Raise the Red Lantern (1991) Poster

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Beyond words
jeff_stryker7 November 2000
This movie has it all, betrayal, conflict and tragedy. I have to say that I couldn't live without it, effectively anyway. The political criticisms tear at the spine of the film and the beauty of it in such an intimate setting is outstanding. The use of such a rich, three dimensional setting defies what we have been taught by the mainstream as being beautiful and sets a standard on a budget that I would love to be aware of, that all Hollywood movies should aspire to. It shows us that film, real film that is, does not need $100 million to look good, rather the combination of a haunting setting in the middle of vastness and the equally haunting beauty of it's star, Gong Li, but at it's heart the house itself resembles a claustrophobic pot, boiling over the surface.

This is in my opinion, Zhang Yimou's greatest film, it is a triumph in film form and narrative. The haunting sounds of flutes, a significant visual and audio element that has a mythical quality due to it's importance to Songlian and becomes an unattainable item of the gods when it is removed from existence when it is burned, becoming a tragic reminder on the attempts to vanquish the personalities of not only Songlian but all of the concubines. It's slow burning nature may repel the masses but anyone who can get a copy, do so without fail, you will never regret it. I cannot stress the importance of this film, we may see it as a study on the oppression of women in China, but this is universal, we westerners once did the same thing not too long ago.

For me the cinematography is what sells the film, it is the best I have ever seen and ever will. If there is ever a film to promote the use of the three strip technicolour process once again, this is it. Long after you have finished your post film analysis, the light from the red lanterns will still be searing in your eyes.
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Brutal politics in a marriage of concubines
Dennis Littrell12 February 2001
Warning: Spoilers
(Note: Over 500 of my movie reviews are now available in my book "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote!" Get it at Amazon.)

Raise the Red Lantern is one of the most extraordinarily beautiful movies I have ever seen. The sets are exquisite tableaux carefully arranged, decorated and framed, and then shot from an attractive angle. The scene as they drag the third mistress, kicking and screaming to the tower of death, with the snow falling so peacefully onto the rooftops was chilling in its effect. The startling blaze of color, light and detail within the houses set against the drab simplicity of the courtyards, continually provided a contrast between life within the protection and at the favor of the master, and life without. This dichotomy is symbolized in the vibrant red lamps and the somber blue hue of the lamps when they are covered. In this manner, the mistresses are controlled. I was also struck by the sonorous beauty of the accompanying Chinese music.

But more compelling than the beauty of the film is the story Director Zhang Yimou tells, a tale of paternity and imperious privilege set in early twentieth century China. He begins with the newly arrived fourth mistress, 19-year-old Songlian, a university student who, because of the death of her father, is forced to quit school. She chooses to marry a man of wealth. She is warned by her stepmother that she will be a concubine. She replies, isn't that our fate? Her cynicism and then her robust energy in seeking her ascendancy over the other sisters engages us and we identify with her struggle.

What is extraordinary about Zhang's direction is how easily and naturally the personalities of the characters are revealed. The first mistress ("big sister") is too old to be of any sexual interest to the master, yet she is the mother of the eldest son. The second mistress, who has given the master only a daughter, still dreams of having a son. Her devious schemes and plots are hidden by smiles and fake good will toward her sisters. The third mistress, an opera singer still vibrant and beautiful (in a fascinating performance by the intriguing Caifei He), uses her allure in vying for the master's attention. Songlian, in spite of herself, finds herself caught up in the competition with the others.

Gong Li, who plays Songlian, is very beautiful with a strength of character that one quite naturally admires. She has the gift, as does, for example, Julia Roberts, of being able to express a wide range of emotion with just a glance of her very expressive face.

Serving as a foil to the mistresses, and perhaps as the most poignant victim of the concubine system, is the servant girl Yan'er, played with a compelling veracity by Kong Lin. She is occasionally (how shall I say this for Amazon?) "touched," to use Songlian's term, by the master, and so she dreamed of being the fourth mistress. But when the fourth mistress arrives, her dreams are shattered, and in her jealousy she hates Songlian and plots against her. One of the most memorable scenes in the movie is when Songlian, thinking Yan'er has stolen her flute, forces open the servant girl's room and finds it flooded with.... Well, you should see.

Note well that the master is only hazily observed. He is a personage, a man of wealth. That is enough to know about him. He is as interchangeable as the harem masters on a beach of elephant seals. But because he has wealth, he can engage concubines who must compete with one another through him to find their station in life. One gets a sense of what it might be like in the harem system practiced by gorillas and the sheiks and warlords of old. One pleases the master not because one loves the master (although one does of course because humans tend to love their masters) but because in pleasing the master one rises above the others. Thus the triumphant call, "Light the lanterns in the third house!"

