Zhang Yimou, “Raise the Red Lantern” (1991)
This is a beautiful film of minimal, even severe and classic simplicity, that lets the cruelty and jealous passions of a patriarchal system speak for themselves. Songlian (Gong Li), a beautiful and educated teenage girl must drop out of university after her tea merchant father dies and marry a wealthy landowner in northern China as his fourth wife. She goes to live with him and his other wives in his labyrinthine mansion complex. There, she must conform to the various laborious customs and traditions whose original meaning may have long been forgotten. She must contend with servants who may be well-meaning but surly and jealous of her apparent good fortune, in particular the maid Yan’er (Kong Lin) who is assigned to her as her personal maid. She also has to defer to her husband’s first wife Yuru (Jin Shuyuan), an elderly woman long past child-bearing age; second wife Zhuoyun (Cao Cuifen), seemingly friendly and obliging; and third wife Meishan (He Caifei), a former opera singer, who is upset at being usurped by a younger and more attractive bride and who might scheme at getting rid of Songlian. Over time though Songlian discovers who is the real back-stabber among the wives, and what her maid may be up to. Unfortunately Songlian’s isolation from the outside world, her frustration with the fruitlessness of her new life and the restrictions imposed by the family’s traditions and customs, and her attempts to compete with the other wives lead her to make one mistake after another, and the train of devastating events that follow as a result take their toll on her psychologically so that she is left deranged.
The story is straightforward and predictable – once Songlian discovers the House of Death and a pair of women’s slippers inside, we know already it will be used as the site of execution: the question is, who will die? – and might be boring for some viewers. None of the characters is at all attractive – all the wives compete for the master’s attention in often petty and immature ways (quite typical of harems) – and the women who seem most intimidating and threatening to Songlian tragically end up dying as a result of Songlian’s thoughtlessness, scheming and childish behaviour crossed with the dead weight of family tradition. The master himself comes across as ineffectual for the most part and one wonders whether the real rulers of this particular roost are the servants themselves, obedient to the letter of tradition rather than its spirit. No wonder the Chinese government did not like this film when it was first released: instead of the master actively throwing his weight around, the servants (analogous to government bureaucrats) apply custom (the law) in a way that is robotic and insensitive to the context it is being used in.
The film gains its power by obeying the classic “show, don’t tell” method of revealing its plot, and through it criticising the abuse of power. Much colourful symbolism is used, often achieving comic effects but also becoming repetitive and deadening. The constant raising and lowering of lanterns become cliched and that in itself reveals how custom and tradition in themselves can have deleterious effects on people’s lives. Through characters like Yan’er and Meishan, the film comments on how dreams of a better life or a former life express how women cope with an oppressive social system through escapism and, through those characters’ experiences, how such hope can be turned on them and ultimately kill them.
The architecture of the mansion and the music of the period in which the film is set (early 1920s) are significant characters in their own right: the mansion turns out to be a prison and the music reveals the yearnings and hidden passions of women wanting a better life than what they are forced to have. It seem ironic that the one woman who is finally set free through her own pride from the patriarchy portrayed in “Raise the Red Lantern” is a poor illiterate woman and not a wealthy educated one.