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13 November 2005

Raise the Red Lantern (1991)

Gong Li (Songlian, Fourth Mistress), He Caifei (Third Mistress), Cao Cuifen (Second Mistress), and Kong Lin (Yan'er)

Directed by Zhang Yimou (House of Flying Daggers)

Mandarin title: Da hong deng long gao gao gua

Since no one else's summary seems adequate, I'll concoct my own:

In 1920s China, nineteen-year-old Songlian decides to marry for money after her father's death forces her to withdraw from university. She weds the master of a powerful, tradition-laden family who already three wives, each of whom lives in separate houses within the great castle. Every night, the master decides which wife will share his company, and a red lantern is lit in front of the house he chooses. Because their master's attention carries power, status and privileges, competition between the wives is fierce and holds tremendous consequences.

I saw this film back in 1995, I believe, and it was my first exposure to the work of either Zhang Yimou or Gong Li. I have since seen all of their collaborations and some solo projects, but this remains a stand-out. Knowledge of two key plot points, recalled from my initial viewing, served to lessen the narrative impact this time around, but the film itself remains a timeless commentary on various aspects of human nature, albeit in an exaggerated setting.

Gong Li, still very young, portrayed a fantastic combination of innocence and power, independence and bitterness. As the Fourth Mistress, who can Songlian harass other than her maid? As an intelligent young woman, a former university student, how can she reconcile her knowledge and ideas against the humiliating, ancient customs into which she married?

While much has been made of the fact that the Master's face is never revealed - he is seen in profile from a considerable distance, but there are never any close-up shots - I was more fascinated by the fact that the Master's greed for ignorance fueled his wives' jealousies. All he (said he) wanted was peace among the "sisters," but his willingness to be manipulated by one wife or another drove them to seek his company and favor, like children seeking the attention of a slothful but omnipotent parent. Sure, the Master is sexist, anonymous and could represent any number of men throughout human history, but his hypocrisy was the most blatant offence. He could have had peace within his household with a judicious and fair application of his attentions, but I got the impression that a man like that would appreciate the squabbling as evident proof of his power and desirability (either as a lover or, at the very least, as the authority figure). He remained faceless throughout, but like the wind, he moved everything around him, even Songlian who thought she knew better.

The red of the lanterns is the only significant use of color in this movie, but it foretold Zhang's eventual use of color to the Nth degree in Hero and House of Flying Daggers. For a two-hour film, I felt very little time passing. The pacing and strategy among the women is fantastic, as is the building tension - knowing that the center cannot hold with Songlian's addition to the family. And oh, those costumes...

Blogger Mircalla said...

I really want to see this film, but it wasn't either at the local library or at the local video shop. :o (

Blogger John said...

you can buy it on amazon - check the region code on your dvd - if its region 0 - the US amazon version should work. i highly recommend it. its one of the most beautifully staged chinese movies and is heartbreakingly sad.

Blogger Mircalla said...

I am based in London. I will have a look at Amazon UK, but I did not want to buy it before having seen it--although you also confirm that it is worthwhile. Thanx

Blogger Diva Kitty's Mom said...

My fav. movie of all time.


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