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Zhang Yimou solidifies his standing as one of cinema's most brilliant craftsmen with Raise the Red Lantern, a heartbreaking and fascinating look into the life of a young, well-educated woman who gives up her future to become the fourth wife of a wealthy landowner in 1920s China. Gong Li, the director's longtime muse, delivers a performance nearly unsurpassed by anyone, male or female, in the 1990s (and many other decades, as well). Her opening close-up is an indelible image of sorrow and resignation capable of drawing tears out of a statue. Zhang Yimou makes films as exquisitely composed as any master's painting, and his palette extends beyond the obvious beauty of Gong Li to include the details of the courtyards, lanterns, silks, and rooftops with an inexplicable mixture of tranquility and austerity.
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.
Songlian(Gong li) is the fourth wife of the elusive Master.When she arrives in this secluded remote place the other wives pay attention,the film shows the female vanity and a competition to gain the master affection but why? This women seems not to be in love of this man but I was most intrigued by the presence and personality of the young Songlian,she seems not to belong there,we know she is an educated lady who was sold as concubine. Songlian looks very delicate but she proves that she can be strong and even rebel.
The great chinase Director Zhang Yimou did a wonderful job to focused on the beautiful,flawless face of the impressive Gong Li.The film begins when we see her face on the screen and a tear drops slowly.Other poignant scene is when her flute disappears why she makes too much noise about it?is the only gift she had from her late father.
When the winter arrives and the snow envelops this place it seem more remote and eerie Then a series of tragedies occur and the heroine starts to fade slowly. I think that the ending is so sad but at the same time is like a fairy tale To me.Songlian looks like a ghost walking around,alone without a soul .She represents a tragic past that will always haunt this place.
I'm a big admirer of the actress Gong Li,all her films impressive me in different levels: `Jou Du'; The Story of Qiu Ju; Farewell to my Concubine. Her face and reactions is her treasure, Gong Li is the most beautiful actress I had ever seen, unique,talented and vulnerable. 9/10
I had a good day, so I selected this film. I have several films that I
reserve for good days because I know they will reward. Its a sort of
celebration that will send me into rich dreams, annotating my life.
This has two known qualities that you, dear reader, can expect without knowing anything about the film itself.
First, you will know that this is a woman directed by someone deeply in love with her. This doesn't always produce great films, but when the director is inherently cinematic, it often evokes something deep in the viewer. There is nothing in the world like looking on the face the person you are centered on. A million subtle decisions are made in each scene, summing to an effect that cannot be missed. If this had poor narrative qualities (and some of their films did) it would still have this quality of seeing into a soulmate deeply enough to be able to animate the skin.
Its quite interesting when you consider the woman. If you see her outside of film, or in films made by ordinary eyes, she is quite ordinary. She has an atypical Chinese body: busty and widehipped. She is poised but doesn't have the neck or cheekboned face of other Asian women. Only under this man's eye is she a goddess. You can see this in the very first shot.
The second thing you can count on is the architectural anchoring of the thing. This man knows how to use space. He uses it in the cinematic narrative, for example, if you replay the shots where the house of death is shown, and then the last encounter with it... And if you understand why the decisions about handling distance and surfaces were made they way they were, you will have entered a zone where from now on you will not be able to reason without reasoning with place.
But there are other handlings of space: As with some of his other films, the building is a character. Its the noir narrator who sets the rules often arbitrary under which all characters are bound to operate, and which drives the narrative. Its a particularly western notion, this, and has gotten our hero in trouble, even banned. This part is following Welles and Kubrick.
But he goes further than either of them with this notion that the light both has agency of its own (it selects which of the four wives gets a foot massage and sex) and is a part of the fabric of the buildings. The redness changes the spaces it occupies, bringing intrigue with the sex, desire for several things. Its quite layered, what is going on. These lanterns are the real master; in fact the person who inhabits the master's body is hardly even there. We never see his face.
Because of the extensive use of hard planes and selfish light, there aren't many fabric effects here, as we'll see elsewhere.
I am tempted to designate this as one of my two allowed "must see before you die" films of 1991. But I'm in too good a mood to make such a serious decision.
Ted's Evaluation -- 3 of 3: Worth watching.
