services from servants and mistresses alike. In this instance the colour red is a symbol of power for the mistress. In the same instance this colour red can be interpreted as a lack of power for the mistress. The red lantern being presented to the mistress could also represent her powerlessness over choice. She has been chosen by the master to sleep with him; she has no say in this decision and must subject to his will. Yet another reading of this symbol is that of the western notion of a red light representing prostitution. A common symbol of prostitution in the west is having a red light over the doorway and lends to the name "red light district". This western understanding of the colour red may have been adopted by Zhang in this film to further its understanding and appeal to western audiences. For when you review the way in which the mistress is chosen, is used as a tool to gratify the man and then left at his discretion, it has many similarities to prostitution. Contrasting the bright colour red is the muted backdrop of subdued hues of Grey. This backdrop creates a sense of melancholy and impending despair. It also highlights the bright red of the lanterns, furthermore emphasising whoever has the lanterns importance and power over the rest. I believe that the lanterns themselves are also very symbolic in the film. The lanterns are the lifeblood of the female characters in the film. When the lanterns are lit the characters have hope and life, when they are out they live in despair. When Songlian is found to have tricked the master about being pregnant her lanterns are not only put out but also covered. This symbolises her hope being quashed, she is from then on ignored by the master, left to live in the muted background and fated to turn mad. Another example of the lantern symbolising hope and life is with Ya'ner . Ya'ner steals lanterns to try and emulate the hope and life that the mistresses enjoy. When Ya'ner is found out she is forced to kneel in the snow while her lanterns are burnt in front of her. This symbolises her hopes, dreams and life being destroyed. She dies after this episode. Raise the Red Lantern is also a critique of the not so distant Confucian society that dominated China for over a thousand years. Zhang focuses his portrayal of Confucian values on the power relationship between genders. Such examples are evident throughout the film. The husband in the film, only ever referred to in the film as "the master", is the patriarch and untouchable. The master has four wives/mistresses and has the power to call on any one of them to fulfil his needs. His mistresses have no choice in when or how they are chosen, they are treated as objects not as people. The fact that he is married to all four women and yet they are never referred to as his wives is an example of their lack of power and status. Zhang uses two characteristics common to Fifth generation film makers in his telling of Raise the Red Lantern. Both self-orientalising and hyper-real situations are evident throughout the film. Zhang purposely over exaggerates many of the cultural practices and the extent of their influence. He does this to draw attention and make the film more exotic and enthralling to an international audience. He focuses on the negative and brutal aspects of Confucian society to perpetuate the western belief that Chinese society is brutal and archaic. In his attempt to make the film more exotic he also creates hyper-real customs that he sells as authentic. Key depictions such as the use of the red lanterns, the use of the voodoo doll by the servant and the 'traditional' foot massage are examples of an imagined culture created for the benefit of the viewer. Raise the Red Lantern is a gripping, emotional and vivid critique of Confucian society. It makes use of extensive symbolism to enhance the narrative and further the viewers understanding of key themes. Zhang has focused on gender power relations, in particular the lack of power women were afforded in Confucian society. He has used traditional as well as hyper-real cultural practices to emphasise and highlight the moral miss-comings of Chinese culture and in effect has reinforced western views of cultural supremacy.
*** 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.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I rented this without being familiar at all with the title, or actors,
or Director. I was glad I gambled on it.
What is beautiful, is the absolutely wonderful acting, the cinematography, the clothing, and the manner of decor.
What is disturbing, is the manner in which women were used, what they were subjected to, how the method of living pitted the women against one another, and how the new and intelligent 4th Mistress fell into the trap and game of it all.
What is ironic, is how certain methods of living were to bring about peace and tranquility, yet this method shows only turmoil, agitation, competition that becomes dangerous, and the resulting heart breaking insecurity and fear.
What is cruel, is the manner in which the women are left to fight for these 'bone tosses' of foot massages (that are still not even really a gift for them - yet a kind of method used to prepare the women for intercourse and to better serve the Master, as he himself stated), and for the shreds of attention from the Master. How incredibly demeaning to have to stand there each evening to see where the red lanterns will be hung that night. I was thoroughly disgusted.
Though they are all expected to support and exalt one another, did you notice what the 1st Mistress whispers after the very first meeting with the 4th Mistress? Ironic. If a rich man's way of life with having several wives and concubines is acceptable and even respectable and honorable, why then would it be considered sinful and wicked for the women who became the Mistresses to him???? The irony.
All this makes for one very powerful message that was sent out. No wonder it was banned in that country. No wonder it never made it to the theater screen over there.
This film is a powerful work of art. Do see it.
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