Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Review: Raise the Red Lantern (Zhang Yimou, 1991)

Long banned in China, Raise the Red Lantern is an intricately conceived, and beautifully captured melodrama from Chinese multiple award winning director Zhang Yimou (The Story of Qiu Ju, Hero and House of Flying Daggers). It was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 64th Academy Awards, and is an adaptation of Su Tong's novel, Wives and Concubines.
The film is set in Communist ruled China in the mid 1920's. 19-year-old Songlian (Gong Li), who has suffered the death of her father and now resides solely with her step mother, is instructed to leave her studies at University and become the mistress/concubine of a wealthy gentleman to maintain the family's struggling financial status. This is a period of Chinese history where wealthy men can live in feudal glory and keep a number of wives enslaved within his Palace. Songlian reluctantly agrees to become involved with this life and becomes the fourth and newest wife to a man who already supports three. She becomes embroiled in a power struggle with the other wives to win favor from the master, who lights the red lanterns in the individual courtyard and quarters of the wife he chooses to spend the night with. They are also treated to a foot massage, and have the choice of lunch the following day. At the end of every day the four women assemble in the main courtyard, where the master reveals whose lanterns will be lit for the evening. The wives visit one another during the day, and you get the sense that the overbearing jealousy that develops is sure to end sourly, making this an insightful and shocking picture of the extremes of this Communist period.

Songlian is a headstrong and rebellious young woman, who was forced to abandon her dreams of attending college, and thrown into a world she doesn't understand. She seeks to ruffle the feathers of her servant Yang (who despises Songlian, because she had dreams of becoming one of the Master's wives), and the other women, often placing her at dangerous odds with the master. Songlian (by accident or on purpose) cuts the second mistress' ear when attempting to cut her hair. She then fakes her own pregnancy to gain favor over the other women, only to be discovered and revealed in the lie by her servant when she takes her period-stained trousers to be washed. Later, she becomes uncontrollably drunk and reveals that the third mistress (the opera singer) was having an affair with the palace doctor, resulting in the woman's execution.

The beauty of the architecture and the richly adorned living quarters of the four wives are all stunning. The intricately crafted kimonos of the women, the striking color contrasts (especially the illuminated red throughout their quarters from the lanterns) and the detailed faces of the women are notable features that contribute to the films visual purity and voluptuous quality. The performances, especially from the lovely Gong Li (a Zhang Yimou regular), are all top notch. The film is so strict in it's examination of the women that the Master, who is present in a number of scenes throughout the film, is often trapped in the periphery of the shot, and is never given a close-up. Raise the Red Lantern is a commentary on the treatment and humiliation of these women, at one level the mistresses and below them the servants, who are rewarded by playing in favor of the rules of the governing household, but then are ultimately destroyed upon violation. Songlian reveals to the third mistress at one point in the film that "we (referring to the women) are like cats, dogs and rats, but are certainly not people." There are few melodramas that resonate as powerfully as this, and arouse such beauty in relaying it's tender emotions.

The film concludes with a pair of powerful sequences that should be recognized. The first is when Songlian embarrasses Yang by removing all the lanterns she had smuggled into her own quarters. Yang had dreams of marrying the master and was living out her own red lantern fantasy. The lanterns are burned, she is ridiculed by Songlian and appropriately punished, but out of shame she remains sitting before the charred remains of the lanterns until the bitter cold hours of one wintry morning, where she faints. She is taken to the doctor for treatment but ultimately dies from her sickness. The second scene is following the revelation of the affair, and the third mistress is being roughly carried by the Master's servants across the snow-covered rooftops to a locked tower. The pain on Songlian's face is heartbreaking as she stealthily follows the troupe. The cinematography here is chillingly observant, as Songlian crouches beneath raises buttresses on the roof and peeks over to witness the woman's execution she herself innocently caused, as snow flakes settle in her hair and on her shoulders. She sets herself free from guilt and torment by later lighting all of the lanterns in the deceased mistress' quarters, and playing her opera as a tribute. I really can't fault Raise the Red Lantern, widely praised as one of the masterpieces of Chinese cinema. I was moved throughout, and the story is often enraging and shattering for the viewer.

My Rating: 5 Stars

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