"Raise the Red Lantern" is a haunting study in oriental charm. The
beautifully framed shots have a lingering, almost hypnotic quality as
the household travels through the seasons in an endless journey that is
guided by ancestor worship, protocol and "doing the right thing" even
when it is bitterly, disastrously wrong. The pathos is etched in stark
reality upon the face and graceful movements of Li Gong, who takes the
lead as Songlian, the 'Fourth Wife'. One of the most emotive faces upon
the cinema screen, she delivers an egg-shell-fine performance that is
at the same time hardy, robust and wise.
The audience never gets to know the human face behind the husband. Maybe there is no face, no humanity there. It matters little, because this is indeed the only face his four wives and his carefully ordered household ever see. He is indeed, their captor, not suitor. The ageing male housekeeper maintains the order of the house, and in his hands, the raising, lowering and covering of the red lanterns becomes a symbol that stains the entire film red.
This picture needs to be understood to be appreciated. I can imagine that some will be frustrated by the apparent lack of action, the apparent lack of characterisation. But this is indeed the film's strength. We share in the pain and frustration of everything always being as it has been, yet nothing ever being really as it seems at all. The characters take on the mask-like appearance of ghosts, except that right in the middle of it all, living and breathing human beings are caught, stripped of their will, and subjugated beautifully; their sterile riches suffocating them.
In the VHS version I saw, the cover notes were very poorly written and misleading, hinting at a particular love interest that (fortunately, I can say) is not in the film, yet ignoring the symphony of clashing hearts and minds that are central to the wonderfully woven plot. If you have the same 1995 PAL UK widescreen release version that I viewed, my advice is read the IMDb summary on the film and don't take the sleeve notes too seriously.
Everything about this picture is superb. It is a two hour poem of finely balanced regret and retribution. Be fortified: and to really imbibe this at full strength, let the narrative disturb and move you. Let the pathos of the images wash over you, and be - just a little, perhaps - changed forever.
Her father dead and her family bankrupt, 19-year-old Songlian (Gong Li)
relents to her stepmother's calls for marriage. She drops out of school
and becomes the concubine of Master Chen (Jingwu Ma) a wealthy
merchant, who welcomes her into his household, lavishing her with
treatment more luxurious than any she has known. Yet luxury, as always,
comes with a price, and the three other mistresses in the master's
house (Caifei He, Cuifen Cao, and Jin Shuyuan) are less than
enthusiastic about the sudden presence of an attractive young rival. To
make matters worse, Chen decides, on a daily basis, which of his four
concubines will receive his nocturnal patronage. The woman he settles
on receives all the services the house has to offer, and the women who
come up short are summarily forgotten. Consequently, the women must
jockey for position, all vying for the privilege of the titular
lanterns, lit outside the house of whatever woman is lucky enough to
receive the master's company.
Raise the Red Lantern a genuine masterpiece bears the fruit of the planet's last three-strip Technicolor lab, located in Shanghai, and you can't so much as glance at the screen without noticing the difference. Lanterns dangle from the eves of the buildings and burn with lavish brilliance. The brightly clad protagonists leap from the backdrop of drab-colored stones. The lights of the houses glisten in the intermittent blizzards of oncoming winter. Every single frame in the entire movie is enough to make the mouth water, yet for all its deliciousness, it's never the beauty of what we're looking at that holds our attention so much as the ambiguity of that which remains off-screen. We never see the entrance to Master Chen's massive, sprawling compound, nor do we get a clear idea of its size, its layout, or its exact population. It appears to have no limits, expanding outward to infinity, encompassing all of China. Becoming China. Master Chen, for his part, is something of an enigma. At no point in the film do we get a clear look at his face. He's more concept than creature, inseparable from the oppressive rules of his house, from the dictums of tradition, from Chinese society at large.
For China, the 1920s was a time of collision, between ancient traditions and the rumbling of modernity, between entrenched patriarchy and the almost teasing suggestion that women might begin taking stock in their fortunes. The protagonists of Lantern, and Songlian in particular, bear the brunt of this clash. Caught between the promise of freedom and the reality of servitude, they can only find power in the privileges of the house, and yet the more they exploit these privileges, the more the privileges control them.
