(Dir. Zhang Yimou, China, 1991)
Following the Rules
Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern may be one of the most visually stunning films you’ll ever see. The Chinese filmmaker, always attuned to the meticulous use of color, washes his film in gorgeous hues – a penchant that has come to mark the world-renowned director’s career well into the 21st century (though his impressive ‘90s output will always put to shame his lovely, yet excessive and vacant martial arts flicks of the ‘00s). Raise the Red Lantern, one of his earliest films, remains his greatest accomplishment. The film is exquisitely shot, well acted, intelligent, and features unparalleled expertise in framing sequences (Zhang uses the ancient brick walls to effectively imprison his protagonist often placing her in the center of the frame).
Thematically, Raise the Red Lantern explores the effects of long-standing and unquestioned tradition set against the extravagance of 1920s Chinese high society. Nineteen-year-old Songlian (Gong Li) is forced to abandon her studies at a university when her father passes away. Facing the prospect of becoming a strain on her family, Songlian resigns herself to marry young. Zhang captures this perfectly in an opening close-up of Songlian as tears roll down her stoic face recognizing the fate of most women. A wealthy master of a far-off grand house chooses the young woman as his fourth mistress. Songlian learns quickly that ancient customs rule this house, and one step out of line leads to severe consequences. Our fourth mistress uncovers the cutthroat politics of the other mistresses who covet the lighting of the red lanterns at their homes – a sign that the master will spend the night there. Zhang’s use of bright red vibrantly pops against the earthen grays and browns and melancholy blues of the dreary buildings. Here red isn’t used to seduce, but to haunt.
From meal times to simple interactions to the daily ceremony of the lantern lighting, the master and his household adhere to strict traditions. During Songlian’s first week, the second mistress (Cao Cuifen) warns against underestimating these customs. Whoever keeps the master rules the house, she suggests. We watch as the four mistresses use ailments, manipulate each other, and even fake pregnancies to earn the supposed privilege of the lit lanterns. As she grows accustom to the comforts of foot massages and better treatment, Songlian too succumbs to the petty rivalry. Zhang’s Raise the Red Lantern, then, becomes a study in the power of incentives as the ways of the house corrupt even this educated young woman at first determined not to let the security of marriage own her. The film may also possibly serve as an indictment of the treatment of women in Chinese tradition. In one scene, Songlian tellingly declares that she is nothing more than her master’s robe, an article of clothing he can wear or discard as he pleases. Too, Zhuoyun, the second mistress, defines her worth by aiming to conceive a son and carelessly dismissing her daughter as worthless.
Songlian, driven by her intense hatred of Zhuoyun who betrays her trust, ultimately tests the limits of this bestial rivalry when she pretends to be pregnant elevating her above the other three and entitling her to weeks of uninterrupted comforts. When her jealous housemaid Yan’er (Lin Kong) discovers the farce, the girl enlists the help of the conniving second mistress to dethrone Songlian. The household does uncover Songlian’s lie, and the master enforces the ultimate dishonor: her lanterns are to be covered by thick black canvases indefinitely. Humiliated, Songlian exacts her revenge on Yan’er by exposing the maid’s secret of keeping lit lanterns in her own room. The fourth mistress recognizing the absurdity of the customs uses them to punish the girl. Refusing to apologize, Yan’er kneels in the cold until illness takes her. The maid’s death has a devastating effect on Songlian and forces her to reflect and eventually regret the woman she’s become.
The heavy tension felt throughout Zhang’s film is largely due to strong, yet appropriately reserved performances (especially Gong Li’s magnificent turn as Songlian). No emotion is over expressed, no subtle facial expression wasted. In one particularly poignant scene, Songlian meets the first mistress’ son Feipu (Xiao Chu), lured to the rooftops by his lovely flute. Zhang’s camera highlights the intricate architecture of this ancient home in an anomalous orange glow of sunshine – a welcome release from the film’s usual stark hues suggesting a moment of hope. Feipu and Songlian, both youthful and handsome, connect immediately, but a summons from the man’s mother jolts our protagonist back to reality. The two part and the camera captures a forlorn shot of Songlian in the distance pining for the ghost of the young man – a love she’ll never have.
After the death of Yan’er and the departure of Feipu, Songlian retreats into solitude. She envies her maid who no longer must cope with the turpitude of life. When the third mistress Meishan (He Caifei) is caught in an illicit affair with the local doctor, she is sentenced to death for her infidelity. Only Songlian recognizes the twisted double standard of Meishan’s punishment, and in a haunting scene witnesses the horrifying death of the third mistress. Zhang ends his film with the arrival of a fifth mistress. During her first celebratory foot massage, she glimpses a disheveled Songlian mumbling to herself. She inquires of this strange woman’s identity, and the servant relays that she was the fourth mistress who had gone mad. The camera pans out as Songlian wanders aimlessly through the desolate courtyard below until the credits roll. It’s an unsettling ending to be sure, but a fitting one for this tragedy chronicling a regressive social institution and blind adherence to tradition. Zhang’s brilliantly conceived film startles and haunts, but never panders to its audience. It remains an essential part of late 20th century cinema and one that continues to impress today.