Zhang Yimou has emerged in recent times as one of Mainland China’s best known directors, having directed the recent international successes Hero (remember, it’s Quentin Tarantino Presents Jet Li’s Hero for us!) and House of Flying Daggers. His films have been very successful on the film festival and arthouse circuit for a long time, however, and I’ve managed somehow to never see any of them.
So, when World Movies presented this as one of their 25 Films You Should See Before You Die, I watched it, reasoning that at least it would allow me to shuffle off my mortal coil with a World Movies-approved clean slate. And it’s a good film, albeit very different from my usual diet of swordplay and martial arts.
The story concerns Songlian, a young, university-educated woman who is forced to become the concubine of a wealthy landowner in order to support her family back home. She becomes Fourth Mistress, the fourth concubine of the older man in question, and her world quickly shrinks to the universe within the four walls of his domain. She is quietly (but firmly) informed how things are run here, according to ancient family tradition, and told that she must obey the rules if she wishes her life to be easy and confortable. Chief among these rules are those governing the lanterns — red lanterns are lit outside the chamber of the wife who will sleep with the master that evening, and she is given a foot massage and the right to choose dishes at dinner.
Adjusting to this existence isn’t easy for Songlian, though — she’s young and strong-willed, and unhappy at being forced into her situation. In addition, she must contend with the other three wives; the older matriarch First Mistress, the middle-aged, tired Second Mistress, and the young, Opera-trained Third Mistress. Since power for the women in the household comes from attracting the master’s favour, they struggle and scheme to ensure that their lanterns are lit each evening.
Raise the Red Lantern has a very distinctive look to it, with saturated colours and very static, simple cinematography; most shots are balanced, compositions are centered, and the camera moves slowly if it all, inviting us to examine the effort that’s gone into the sets and costumes. The master is seen rarely, and then only in long shots, obscured or reduced to a disembodied voice in many scenes. This focuses our attention on Songlian and the other Mistresses, who are the the real subjects of the story. Gong Li, as Songlian, plays a character with a great deal of depth and does so incredibly well, thoroughly out-acting (in my opinion, anyway) Zhang Yimou’s newest leading actress, Zhang Ziyi. She portrays a complex, human character who undergoes a huge change in surroundings and struggles to come to grips with the different constraints and freedoms of her life as Fourth Mistress.
It’s a subdued, beautiful-looking drama, presenting a fascinating look at the position of women in 1920’s China. Gong Li puts in an excellent performance, and the costuming, sets and use of colour are impressive on their own. Some might find it slow (it is a drama, no teahouse fights or bamboo forest whirlings in this one), but it’s a rewarding watch if you give it some time. Check it out, before you die (along with the other films on the list!)