Raise the Red Lantern
1992, PG, 125 min. Directed by Zhang Yimou. Starring Gong Li, Ma Jingwu, He Caifei.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., June 5, 1992
Chinese director Zhang Yimou (Red Sorghum, Ju Dou) is the most exciting thing to happen to film melodrama since German emigre Douglas Sirk came to Hollywood and reinvigorated the form in the 1950s. Raise the Red Lantern is like some exotic hothouse specimen that's beautiful to the eye yet caustic to the touch. What Zhang undertakes here is nothing less than a biting examination of sexual politics, mandarin-style. But it's more than that. It's an indictment of the ways in which we participate in our own subjugation no matter what our nationality, era or fiscal circumstance. Set in 1920s China, the movie opens with the decision of 19-year-old Songlian (Gong Li) to leave college after the death of her father and accept the marriage offer of a wealthy older man named Chen because she can no longer endure the company of her stepmother. She will become Chen's Fourth Wife, a concubine in a feudal marriage system. Striking her blow for independence from her stepmother, Songlian seals her fate, enters Chen's family compound and never again emerges. Sucked into this serpentine household arrangement in which each wife has her own residence and courtyard (though they are all connected via a structural network of walls, parapets and roofing), Songlian at first plays to win. And what is won? -- the sexual attentions of the master (who is virtually unseen by the camera). Power within the household is apportioned on the basis of where the master sleeps at night. The rewards for the chosen wife include a sensuous foot massage delivered by a toothless old crone and the power to select the next day's menu for the entire household. An ancient family tradition explains the red lanterns of the title: wherever the master decides to spend the night is ritualistically lit up with opulent red lanterns. Conversely, his absence snuffs out the light and the accompanying attention. At first Songlian thinks she can outwit the machinations of the aging First Wife, the seemingly solicitous Second Wife and the cagey former opera star Third Wife. A faked pregnancy brings Songlian a hold on power for a brief period but its disclosure by her jealous maidservant leads to her ultimate downfall. Her lanterns are draped irrevocably in black and eventully, she goes mad. The movie ends with the arrival of the Fifth Mistress. This movie is more visually restrained and sedate than Zhang's previous Ju Dou, whose saturated stylizations left little to nuance. Here, the formal style matches the regimented feudal system with its controlled patterns and behaviors, though its overall effect is no less calculated than in Ju Dou. Financed by a Taiwanese distributor through a Hong Kong subsidiary, the Oscar-nominated Raise the Red Lantern is off-limits for screening in its homeland of China. Implicit in this pre-revolutionary period tale about people's ideological complicity in their own oppression is a couched allegory about obsolete old men and the harmful traditions governing China.