Most people no doubt lament the life of the mistresses. Yet women in poor places may wish such a life upon themselves. But concubines are just prostitutes, really, one might say, trapped by a system of male privilege. But I would remind those who see only that, that for every wife the "master" has, that is one wife another man will not have. The system does NOT favor males. It favors wealth and privilege. In such a system there are many men without wives, fomenting unrest, which is why modern states forbid polygamy.

What does a man do with the capital he accumulates or inherits? If the system allows, he spends it on women and the assurance of his paternity. And why is that possible? Because many women--Songlian is our example--would rather be the fourth wife of a rich man than the first and only wife of a poor man. Many women would rather be used by a man of wealth than rule the household of a nerd. This is the way humans are, and any sexist interpretation of this movie misses this truth.

The real horror depicted here, though, is in the brutality used to maintain the system, not in the polygamy itself. The women who follow the rules and beget the master's children, especially if they are sons, enjoy a pampered and secure existence Those who do not are dealt with severely, branded as mad, or even murdered. Note the similar experience of the wives of Henry VIII, for example, within the English system of serial monogamy.

This is a great movie, like a timeless novel fully realized, directed by a visual genius, from a script of great psychological power. Don't miss this one. It's one of the best ever made.
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A Lyrical Beauty
gbheron26 December 2000
"Raise the Red Lantern" is set at a Chinese baronial estate, the time, the 1920s. But, as the family-servant dynamics are placed on display, the viewer begins to feel it could be a thousand years earlier. The story is shown through the eyes of a young college-dropout played by Gong Li. Family misfortune has forced her into concubinage as the "fourth mistress" of the Chinese lord. A headstrong woman, her relationship with the lord's household, especially the other three mistresses, form the basis of the story. But it's telling is as important as the story itself. This is a beautiful, well-acted, well-directed movie. Slow-paced, it ingratiates itself with you, drawing you in deeper and deeper. I can't think of anything that warrants improvement. A masterpiece.
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Engrossing from the first moments
jonr-33 March 2004
My interest was maintained throughout every minute of this rather long film. I don't remember when I've seen another film in which every single role was played to perfection. (Incidentally, this wonderfully believable acting seems to occur in at least some, if not most, of the roles in every Chinese movie I see, from the mainland or otherwise.)

The story is one of classical simplicity, in in large part presented with the same classical, clear quality. The interplay of passion, jealousy, and revenge is reminiscent of Shakespeare, but, for me, more entertaining--if it's proper to speak of such ultimately somber and even horrifying subject matter as entertainment.

I unhesitatingly gave a vote of ten, and noticed that a full 33% of voters so far had done the same--very unusual.

When Roger Ebert called "Raise the Red Lantern" "breathtakingly beautiful," he wasn't exaggerating. But beyond its beauty, its moral seriousness, the fact that not for a moment is it "dumbed down" in the regrettable Hollywood fashion, its superb acting, and its almost unbelievably perfect pacing, make it a rare, rare experience.

"Red Sorghum," the only other Zhang Yimou film I've seen so far, I found somewhat propagandistic but gripping and visually stunning (even more so than "Raise the Red Lantern.") I will be making an effort to see more of this director's fairly extensive body of work.

It's a shame major theater chains don't schedule movies of this caliber instead of the torrent of commercialized Hollywood trash they foist on the public, which, alas, seems only too eager to wallow in more and more of it.
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Shocking, thought-provoking and very well-made.
GlowstickChick9 November 2001
I can certainly understand why this film is so critically acclaimed. Raise The Red Lantern is one of the only Chinese movies I've seen, but I'll definitely admit that it's unusual to see a film this stylistically masterful come out of Hollywood (although it can happen -- The Thin Red Line, for example). A lot of what makes this film work is Zhang Yimou's outstanding directorial style; his use of color against bleak background is especially effective. It's his hypnotic visuals that keep you interested throughout the slow progression of the story. And the amazing acting by most of the performers doesn't hurt, either; everything feels completely real.