Yimou goes to great lengths to remind us of this fact, jerking us back and forth between long shots and close-ups, from beginning to end. Long shots create an almost Kubrickean sense of emptiness, dwelling on vast, impersonal spaces in which characters seem to vanish against their will. Close-ups zero in on all the incidental details that make up the daily routine the foot massages and the preparation of the afternoon meals all facets of the unassailable dead weight of tradition. Editing the film in this way makes us feel like there's no relief from the prison, regardless of our perspective, regardless of where we're at in relation to the subject at hand. Even the sound effects begin to feel like wardens. The clack of the foot massage, the eerie rush of the lanterns getting blown out in the morning, the periodic voice of the compound crier, announcing where the lanterns are to be lit, and who will receive the privileges that go with it . . . all of it creates an incessant sense of continuum. An unbroken cycle. A pursuer that never gets tired.
I could go on and on with my praise, but doing so would be insult to the strength of Yimou's storytelling. Watch it, love it, and ask yourself why the devil they don't make movies like this all the time.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Four women of different age groups are held prisoners in the estate of a
rich man. Although they occupy houses of their own and have got personal
maids, they are held like slaves, who have to be prepared to do their master
services of love, whenever he feels like it. Then lanterns are lit in front
of the respective house, just to signal the other concubines that they don't
enjoy the master's favor this night.
Songlian is a newcomer in this miniature world. She didn't want to move into it: After the death of her father she was sold to the rich man in order to ease the financial worries of her stepmother. Therefore she can't lead a self-determined life and continue her student's career, as she had intended.
Unlike the other women, who adapt to the prevailing condition and who manage to give to their lives a certain passion or meaning by their continual intrigues and their wooing the master's favor, Songlian soon becomes a silent and introverted rebel. The mourning she shows after her master has deliberately destroyed the flute she once received as a present from her father reveals an obstinate clinging to a happier past. A simulated pregnancy, detected by the family doctor, eventually leads to a break-up with the old patriarch, who feels deceived and dishonored.
But Songlian's conduct only leads to ostracism and isolation, not to liberation. Her insight that the establishment of an absurd set of rules cannot conceal the actual insignificance of such an existence does not find an outlet in an escape and a new beginning, but in an insatiable longing for self destruction:
"To light the candles, to extinguish them, to veil them...It has become a matter of indifference to me...What are we really, those who live here? We are less than nothing. We are like dogs, like cats...or like rats. We aren't human. It would be better for us to hang ourselves in that room..."
It is not Songlian's life though that ends in "that room", but that of the vivacious third concubine, a former opera singer. She dies a violent death, and, ironically, it is Songlian who betrays her, when, under the influence of alcohol, she unintentionally gives away the secret of a love relationship between the singer and the doctor.
When she is conscious again, Songlian has to accept the fact that this way to exit from an unwanted stage can't be considered either. Now she has no other choice than to escape into madness - quite a radical way to cut herself off from the life that surrounds her. In consequence, at the end of the film we just see her wandering around aimlessly, lost in an endless to-and-fro across an empty courtyard which the raised red lanterns in front of the concubines' houses illuminate senselessly.
It's been days since I've watched the movie and it still seems as
though I'm haunted by it. A movie is yet to make the same impression on
me. Yes, movies exist that cause frightening images every time you
close your eyes, but they're mainly either based on gruesome scenes of
blood and torture or involve ghosts and other somewhat fictional
characters. Well, the director of Raise the Red Lantern required
neither, the work, in my opinion, of a great artist and scholar of
humankind and the human mind. From what we mainly know, only ghosts
haunt the human world but what if we were to imagine that death is not
necessary, and that instead our own selves can haunt the present even
alive. What if through human suffering, rivalry, jealousy and the
imprisonment of the mind we can destroy our souls and spirits. And what
if even worse, it is not other ghosts or "evil spirits" that cause
this, but our fellow human beings. I believe this is the reason why
Raise the Red Lantern finds a small place deep inside its' viewers: it
speaks of the horrifying effects of humankind that each one of us can
be affected by of death during life.
