words and art by w a l t e r w s m i t h

Weekly Movie-Making Moments in Film – Raise the Red Lantern

Raise the Red Lantern…the new wave in Chinese cinema

The beautiful Gong Li in Zhang Yimou's Raise the Red Lantern

http://youtu.be/EyubPCx52uk  – Starring Gong Li and directed by Zhang Yimou (trailer)

http://youtu.be/wB5vKVnJQtQ – A Woman’s fate (monologue)

http://youtu.be/WklufWNh300 – Third Mistress Singing

A woman's fate

China, 1991

Running Length: 2:05

Cast: Gong Li, Cao Cuifen, He Caifei, Jin Shuyuan,
Kong Lin, Ma Jingwu, Zhao Qi

Director: Zhang Yimou

Producer: Chiu Fu-sheng

Screenplay: Ni Zhen based on the novel Wives and Concubines by Su
Tong

Cinematography: Yang Lun and Zhao Fei

Music: Naoki Tachikawa and Zhao Jiping

U.S. Distributor: Miramax Films

In Mandarin with English Subtitles

Raise the Red Lantern is one of the more sublimely beautiful and
openly disturbing films of the 1990s. It is also the best work to date turned
in by the actress/director combination of Gong Li and Zhang Yimou — and this
includes other impressive films like Ju Dou and To Live. Raise the Red Lantern is one of those all-too-rare motion
pictures capable of enthralling audience members while they’re watching it,
then haunting them for hours (or days) thereafter. With its simple story and
complex themes and emotions, Raise the Red Lantern hints at the kind of
film a great director like Ingmar Bergman might have made had he attempted a
story set in mainland China.

The difference between
Songlian (Gong Li), the fourth wife of a rich landowner, and the other three
spouses, is that she is educated, and has been married (by her mother) against
her will. Now, her whole world is reduced to one small compound, and the only
people she sees are her husband, his family, and their servants. She is given a
maid (Kong Lin) with whom she doesn’t get along, and finds her new home to be a
cheerless place, despite all the bright colors that adorn the inside walls.

It’s the master’s
tradition to light lanterns outside the house of the wife he intends to join
for the night. Since Songlian is new to the compound, it is expected that he
will spend much of his time with her. However, on their first night together,
the master is called away to soothe his pampered third wife (He Caifei), who
complains of an ailment. From then on, Songlian realizes that she’ll have to
resort to deceit and manipulation to retain her husband’s interest. And, while
she doesn’t necessarily appreciate his attentions, she realizes that her status
in the household is directly proportional to how highly she is favored.

Within days of her
arrival, Songlian’s relationships with her “sisters” are established.
The first wife (Jin Shuyuan), an aging woman with a grown son, does her best to
ignore Songlian’s presence. She is tolerant — no more, no less. The third
concubine, a beautiful ex-opera singer, is fiercely jealous of Songlian,
worried that the master will find his new, educated bride more enticing.
However, the second concubine (Cao Cuifen) offers friendship and kindness to
the newest member of the family — or so it initially seems.

The Chinese government
didn’t approve of Raise the Red Lantern, and, if you look just below the
simple-yet-effective surface story, it’s easy to understand why. As structured,
this film can be seen as a parable for the corruption of modern society in
China. Songlian is the individual, the master is the government, and the
customs of the house are the laws of the country. It’s an archaic system that
rewards those who play within the rules and destroys those who violate them.
And, when an atrocity occurs (as it did in Tiannamen Square), not only is
culpability denied, but the entire incident is claimed not to have happened.

Looking beyond the
political meaning, Raise the Red Lantern offers a view of life within a
closed, dictatorial social community. Much of the film deals with the
ever-shifting balance of power between the various concubines. Beauty and
sexual appeal are secondary attributes in a battle of wits that demands guile
and duplicity. Bearing a male child is more critical to each woman’s standing
than possessing a pleasing countenance. While the master’s favor determines
which of his wives commands the most power, Zhang illustrates how easily he can
be manipulated.

The acting is effective
enough to illuminate the multi-faceted personalities of the concubines. Gong Li
shines as Songlian, who struggles to be as cold and calculating as her
“sisters” in playing the “game” until a tragedy destroys
her composure (and possibly her sanity). Gong’s performance makes it easy to
sympathize with Songlian; she is our guide through the strange,
ritual-saturated world of Raise the Red Lantern.

The film is beautifully
photographed using a process that captures the vividness of the many colors
employed by the director. Raise the Red Lantern is visually stunning,
and the appeal to the eye only heightens the movie’s emotional power. The
fullness of reds, oranges, and yellows is unlike anything that has been seen in
an American film for years. Zhang clearly understands at least one of the
fundamental rules of film making: that a great-looking picture will enhance a
superior story.

Songlian’s ultimate fate
is wrenching, and the closing scene represents a sad epilogue to a unique
motion picture experience. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie quite like Raise
the Red Lantern
, and, since I consider it to be a defining example of
Chinese movie-making and one of the best films of the ’90s, I doubt that I ever
will again.

The mistress gets her due

Post note: This is one of the best films I have ever seen. 1991 was a great transitional period for me artistically and this film added to my sense of exploration into the art of creativity and the importance of subject matter.

Gong Li as Songlian

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4 responses

  1. That was a terrific movie… I loved the acting and storyline. 🙂

    September 12, 2011 at 5:22 am

    • One of the best films I had ever seen, and really provided me with a great look into the new Chinese cinema.

      September 15, 2011 at 5:36 am

  2. I’m very intrigued to watch this one now! I appreciate your detailed synopsis — it makes me more interested in the story.

    October 15, 2011 at 10:38 pm

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