Raise the Red Lantern (1991)
Director: Zhang Yimou
Writer: Ni Zhen
Cinematographer: Zhao Fei
by Jon Cvack
There was a local band in my town called Tom Sawyer, who eventually broke up and formed another group called Raise the Red Lantern. That’s about twelve years ago and I’ve been meaning to check out the film ever since.
The story is a form of chamber drama, taking place at a Chinese Palace. It opens on a shot of Songlian (Li Gong) who has decided to abandon college and become a concubine. At the palace, she learns she’s one of four mistresses, one which is the head mistress, a much older woman no longer visited by the “Master”, a middle aged woman Meishan (Saifei He) who receives the Master’s visit on occasion and is battling with her aging body and rejection, and the second mistress, Zhuoyan (Cuifen Cao), who is the same age as Songlian and thus in chronic competition. Each one that is chosen has the Red Lanterns raised in their rooms and receives some type of amazing foot massages with a device with bells on it.
The entire film highlights the power dynamics that women can have while operating within the epitome of patriarchal culture. They are all confined to the palace, and while ripe with fete, they nevertheless find the most meaning in receiving the Master’s attention than in their gorgeous living quarters. Thus, rather than fighting for their own happiness and entering into meaningful relationships, they compete with each other, exposing and developing strong resentments.
Songlian’s primary competitor at the palace is Zhuoyao, who has an beautiful, operatic singing voice that often seduces the Master. Songlian also shares a Housekeeper (Qi Zhao) that can only wish she’d receive the same benefits of a mistress. She decorates her bedroom in red lanterns, and makes voodoo dolls to try and curse the rude and demanding Songlian.
I recently watched a documentary on the Crips and Bloods, which illustrated how their rise came about after prominent Civil Rights leaders in the area were arrested or killed, creating a void in which, having no leadership, they began to create criminal organizations that sought to capitalize on the drug trade, subsequently abandoning positive progress for negative regression. Rather than continuing the fight against an oppressive system they were ostensibly forced to fight against one another by the very nature of the business.
Raise the Red Lantern portrays a similar relationship. Some might say the women chose to enter into the life, never looking into the factors that might have left few other options on the table. They fight and dispute with one another, rather than trying to combat the system that creates such high premiums for foot massages or sexual satisfaction. As Ebert points out, the palace seems to extend infinitely in all directions, creating a feel that there is no world beyond this one.
The film is shot by Zhao Fei who’s able to mute the colors in everything beyond the lanterns and the rooms the lady’s live in. As a result, we feel how superficial and significant the meaning is. Between all the stone and mortar is the little these women possess - their rooms, each other, and the lanterns, each typically expressed with vibrant blues and reds. Each woman contains a depth that is captured in color against an oppressive neutral backdrop. Each will eventually grow old, to be replaced by another, desperate for any contact whatsoever as they live out the second half of their lives. Such inevitability creates a sadness that extends throughout the film, leaving you feeling empty, appreciative of the few things that might provide life with some meaning.
BELOW: A brilliant sequence showing the labyrinthian palace, as Songlian tries to find her competition. Contrasted with the top image provides a decent taste of Zhao Fei's phenomenal photography
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