I think of this as one of those movies that you aren't supposed to enjoy; it shocks you, and leaves you just as disturbed as, considering the subject matter, you should be. The miserable story of Yan'er, the servant girl, is especially painful to watch, and the same goes for the unfolding of the last few scenes. But I think the fact that I was so unsettled by this movie probably just goes to show how well it gets its points across. And along with the remarkable acting and directing, that's definitely something to be respected.
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A Masterpiece beyond the definition
urlamajor27 December 2003
Every frame of this film explodes with excellent acting, cinematography, music and art direction. I never thought I would see something so beautiful in a foreign film since Ingmar Bergman's work. This is by no means, an art film this is a human film, while holding an ethnic background these people portrayed in the film are all of us and is probably what we would call a fable on the cruelty of humanity. I'am disgusted to discover this film isn't on video or DVD in america. It seems as if its popularity has run thin since the 90's but this is a masterpiece people!
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Exquisite haunting whispers of China
Deidra29 November 2004
In response to the comments that this film is boring, shallow or without a character to identify with: Please study some Chinese history before you make such judgments. The story we see is a visual treat but overlays a much deeper story of China in myriad aspects. Perhaps you are unaware that films and books of the period had to tread lightly on topics that were not merely taboo but could result in danger for all connected. Thus, a slight symbolic representation often took place. Sort of poetic shorthand. Not unlike Chinese art that may seem to be about the season of autumn but is actually about death or change or loss. Nevertheless, any film must stand on its own regardless of the background. This film includes acting scenes that are incredibly forceful and still so gentle. The photography, costumes, sound and music blend into a cinematic work of art. I found the character completely believable, a woman bound in a tradition from which she found no escape except death or madness. And for those who sneer at the opera singer, imagine how the music you enjoy would sound to someone who has a completely different background. Please accept cultural diversity and let your mind and heart be enlarged!
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joe_ng2916 August 2004
I don't care what anyone says, this film belongs in the top 10 films of the 90s worldwide...the story, the implicit attacks on the Communist regime, cinematography, direction, and acting (Gong Li was superb) coelesced into one extraordinary piece of cinema magic that transcends both cultural and language differences. The film was so refreshing and exciting for me, yet it was also quite a dark film. Not a lot of "conventional action", instead, the intensity of the film comes from the actor's and their emotions. A very powerful film, and disturbing one at that. Job well done...Zhang Yimou was brilliant with this one. If you're a lover of great cinema, then this is a must. I'm already hounding at Criterion to take on this film.
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An awesomely emotive and touching performance
John Ruffle11 July 2006
"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.
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The Impossible Exit
two-rivers20 March 2000
Warning: 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.
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Haunting, horrific . . . a monster movie in all but the genre
Delmare12 August 2008
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.
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Exquisite film from a master storyteller
Marta17 October 1998
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.
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Amazing film of domestic tragedy in 1920s China
pooch-82 February 1999
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.
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Haunting, yet beautiful
olgaryabaya13 June 2006
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.
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Four Houses
tedg19 March 2008
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.
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A longer view
hron24 September 2000
We Americans are accustomed to our fast moving world and our equally fast paced movies but the older countries of the world have something very valuable to offer in cinema, if we can take some time, literally, to consider it. This movie brings that mature stateliness of the old world before our eyes in almost an indelible way.

Moving in a very slow and artfully calculated rhythm, one scene slides into another, each setting a perfect little painting that can almost distract the attention away from the action and the dialog. The story develops gradually, starting out as a situation that is completely unfamiliar to the viewer and progressing stepwise through increasingly familiar emotional territory until even the 21st century American knows exactly where things stand.

The story is absorbing and the comment on Chinese society is important in today's world, but the main interest for me is the mood of meditative quietude and the rather dreamlike atmosphere that is generated continually, until it saturates right through.
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Gong Li
patita-17 March 2002
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
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A Beautiful Film
hcour19 November 2007

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.

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This movie will haunt you.
girl_pearce26 December 2012
Warning: Spoilers
Think of this film as an old school Girls at the Playboy Mansion… on crack.

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.
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Stunning masterpiece! Subtle but so effective.
thomvic25 September 2010
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 Memoirs.

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.
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Psychological thriller about 1920's Concubine life in China.
tomaspatricio4 July 2006
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.
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Subtitler of Incredible Power
secragt10 October 2003
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.
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Still Remains in my Memory!
larrysmile124 March 2006
"Raise the Red Lantern," as the English title is called, still remains in my memory. This is a wonderful film. It's no matter that it is subtitled. You can follow the story through the emotions and acting ability of its cast. There is no doubt that this is a "10" film!

The story, while not traditional to Western culture, works well to keep the viewer guessing at what will come next in the story. Clearly, Li Gong shines in her beauty, her acting ability, and her magnetic appeal on the silver screen. The cast is well assembled and each perform their character roles with perfection. The set and scenery is opulent in design and yet suggestive as to how a rich man of the 1920s might live during those times.

You should try to rent this film from a video store or purchase a copy of a VCR or DVD, if available.

Folks who like foreign films must make this outstanding film a viewing priority. If you are just wanting to experience a foreign film of Asian vintage than this is one to consider. It is not your standard martial arts fantasy film. "Raise the Red Lantern" has a real story and real acting to match.

I really like this film!
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poignant and beautiful
studentgrant757 January 2010
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 10/10.

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.
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