Songlian, only nineteen years of age, used to attend a University in China in the 1920's, all until her fate took a fatal turn leaving her in the mansion of a wealthy man, never to know the outside world again. This mansion does bring its luxuries: foot massages, a private room, your own "faithful" servant and somewhat of a husband - all until your servant becomes jealous of you, you rival with the Master's three other mistresses, and possibly countless others to come, and best of all, most of these luxuries are only provided so that you could better entertain and care for the Master, including bearing children for him. Once the women's' dreams are lost, what remains? - a need for passion and attention is something that each of the women rival for, and which some would be willing to do anything for, whether or not it be humane. Jealousy is strong and deception all the more so; the characters' lives are all intertwined and every action can cause a chain reaction, leading to the degradation of the human spirit and mind. What amazed me most about the director's work is the use of color to depict emotion and the techniques used to create tension, fear, struggle and a distinct message and point of view without ever having to show us the crime being committed. Every season throughout the story and every character, personality and emotion is linked to color. The various use of color tinting: demonstrating sunrise and sunset, light emitted by the red lantern in its different shading and position, the symbolism behind the red lantern and the women's condition within the mansion, and the draping in black curtains of Songlian's lanterns when she has committed a crime against tradition are both visually stunning and extremely effective in creating the mood of the time. Each woman's room fits hand in hand with their personality: the opera singers (Meishan's) elaborate and bright coloring as opposed to the First Mistress' dark, old wood furniture and darker clothing. And lastly, what I have seen few directors do, Zhang Yimou shows us less to make us feel more: scenes of torture and crimes, in many instances we are not shown them or the faces, instead we only view them from the perspective of one of the characters. The use of sound and long camera shots allows us to embody the characters and experience the story all the more, and because each of the four actresses dove deeply into the character of the women, this experience is truly amazing.
Set in 1920's China, RTRL begins w/a close-up of 19 yr old former student Songlian (Gong Li) as she tells her mother of her intention to marry a rich man. Songlian has had to quit college, as her father has died and the family can no longer afford tuition. Her mother warns her that to marry into wealth is to become a concubine, to which Songlian replies bitterly, cynically, "Is that not our fate?" Li has kept her face impassive during this scene, then just before it closes, a single tear slowly emerges from each eye, dropping one after the other. It's a beautiful piece of extraordinarily controlled acting.
This scene sets much of the style of the rest of the film, as well as introducing the predominant theme of women's subservient, almost invisible role in that society. The mother is never seen, the camera stays static on Songlian, just as she is at the center of rest of the movie. Li is in almost every scene, everything happens from Songlian's pov, and in those few sequences in which she is not on screen the action is influenced by her character and they almost might be occurring just as she would imagine them.
The opening also sets the emotional tone of the movie. RTRL reminded me somewhat of Scorcese's "The Age of Innocence" in that both are about deeply repressed, "mini-societies" built on social classes. The characters rarely express themselves directly or honestly, everything is below the surface, and tensions run deep. Periodically emotions and conflicts boil over to the surface and are quickly repressed again, w/o resolution. In this way the tension builds and builds w/o any substantive release.
I won't go into the plot much, it's fairly simple: Songlian lives in a bizarre world, the fourth mistress, the newest and youngest, to the master of the household she joins. There are 3 other mistresses, each progressively older, each receiving less and less attention from the master as they age. The plot is essentially about how the mistresses vie for their master's attention while they attempt to out-manipulate each other for that precious recognition.
RTRL has complex themes, but I think the film is mainly about the emptiness and pointlessness of these women's lives in a society that sees them as having no worth, and how they destroy themselves and each other because of their insecurities and lack of self-respect, in an attempt to achieve (what they regard as) some kind of self-worth. At one point Songlian refers to them all as "living ghosts". The women scheme and play petty games to one-up one another, they humiliate and degrade themselves and each other, all in an effort to be the Queen of their little world, a world no one cares anything about except themselves. The master couldn't care less, he laments that the women can't get along but he plays them one against the other and they all go along w/it, even though they know they're being manipulated and degraded.
The women do not see themselves as having any significance on their own, it is only when the master "lights the lantern" in their house, when he favors them as sexual partners, that they become in any way of value in their own eyes and in the eyes of each other and the rest of the household. The master has an ongoing affair w/the servant Yan'er, who had hoped to become the 4th mistress. When Songlian barges into Yan'er's room she finds it full of red lanterns, a travesty that breaks the "tradition" of the household. Yan'er imagines herself a mistress, and this gives her self-worth, but of course it's false, just a fantasy. Yet her fantasy is just as real and meaningful as the actual mistresses w/the actual red lanterns - which is to say it has no real meaning at all.
