As part of China’s Fifth Generation of filmmakers, director Zhang Yimou behind Raise the Red Lantern situates the camera lens upon a suffocating compound in a rural area whose characters pressurize every square foot.
To understand potential motivations and influences, one notices the fraught history Zhang Yimou’s family had under communism. With the reigning government usurped by the Communists rise to power in the 1960s, Zhang’s father lost his position as army major. As a result, Zhang himself experienced stark conditions in a labor camp then later worked in factory. The communists targeted education and bourgeois values flaunted by the former ruling class. The year 1976 brought an end to the Cultural Revolution allowing a return to intellectual pursuits. Soon after, Zhang Yimou enrolled in the Beijing Film Academy. Filmmakers in China’s Fifth Generation encountered a minuscule audience at home, yet received acclaim in the foreign festival circuit. Grouped with them, Zhang ascended in his career during the 1980s. Even though Mao’s tyranny had ended, Zhang faced censorship many times for his films. In fact, his Oscar nominated Raise the Red Lantern (1991) proved out of compliance with China’s guidelines, which banned the film. Zhang’s plot addresses and unearths many taboo topics China preferred to remain hidden.
The film opens on a tightly frame shot of a young Asian woman reacting to an off-screen voice effectively communicating an end to her enlightened college path. Songlian (Li Gong) realizes her stepmother with her father’s passing is not invested in keeping her in school. Cutting quickly to the solution her stepmother has in mind, Songlian suggests being a wife to a wealthy man no matter wives he may already be bound. The stepmother feigns surprise then silence overwhelms the atmosphere and Songlian. Without blinking, tears stream heavily down her face. No whimper or grand hysterics, but a cry with resigned defeat.
In her college attire, Songlian carries her luggage along dirt country roads to a sprawling Chinese courtyard house. Songlian attempts defiant dignity toward several servants to rebel against her introduction as the fourth wife aka the obvious younger concubine. Upon entering her house quartered away from the other wives, any semblance of spirit is snuffed out as serving women hurriedly prepare her for the first evening with the Master. Significantly, the entire film barely offers a decent glimpse of the husband because his nuances are not worthwhile information. Rather, he represents the patriarchy oppressing women. For me, I had watched James Ivory’s 4k restoration of Howards End (1992) earlier the same week I had viewed this film. Both films inhabit a similar time period 1910/1920s with their women restricted, but the degree of subjugation in China was more menacing. Songlian’s distress the following the wedding night offers one of the last upset moments she outwardly displays. Instead of dealing with the savagery of her predicament, Songlian is given an opportunity to enact her anger toward the other wives, her competition for the Master’s favor.
Desperately clinging to kindness no matter the source, Songlian formulates her opinions of each wife and servant as either friend or foe. This approach aligns with survival. However, first impressions and slights blind Songlian to her true adversaries only complicating any chance to deconstruct the prison she resides. Betrayal has hefty consequences. The tentative power the prized wife may hold is pointless whenever the Master asserts his agency.
The courtyard house or sanheyuan demands reverence for rituals. Whomever of the wives receives a red lantern can expect a visit from the Master that night, and on the following day, select the meal dishes. Generations of privilege show in the ornate interior decors and well-maintained house. On a confined walk still within the sanheyuan walls, Songlian discovers a shabby wooden shed atop the roof. Locked chains prevent Songlian a full assessment, yet enough to observe rotting woman’s shoes by shackles. Songlian questions a fellow wife about this shed and is blocked from any confidence. It looms in the audience’s mind. In the competition, Songlian looses grounding on her fears and presumes if she keeps interactions a game then she has control. Unfortunately, her contrived reality becomes brutality shattered.
The film nestled into my thoughts as I recalled the beauty of the staging, colors, and quietude in opposition to the sexual slavery, humiliation, and danger. Initially, I was shocked that this film had reached an audience considering how it skewered China’s societal practices. Not until I researched the Zhang Yimou and this film, did I learn how politically layered it had been constructed. I highly recommend Raise the Red Lantern. It haunts memory and is a treasure for the eyes.