Old 04-27-2009, 04:24 PM
Yimou Zhang's Raise the Red Lantern

Raise the Red Lantern (1991)

Yimou Zhang's "Raise the Red Lantern" is about a man who feels it necessary to stick to traditions in order to run a smooth household. The thing is, this household consists of himself, his four wives, and servants. These rules are guidelines that must be followed or else there are consequences involved, sometimes very dire consequences. When the fourth mistress arrives, she has no idea what she's in for.

Songlian (Li Gong) has recently dropped out of university after her father died and decides to marry a rich man (Jingwu Ma), who is referred to throughout the film as "Master." She moves into his large estate which contains a main house and four other houses for his four wives. She meets the other mistresses: First Mistress (Shuyuan Jin), Second Mistress (Cuifen Cao), and Third Mistress (Caifei He) (This is actually what they are actually referred to throughout most of the film).

Songlian quickly learns the routine. Every night, the Master chooses who he is going to sleep with and indicates it by having a red lantern placed in the doorway of that house. This is followed by lighting their courtyard and house with many more red lanterns. The women compete with each other for their master's affection and scheme against each other in the process. We observe as Songlian attempts to adapt to this situation.

This is another example of a film that is absolutely beautiful to watch. Like Japanese filmmakers, Chinese filmmakers take a lot of time making everything look gorgeous, from the costumes and actors, to the camerawork and the sets. Most of this film takes place in a vast building that seems very dull on the outside and is only shown to have life when we are allowed to see the insides of the houses. There are several passages on top of the houses as well, making it look like some kind of labyrinth.

The cinematography is beautifully done by Lun Yang and Fei Zhao. They use many long shots to show us the vastness of the estate, but they also show off the beauty of the lead actress, Li Gong. It was an interesting choice to never show the Master's face clearly. He is shown mainly in long shots, but never close up. This was probably done because they know that the Master is not the important character here, in fact, none of the men are all that important in this film. This is the story of the mistresses.

These traditions that they have to hold to revolve mainly around the red lanterns. They signify where the Master is most of the time, that is, when they are being used for what tradition states. At one point, to get the Master's attention, Songlian tells him she is pregnant. Tradition states that the lanterns remain lit all day and all night. Later on, when it is discovered that she has been lying, tradition states that the lanterns be covered, supposedly for shame.

This, of course, begs the significance of why the lanterns are red. Because red is used a lot here, it reminded me of how it was significant in Bergman's "Cries and Whispers." It could symbolize the love that he has for these women and how it's rekindled every time he's with them; somewhat similar to how love was trying to be rekindled in Bergman's film. However, the Master's actions throughout the film shows that he sees these women as replaceable objects. As soon as one is gone or he loses interest in one, he simply brings in another to replace her, making it hard to believe he truly loves any of them.

One of the really interesting things about this film was how deceptive some of the mistresses were and how we only really get to know them as the film progresses. One of them is snobby at first and hates Songlian, but turns out to be somewhat of a friend later on. Another mistress is as sweet as can be when Songlian first arrives, but turns out to be much less than a friend.

One thing that bothered me about this film was how quickly Songlian allows herself to fall into scheming against the others. Not only that, but she also develops a really bad attitude towards her maid almost immediately. When she first arrives at the house, she gets off on the wrong foot with the maid, who wanted to become the fourth mistress. She allows a little sulkiness and envy at their meeting to blow up into a full-on snobby attitude towards her through much of the film. It is only later that she finds that there have been actual reasons for such an attitude towards her.

Her attitude towards the maid and her scheming against the others leads to some very unfortunate consequences, ones that she obviously never meant to happen, but occurred nonetheless because of her mistakes and the rules of the household. She tried to adapt by playing the "game" that the other mistresses had been playing before she got there, unfortunately she wasn't as good at it or as adaptable as they were. In the end, knowing that she can't escape this prison, she tries to adapt again in the only way that she feels she has left.

Despite some questionable actions by the characters, this is still an engaging film that shows us what some people are willing to do for affection when in competition with others. The actresses do a good job of being very deceptive with their characters, never showing their whole hand to anyone. This film also seems to make another important argument; that tradition may not always be the best course of action, especially when lives hang in the balance. We are told that the consequences were inflicted on people from past generations leading us to think that it could never happen now, but we are proven wrong. Perhaps it is time the master rethought his position on tradition. 3/4 stars.
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Old 04-27-2009, 04:58 PM
it's a good film, prefer to live however

yimou needs to back to his roots
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Old 04-27-2009, 05:05 PM
This - and Farewell, My Concubine - were the first two films we watched at University. My mind was blown.

Great review. You should tackle all of the Fifth Generation's work, Hal.

Gotta say, Cosimo, I think you have a point - Yimou has a bigger canvas, and he fills it better than anyone, but there is a disconnect in the last three films which, whilst still excellent, have not made the same impact that his earlier work had on me.

Still a genius, though.
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