In the microcosm that is the society of RTRL women are barely acknowledged as human beings, they are sex toys and baby vessels. The mistress that has a son gains stature, while the one who has a "worthless girl" is ashamed and humiliated by it. At the end of the film, in a scene of chilling beauty set against the falling snow on the rooftops of the estate, the 3rd mistress is taken away and murdered. Nothing comes of it, no one seems to really notice or acknowledges it even happened. It's as if they had disposed of some garbage. Except to Songlian. In an act of rebellious despair, Songlian lights the lanterns in the house of the 3rd mistress and plays a record of her singing opera. It is as if to say: "She was here. She was a person. She had worth." In a final, great irony, the rest of the household thinks it is the ghost of the 3rd mistress singing and lighting the lanterns. Such are the lives of women in the world of RTRL: Ghosts in death as they are ghosts in life.
In the end Songlian sinks into desperation and depression so deep that she is incapacitated, regarded as "mad" by the rest of the household. In the final shot she wanders aimlessly among the red lanterns around her courtyard, a trapped and helpless spirit in a world where she feels she might as well not even exist.
When she arrives she finds her future fate before her. A real Yimou classic and, I hold, the best he ever achieved. What he does is show you a rich man's harem that has a constant rising and falling where his sexual opinion of these poor young women hangs above their heads like the Angel Of Death. As she arrives, she observes the rituals with even the choice of meals going to the flavor of the week. Yimou drives home how these women live in utter terror of losing favor. The mystery of the room on top of the palace I will not ruin for you. It haunts this movie and is not revealed until the very end. Suffice to say, the sexual double standard of promiscuity was never more fatally rendered in a movie. Great performances all across the front cast with Yimou's trademark visual brilliance will grab you and not let go of you. The master's cruelty is subtle and not loud and stupid like in The Quick And The Dead: A little sneer here and there, little acts of cruelty. I love Ju Dou, my second favorite of his, but this towers above it. Like moths circling a flame, the tragedy to come is foreshadowed all throughout the movie, you sense the singer's horrible fate. Like the triad boss in Shanghai Triad, the master's Evil is hidden from view until the end. This movie, unlike Ju Dou, is not linear, it is an existential circle.
She becomes what she beholds at the beginning, in both Ju Dou and this classic, Yimou is showing you what Americans never had the joy of experiencing: being reduced to human furniture or workout / baby making equipment. Devoid of any rights, any horror could be visited upon you with impunity. People in European or Asian countries who had a feudal history know the truth of this lesson much more than people here in America do. Yimou stresses how this competition, which is to the death, naturally produces feuds and betrayals amongst the women. The bitterness and spite all flow from this battle for the creep's favor. Nearly as dark as Ju Dou, do not expect to be whistling a happy tune at the end of this classic. If you have never seen a Zhang Yimou movie, this is a great first movie to watch. Yes, detractors, Communists tend to take critical views of landed society, agreed. Like Mark Twain, I happen to accept the criticisms of both groups of detractors of all economic systems. He is biased against feudalism, from his socialist perspective, that doesn't refute the truth of his criticisms.
The movie can best be described to you as a transporting experience into a reality where beautiful young women were reduced to sexual workout equipment and their lives together competing to stay alive and remain in favor. The horrors of falling out of favor, or, the worst of all, daring to be promiscuous like this landed slime, are the core of this dark tragedy. Yimou's motif is how the very social structure of this manor produced a never ending living in fear amongst these poor beautiful women. There are moments are friendship and caring, this is not some dark socialistic cartoon, both sides of human nature are on display. When our protagonist sees the tragedy of the singer her mind departs this earth leaving her body behind her. What is the point? To learn as the Buddhists teach that existential position of another's Spirit is another form of greed. It will cheer you right up, sadly, as Arthur Schopenhauer taught, it is the sad nature of our existence that only seeing how much worse it could be is how we often make it through another night. Yimou is a visual impresario, he will take you into Night but it is a lesson well worth your time. Like Paradise Road, it shows you women trying to keep their dignity and Spirit in the worst of realities. She escapes the only way she could, like the one before her. Who Can Blame Her? Another Beautiful Flower Crushed Beneath The World's Wheel, My Friends. A Masterpiece Of Night. Q.E.D.
"Not A Pleasant Thing To Live In Fear Is It? That Is What It Is To Be A Slave." From Blade Runner
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